Wednesday 5 February 2020
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Operation Augusta.
This is a story of the gross failure of public policy, and the implementation of public policy, to protect vulnerable children. Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester watched “The Betrayed Girls”, a BBC programme about the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people, in 2017. Afterwards, he set up what became the independent assurance review of the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester. I want to discuss part 1, which is an assurance review of Operation Augusta.
I watched “The Betrayed Girls” on Sunday evening on BBC iPlayer, and it was a harrowing experience. Reading the report, one varies between despair and outrage at the failures of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council to protect mainly young girls, but young boys too, from predatory sexual exploitation.
If we had the same rules as the US Senate, I would ask for the report to be read into the record so that people could read it, but we do not, so I will have to summarise it. Part 1 focuses on Operation Augusta, which was set up following the death of Victoria Agoglia on 29 September 2003. She died after being injected with heroin by a 50-year-old man. Shockingly, although she died in 2003, the report states that there has been no follow-up investigation into her death, despite the fact that Peter Fahy, the chief constable, told her relatives afterwards that he was quite happy to look at the case again, which led them to believe that it would be. Since then, Peter Fahy has said that he was just being open. I think that is dissimulating to the point of dishonesty. It was clearly the intention to reassure the family that the death of this girl would not be forgotten.
There has been no investigation, although there has been a coroner’s inquest. Four of my colleagues from Manchester and I have written to the Attorney General asking for a fresh inquest. Reading the report, it is difficult to see why the coroner came to the conclusion he did. It is particularly difficult because the current coroner is refusing to release documents. In the absence of those documents, we would like the Attorney General to order a fresh inquest.
The coroner’s conclusion was that
“there was no evidence of a gross failure to meet Victoria’s needs that would have had a significant bearing on her death”
and that there could be no inference that the events leading to her death were “reasonably foreseeable”. She claimed she had been raped, sexually abused, assaulted and plied with drugs for two years, and the coroner could not see how her death was reasonably foreseeable. The social workers knew what was happening; they had given her recommendations about what to do. I think her death was eminently foreseeable, so I hope that the Attorney General will agree to order the opening of an inquest and that the Home Office will support that.
That was the genesis of Operation Augusta, which was set up to see whether many children—mainly girls aged between 13 and 16—were in the same situation as Victoria Agoglia. A dedicated team of police officers was set up with embedded social workers to look at the situation. Relatively quickly, they found that there were 57 girls in a similar situation and 97 suspected perpetrators of this kind of vile abuse.
The report makes it clear that although Operation Augusta was successful in identifying those girls and suspected perpetrators, it was bedevilled by a lack of resources and territorial disputes between three police divisions in Manchester and about access to HOLMES, the police computer that records cases. The situation was difficult, and it is clear that leadership was lacking. After 16 months, Operation Augusta was wound up.
One of the many worrying factors about this report is that the social workers and more junior police officers have vivid and clear recollections of the operation.
The report is scandalous, harrowing and difficult to read. I quote one thing with reference to what the hon. Gentleman has just said:
“the decision to close down Operation Augusta was driven by the decision by senior officers to remove the resources from the investigation rather than a sound understanding that all lines of enquiry had been successfully completed or exhausted”.
On its own merits, that is scandalous. That is in the report. I also read—
Order. Interventions must be short.
I do apologise—
Could you resume your seat, please?
The hon. Gentleman is underlining and emphasising my point about the lack of resources and leadership.
Two of the senior officers became chief constables afterwards, and their recollection of events is either non-existent or hazy. I simply do not believe that someone who had been in charge of such an operation and received such awful reports would not remember—the junior officers have clear memories of how it was finished. That, of course, meant that the perpetrators, who were known about by the police and social workers, carried on, as the report says, in plain sight. A lot of the abuse took place above Indian restaurants on Wilmslow Road—the so-called curry mile—in south Manchester. Cars were known to pull up with girls, and the police did nothing—in fact, they withdrew from acting on that information. As the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) said, that is scandalous.
Since the termination of Operation Augusta, the response of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council to this quite shocking report has been to apologise and to say that they are improving co-ordination and intensifying work to identify people, and they have done that. The awful thing is that, for the last 50 years, many of the children who have been abused and murdered have become the subjects of well-known operations. Reports always make 80 or 90 recommendations after such failures, and those are always agreed to, but we carry on writing reports, and children carry on being abused. Although I believe that Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester police are sincere in their attempts to be more effective and to get their act together, we need to understand the issue more deeply by asking why these things have happened time and again and what can be done to prevent a report from being written in 16 years’ time about children who are on the streets now, while we discuss this situation.
I referred to the clear memories of the more junior police officers and the amnesia of the senior officers involved. If there had been a different culture and stronger protections for whistleblowers, allowing those junior police officers and social workers to report such cases in the knowledge that they would not lose their careers, I believe more would have been done. In no sense would the public have put up with what happened if they had known about it—they expect our children’s services departments and the police to protect the most vulnerable young women—but they know about it only 16 years later. We need stronger protections for whistleblowers and an acceptance that bringing such issues to the attention of the public and senior politicians is a good thing.
Although there were disputes about resource allocation in the police force and between Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council, one has to remember that, at the time, police numbers were going up and local government was better funded. That is no longer the case; there is not a children’s department in the country that is not short of resources for the protection of children. We cannot wish, as I do, for better service provision for those vulnerable people without providing the resources. Police numbers have also gone down. However, that decline in resources does not apply to the time of Operation Augusta.
Another point that was made in “The Betrayed Girls” and in the report, and that has been made more generally, is that the vast majority of the men involved were of Pakistani origin and of the Muslim faith. The police, who probably had good intentions, made a mistake in saying, “We will be accused of racism if we point this out.” Nazir Afzal, the previous director of public prosecutions in the north-west and a practising Muslim, said that such activities are against the teaching of Islam and of the Koran, and that the vast majority of Pakistani people are as appalled by what has happened as the rest of the population. That is not to say that one should hide what has happened on Wilmslow Road or in other parts of the country, such as Telford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford or Ipswich—one can go on and on listing different towns where such cases have happened.
A final point on resources is that a number of requests have been made for the Home Office to do serious research into grooming. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) recently asked that of the Home Office, both by letter and on the Floor of the House. It is a mistake to think that the grooming of children, as described in the report, is the same as paedophile rings. The Home Office has done good research on paedophile rings. They are understood by the police and the Home Office, which know how to disrupt them. However, very little research has been done on grooming gangs. For instance, we do not know whether there are “Mr Bigs” behind the gangs at a national level or whether the cases represent major crime or decentralised local activity. That is important for our understanding; if it is major crime, organised on a national and international basis like drug crime, the National Crime Agency should be involved in disrupting that activity. I would be grateful if the Minister explained when the Home Office will fund and sponsor research into grooming gangs.
As I said, if people had blown the whistle, a stop could probably have been put to these things, because the public would not stand for them. I want to mention two people who have stayed with this issue and have continued to bring it to the public’s attention since the first Rochdale and Rotherham cases came to light. Sara Rowbotham, who worked in Rochdale as head of its crisis intervention team and is now a Rochdale councillor, and Margaret Oliver, who was a detective on the Augusta team before her maternity leave, have constantly brought it to the public’s attention. Margaret has argued very strongly, alongside the family of Victoria Agoglia, for the case to be re-opened and for the police to take more action against the perpetrators. Those two women deserve serious praise for what they are doing. I do not want in any sense to trivialise this serious debate, but they are more worthy of being nominated to the House of Lords than some of the people who have been put forward by the Labour party, which has put forward a pretty eccentric list, to put it mildly.
I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman on that. Why has nobody from the GMP or Manchester City Council been held accountable for the failings identified in the report?
I am not sure that I have a good answer for the hon. Gentleman. Some people, such as Pauline Newman, who was in charge of children’s services at the time, have moved on. The senior police officers who took the decision to wind up operation Augusta have moved on and are not co-operating—one is not talking at all, and the other says he cannot remember. In such circumstances, when people are no longer employed by the city council or Greater Manchester police, it is difficult to know what action could be taken or by whom. However, the hon. Gentleman asks a good question. A line of accountability is needed. When one reads the report and some of the reports since, records of meetings or of attendees at those meetings are absent in some cases. That makes things difficult. However, if his point is that somebody should be held accountable, I agree with him. That is clearly right.
The final point I want to make in this sad story is that the police and Manchester City Council have said that they will improve. Today, however, Greater Manchester police have declared a “critical incident” in the introduction of their iOPS computer system, which 90% of police officers rely on to get information. The system cost £29 million and is not working. With the best will in the world, if the officers whose job it is to look into these allegations do not know what is happening, they cannot do their job. We need not only resources—more police officers—but the proper use of resources and computer systems. Currently, when I have no doubt that many perpetrators are still walking the streets of Greater Manchester and other cities, we need Greater Manchester police to do better.
This is an awful and shocking story of the failure to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the country. One of the failures, which was a mistake, is that action was not taken in some cases because the police said that the girls were not reliable witnesses. However, there have been policy statements to the effect that we do not have to rely on the victims to protect themselves in order to take the perpetrators to court. I hope that the Home Office and all the councils in the country will redouble their efforts to ensure that such activities, which I am sure still happen, are stopped.
First, I draw attention to my entry in the register. Secondly, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for bringing this case before the House. It received very little coverage—a few headlines in the newspapers—and was not mentioned at all in this House. Yet the report was of huge significance, not just historically, but for the lessons that still need to be learned, as he alluded to today: how we are still not dealing adequately enough with child sexual abuse in all its forms; and in particular whether we are policing it properly.
As everyone will agree, the report is troubling and makes for uncomfortable reading, such as the tragedy of Victoria Agoglia, the 15-year-old so badly let down in the care of Manchester City Council. Her treatment has many wider implications for vulnerable young people exposed to child sexual exploitation.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Maggie Oliver, who has been the hero throughout the whole of this sorry episode. She called out the neglect—to put it mildly—in effect sacrificed her career and has at last been vindicated after all that time. I met Maggie at the “Newsnight” studio when this issue came up and we were interviewed, just a few weeks ago. I hope the charity that she is looking to set up to continue her good work will be a great success.
I pay tribute to the Mayor of Manchester for commissioning his review—historical, because it was many years before Manchester had an elected Mayor. This is only the first phase of that review, and four further stories that may make equally uncomfortable reading will come out in future. I also pay tribute to the BBC and the “Betrayed Girls” programme, which highlighted some of the horrors that happened.
I am afraid that the situation is not untypical. When I was Children’s Minister, one of the least enjoyable parts of my job was, every Monday morning, a run-through of all the cases that had come in of child abuse or child fatalities, often at the hands of carers, and of the latest state of play in the court cases. Only a few high-profile issues—the Victoria Climbiés, the Baby Ps and some of these gangs—reached the headlines, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. This was going on wholescale, at an industrial level, and to an extent it still is.
Reading the report, I am afraid that I had such a sense of déjà vu. It talked about the horrendous way in which Victoria Agoglia met her death, stating that “No action was taken” by the police or social care to address the issues. The “scoping phase” of the investigation
“built up a compelling picture of the systemic exploitation of looked after children in the care system in the city of Manchester”,
and found that “97 persons of interest” were
“identified as being involved…in the sexual exploitation of the victims”.
None of those 97, it would appear, has been brought to justice. The report concluded that although “significant information” was
“held by both Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Police on some individuals who potentially posed a risk to children, the review team can offer no assurance that appropriate action was taken to address this risk.”
Sixteen children in the sample were being sexually exploited, and the review team could offer no
“assurance that this was appropriately addressed by either Greater Manchester Police or…the responsible local authority.”
Evidence was presented and victims—often vulnerable children in the care system—were not believed, even when they were brave enough to present. Victims were almost tarred as perpetrators, for bringing it on themselves. In some earlier studies, comments referred to “child prostitutes”—but there is no such thing as a child prostitute. If you are a child, and if you are engaged in sexual activity at the hands of somebody else, that is not prostitution; that is child abuse. It is child sexual exploitation, plain and simple. That phrase “child prostitution” should have no place in our lexicon. We are talking about children, particularly vulnerable children who were ruthlessly exploited and taken advantage of by some very unpleasant individuals.
The whole thing was therefore all too difficult to handle. There were ridiculous considerations of political correctness—which I am afraid were all-pervading, particularly in those days—and the police and other local agencies did not want to rock the boat, so it was swept under the carpet. Even with those 97 identified potential suspects, the inquiry was prematurely closed.
One phrase from the report about the perpetrators summed it up for me:
“They weren’t viewed as sex offenders per se, just a group of men of all ages, from one ethnicity taking advantage of kids from dysfunctional backgrounds.”
It was almost the kids’ fault; those people just happened to be there and took advantage. There is clear evidence that young people were not served or protected by the statutory agencies. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton made the point that there is no evidence of any misconduct charges having been brought against anyone involved in the failures of this case. There was a clear absence of identifying where the buck stopped. Some of those police officers are still in the police force, in one case at the level of chief constable, and their careers have advanced with apparently no consequences of the failures raised in the report. That must be addressed.
That attitude was all too common before 2011. There was a combination of ignorance, inadequate training, complacency, political correctness and indifference to vulnerable children. However, I believe that there was a sea change in 2011. Operation Retriever, which was the first high-profile operation, identified, prosecuted and jailed a gang of British Pakistani men based in Derby and other cities across the north. It was bravely brought by Sheila Taylor, who at the time was running a charity for victims in Derby. Through her constant badgering of the police to take the matter seriously, she made sure that it was properly investigated. That was the turning point.
That case was about the scale abuse of mostly but not exclusively teenage girls, by mostly but not exclusively British Pakistani gangs of men. Let us be clear: child sexual exploitation is committed by all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Most of those in jail will be white men who have committed various forms of child sexual exploitation, but this was a case of organised, systematic gang abuse by predominantly British Pakistani men and it was not properly called out, identified and prosecuted so that those people could be brought to justice. That sea change came about in 2011.
The report mentioned a 2014 interview in which Victoria’s grandmother said that the men were still walking around in the local community. Nothing happened between 2014 and 2018, when the investigation took place. If there was such a sea change in 2011, can my hon. Friend explain what happened between June 2014 and 2018?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there are still serious shortcomings in this case, but I am trying to draw a picture of why things changed nationally and why there are grounds for optimism, although one would not believe it to look at this report.
The report needs to lead to further investigation into the culpability of the perpetrators and the people who failed to identify and do something about them. Back in 2011, the Government produced the first comprehensive child sexual exploitation plan. I launched it, together with Barnardo’s, and worked with other agencies. It made it clear that that sort of CSE was going on in all parts of society and all parts of our country; it is not just a preserve of northern metropolitan cities such as Manchester. It happens in all parts of town; it is not something that just happens to those sorts of people in a different part of town. It happened to the children of doctors, lawyers and other professionals from all walks of life. The shocking images of gang members started to appear in the newspaper, and people started to wake up to it.
What really caused that sea change was the Jimmy Savile scandal the following year. It became a different world. From October 2012, most people in this country came to realise what child sexual exploitation actually was, and that it was happening. Awareness rose hugely. It was widespread throughout all sorts of society: in the health service, in education, in children’s homes, in the Church of England—I refer to the recent exposure about Bishop Peter Ball. Again, the police just shoved it under the carpet and did not properly pursue it. It happened in politics, with Cyril Smith and Operation Midland, where there were serious shortcomings—that will be the subject of further debate in this House in due course. It was happening in Rotherham, Oxford, Cornwall, Rochdale, Telford and so on. That led to the historic child abuse inquiry, which is still undertaking its huge job of work.
The question is: have things changed? Have the police, and all agencies, got wiser to detecting and taking seriously allegations of child sexual abuse? Have mindsets changed since 2004? The people who should have been looking after vulnerable children were just not; they were questioning whether anything serious was happening to them. Back in 2004 we were focused on cases such as that of Victoria Climbié. We had just had the Laming review. Abuse of children was largely down to carers inflicting violence on vulnerable children. The whole business of gangs and sexual exploitation was not on the radar. Some seven or eight years later, that very much came on to the radar.
What has changed—I saw this in my time as Children’s Minister and subsequently—is that now every single police officer is trained to identify child sexual exploitation. We have better joint working between agencies, although it is still not nearly good enough—I have serious concerns about the successors to the local safeguarding children boards properly joining up all the local interested parties. More cases are coming to court. Indeed, some 50% of cases going through the courts at the moment are to do with historical and contemporary sexual abuse. The problem is that far too little is ending up in prosecutions, particularly for contemporary sexual abuse and rape. It is still a big problem in this country.
I would like to finish with some of the statistics. Last year something like 104,000 children went through the care system in this country. It was estimated by an all-party group led by our former colleague Ann Coffey, who did a lot of very good work, that 11,500, or 11%, went missing at some stage. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimates that a child is abused in this country every seven minutes. There were some 76,000 reported sexual offences—a record level and a big rise over recent years—and 20% of those relate to children under the age of 10. That is down to better reporting and better police recording, but also to the fact that it is still a problem and we are not doing enough about it. It is also to do with children in the care system not being properly looked after.
Too many children are excluded from school— 42 children a day are permanently excluded from school and 410 are on fixed-term exclusions. They end up in gang and knife culture and become vulnerable to predators. Back in 2011-12 we produced heat maps of where children should be placed. Senior police officers and heads of schools from Kent, where a disproportionate number of children in care are placed—largely from London boroughs—came to see me. They told me that they were seriously worried about being overwhelmed by children in the care system who were not properly looked after and were placed in wholly inappropriate areas. We had cases of children being placed in children’s homes on the same streets as sex offender hostels.
We changed the regulations so that where children are placed out of the area of the local authority responsible for them, the director of children’s services will be responsible for a risk assessment of whether the place is appropriate and safe—not just whether the house was okay, but whether the area was okay. Still, 41% of children across the care system are placed out of area. In the case of going to children’s homes, that is over two thirds. Those heat maps are still not being properly enforced. That is part of the reason why too many of our children are still vulnerable.
My plea is that we learn the lessons. We need to know why people were not brought to account, and they still need to be brought to account. Are perpetrators still out there who could be prosecuted? What are we doing for the victims—those children who are still suffering the trauma of having gone through their experiences, which have been brought up again by the publication of this report? Are we properly looking after their interests? What are we doing now to ensure that those vulnerable children are properly looked after by agencies who get it? Agencies must know the extent of the problem, know what they have to do and act together in the best interests of the welfare of those children, so that tragic cases such as Victoria’s never happen again.
Order. Before I call Sarah Champion, let me point out that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred at the outset of his speech to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but that in itself is not sufficient in a debate. People who are not privy to that register entry need to know the relevance of it, so I will point out that the hon. Gentleman’s register entry includes a reference to the fact that he is a paid adviser to the board of the Outcomes First Group. That is the relevance of it. I remind hon. Members, particularly at the beginning of a new Parliament, that the whole purpose is to promote transparency.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I am going to be brief, because I have said the same thing for six years. However, I think it needs reiterating, because it clearly is not getting through. I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for bringing this debate forward. These things need to be heard, because things are still going wrong. I, too, watched the drama “The Betrayed Girls”, but it could have been a documentary and, to be honest, it could have been almost anywhere in the country. Time and again, I meet girls—often, they are now young women—who have been through an identical experience.
There is an almost identical pattern of grooming and then sexual exploitation, which often leads to trafficking and prostitution as the children become adults, so I am concerned that there is still no national strategy for the disruption and prevention of this specific form of child abuse. Why is that? There are incredibly close similarities between grooming and exploiting children for sex, and grooming and exploiting children for criminal activities. My hunch—I do not know this; it is just a hunch—is that those things are probably done by similar gangs of people. Will the Minister please commission research on that?
As my hon. Friend said, we also need a perpetrator profile. Unless the police understand the way these networks operate, they are unable to disrupt them—they are unable to get ahead of the curve and prevent children from being harmed. We absolutely must have that profile. It would be a simple thing to do. A forensic psychologist could be commissioned to do it. Again to be blunt, we have probably 300 perpetrators of exactly the same method of criminality in jail. Please, let us use that resource and use their experience for a positive purpose.
I also want to focus the Minister’s attention on the fact that statutory support for victims and survivors just disappears as soon as they turn 18. That is very important because, under this method of criminality, although children tend to be groomed at around 12 or 13 and the sexual exploitation happens between 13 and 16, it continues into adulthood. Often, because of the mental torture and manipulation that victims have gone through, it takes them years once the abuse has stopped to be able to articulate it, let alone to be believed. That is why it tends to be adults who come forward to speak about these crimes. We need support in place for adults to enable them, I hope, to have the strength to go through the court process.
Next week, I will launch a report by my all-party parliamentary group, the APPG on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, on the impact of this crime and the likelihood of justice. It impacts every aspect of the lives of survivors, from their mental health to their physical health. It affects their likelihood of being addicted to drugs, their ability—or inability—to maintain long-term relationships, and their ability to fulfil their education and therefore their career. I say to the Minister that he needs to work in a cross-departmental way to establish a fund so anybody who discloses this sort of abuse, particularly if they are an adult, can immediately get, for example, six sessions of counselling or support. That would enable them to stabilise their life so they can go on and have a good life, and to be a good witness so we can get the prosecutions we so desperately need.
A number of Members mentioned accountability. Accountability is important because, clearly, people have failed in their duty to protect those children, for whatever reason. Accountability is important because we need to know it will not happen again. If there are training needs or if some sort of disciplinary action should follow, that should be implemented so other children are not let down in the future.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has done so much in this area, said that this issue was not really on the radar of the statutory agencies until 2011. I agree, but he also knows that this model of behaviour has been going on since the early ’60s. That is the earliest I can find it documented. I have people in Keighley, Birmingham and, indeed, Rotherham who can testify that they saw it going on in the early ’60s. It was not on the radar of the statutory agencies, but it was on the radar of the wider communities. There was a lack of trust and respect because people knew a crime was being carried out but the agencies did not act on it. Unless there is accountability now, it will be very hard to bring forward that trust and respect. I therefore urge the Minister, on behalf of the survivors and of children who are still vulnerable, to ensure that we have a fund for survivors and that we see accountability for these crimes.
Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 10.40 am. Five people wish to speak, so I encourage a self-denying ordinance of a maximum of five minutes each. I call Chris Green.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on securing this important and timely debate.
We remember what Operation Augusta was about: the death of Victoria Agoglia due to a drug overdose inflicted on her by a 50-year-old man. She was in care. She should have had a huge amount of support from the state, but it was not there. It is right that the review commissioned by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, reflected on that, and it is right that we should look at the support for victims and seek to punish the criminals who were there at that time, but we should also challenge the decision makers.
Those people—people in Greater Manchester police, and social workers in Manchester City Council—made the decisions. Those people knew exactly what was going on, but they have not been challenged for their actions, whether they amount to negligence and misconduct or criminal actions. Because of the lack of challenge at the time, and the apparent lack of challenge now, we do not know where those people are. Have they been promoted elsewhere? We know they were involved in a cover-up. It seems clear to anyone who looks at this that there was a cover-up. If those people were promoted elsewhere or moved sideways, did that cover-up and that culture move with them?
A number of colleagues wrote a letter to Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, challenging him on a number of concerns in the report. I think we were all pretty disappointed at his rather supine response. He accepts that Operation Augusta stopped solely due to lack of resource, but the number of police officers in Greater Manchester police increased by more than 1,000 between 1997 and 2004-05. It had 1,000 additional police officers in that time, yet we hear there was a lack of resource.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) highlighted, there were a number of live inquiries, and we know the nature of the crime committed against Victoria Agoglia, but we ought to focus on the Manchester Evening News headline, which captures so much: “A paedophile grooming gang was left to roam the streets of Manchester—and police knew who they were and exactly what they were doing”. That is what we know to be true. The people who were involved in the decision making at that time have not been held to account. I am not sure it is credible to say this is only about resources.
It is also incredible that the identity of the gold commander—the person who made the decision to end Operation Augusta—is not known. It is also incredible that, just as his or her identity is not known, the minutes from Greater Manchester police of the meeting where it was decided to end Operation Augusta have disappeared—and, by amazing coincidence, the minutes from Manchester City Council disappeared at the same time. How many people at this stage would not suspect a cover-up?
The report references successes. It has been highlighted that of the 97 individuals under scrutiny for grooming, plying children with drugs and raping children, three were imprisoned—three of 97. That is referred to in the report as a success. In no way can an objective person see Operation Augusta described as a success. It was an utter failure. Its closure was a decision by the gold commander, and in Andy Burnham’s response to our letter and his description of it, he accepts the lack of knowledge. There is no challenge and no sense of an injustice.
Data sharing is incredibly important in these matters. The Mayor watched the television programme, and he started the inquiry in September 2017. In January 2018, Greater Manchester police agreed what access the review could have to that data. In September 2018—a year after the review started—Rochdale Borough Council agreed on access, and a month after that Manchester City Council agreed on access. Considering that we are talking about the production-line rape of children, it is extraordinary that it took Rochdale and Manchester councils a year to agree access to information. This was a serious review, with serious people heading it, and it took a year to reach agreement. I do not see how anyone cannot be aghast at that.
It is a consistent feature that when the Mayor of Greater Manchester ought to be challenging what has—or has not—been done, there is silence. If council leaders or people in the councils were not handing over information or being forthcoming, he should have used not just his position as police and crime commissioner of Greater Manchester police but his public platform as Mayor of Greater Manchester to challenge them to hand it over, but he chose not to.
A huge amount of follow-up work needs to be done. The report should have been in one piece, but it has been split up because of the delays. The sense of a cover-up and everything being kicked into the long grass is clear to anyone who reads the report and the response from Andy Burnham to our letter. The Minister, in reading Andy Burnham’s response, will find he mentions throughout it his lack of ability to act. If he cannot or will not act, I call on the Government to intervene: to look at Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council and to take action where it is needed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for bringing this important issue to the House. The devastating revelations about Greater Manchester police’s Operation Augusta published last month brought home the shocking truths of institutional failure in the safeguarding of children. That damning report catalogued the failings of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council. It identified a grooming gang of up to 100 members in Manchester who were found to have abused at least 57 children, some as young as 12, who were all in the care of Manchester social services. That included 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia.
It is evident from the report that the attitude of the police and council at the time was dismissive. They dismissed Victoria’s account of her abuse and instead focused on her
“propensity to provide sexual favours”
thereby painting her and the other girls experiencing abuse as the problem rather than the victims. The report makes for extremely difficult reading, but I welcome its publication and thank Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham. It is only by fully facing up to the facts and past failures that we can correct them and ensure that they cannot not happen again.
Victoria Agoglia’s family have been calling for her abuse to be investigated ever since her death. My thoughts are with them and other survivors of child sexual exploitation. No child, at any age, should be able to slip through the net in society. We have a moral duty to ensure that every child is protected from exploitation. We know all too well that what happened to Victoria Agoglia was not an isolated case. In the last 10 years, we have seen high-profile scandals across the country, from Oxford to Rochdale and Rotherham, and each time the failures of the police and social care services are plain to see.
My concern is that there are even more child sexual exploitation scandals that have not been identified. Just as Greater Manchester police is reopening its historic child sexual exploitation investigations, other cities and towns across the country should look back on theirs to ensure that no victim of abuse has been left without justice.
Thankfully, since the high-profile cases in Rotherham and Rochdale, significant changes have been made to how our institutions safeguard vulnerable children. Lessons have been learnt from historical cases, but we must never again be allowed to forget that the safety of children is paramount. That is why I, along with other Manchester MPs, wrote to the Attorney General, following the review’s publication, calling for a new inquest into the coroner’s verdict on Victoria Agoglia’s death. We are all committed to finally getting justice for Victoria, her family and all survivors of child sexual exploitation. I hope the Minister will support our request.
It is easy to say, “never again will children be subjected to abuse or sexual exploitation,” but sadly that is not within our power to dictate. All we can do is ensure that safeguarding measures for vulnerable children are absolutely watertight. Our institutions must be equipped with the knowledge and resources needed to deal effectively with safeguarding concerns when they arise. No victim should ever go through what Victoria suffered in Manchester 15 years ago. On child sexual exploitation, we must never again choose the easy path over the right path.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing the debate. My thoughts, like those of other hon. Members, are with the family of Victoria Agoglia and the other 25 victims identified in the recently published review, who were so tragically let down, as well as with the many for whom suffering is ongoing.
While the terms of reference of the Operation Augusta assurance review, commissioned by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, indicated its intention to be a forward-facing exercise, the comments on the failures to protect Victoria are damning. Chapter 2.11 sets that out clearly, leaving no doubt that
“Victoria Agoglia was exposed to the most profound harm, at least from the age of 13. Her exposure to sexual exploitation by adult males was known to police and social services and, despite the risk of significant harm caused by the men who were sexually exploiting her, statutory child protection procedures, which should have been deployed to protect her, were not utilised”.
The report is set out as an assurance review, yet, from a sample of 25 children, there are no assurances. In the case of Victoria and 15 others, where there was
“significant probability of child sexual abuse”,
the report gave “no assurance” that that had been appropriately addressed by Greater Manchester police or Manchester City Council.
Those young schoolgirls were known to be being abused. They were not being protected from harm, and yet the investigation, Operation Augusta, which commenced following the death of Victoria in September 2003, was summarily and prematurely closed down on 1 July 2005. Some 12 years later, the BBC documentary “The Betrayed Girls” exposed the shocking extent of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester, and the Mayor of Greater Manchester commissioned the assurance exercise that reported in January, more than two years later.
In the light of the review, I joined other Greater Manchester MPs and co-signed a letter, sent by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. I hope to hear reassurance that people who see failings and neglect can bring them to light and challenge the system without fear. It takes incredible bravery to be a whistleblower, but it should not. People who speak out and highlight negligence and misconduct can save lives—people such as Maggie Oliver and Sara Rowbotham, whose actions were instrumental in exposing the failure to protect children and led to the opening of the investigation.
Many whistleblowers who fight uphill battles to get justice for victims too often find themselves becoming the target of retaliation and unfounded allegations to undermine their actions.
We hear about Greater Manchester police and the culture having shifted, but when it comes to whistleblowers and the failure of iOPS—it crashed overnight, and there might be a serious incident in Greater Manchester—off-duty police officers have told me that they are threatened with summary dismissal if they talk to an MP or the press about it. The culture of clamping down on whistleblowers seems to be alive and well in Greater Manchester police.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Without action to tackle that, we will see more of these cases. It is imperative that such issues are taken seriously in Greater Manchester and across the country.
I am not wholly satisfied with the response that we received from the Mayor to our letter. While recognising the bravery of the whistleblowers in this case, he offers no indication of what action he will take to ensure that future whistleblowers are valued and protected. If people are afraid to speak out or suspect they will not be listened to, negligence, malpractice and abuse will continue to go unchallenged.
A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing highlighted the case for having an independent office for the whistleblower and a ban on non- disclosure agreements in whistleblowing cases, as well as protection against retaliation. I hope the Minister will be able to consider some of those potential resolutions.
The Manchester Evening News and its investigative reporter Jen Williams have given this case extensive coverage, and we owe them thanks for their reporting. One of the headlines read: “A paedophile grooming gang was left to roam the streets of Manchester—and police knew who they were and exactly what they were doing”. Amid ongoing concerns that a cover-up took place in the case of Operation Augusta, questions remain. Who knew about the scale of the abuse of those children? Why did nobody speak out? Could it happen again? In the light of today’s revelations that the iOPS system is not properly recording, or allowing officers to access, information on potentially serious cases, that is a live issue.
I welcome the Home Office’s intention to publish a national strategy across law enforcement and government authorities to tackle child sexual abuse. When can we expect that strategy to be published? Will the protection of whistleblowers form part of it so that the shocking incidents of abuse, neglect and abject failure highlighted today are not repeated?
I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for setting the scene. I respect him for bringing this sensitive and distressing topic to the attention of the House. I remember the BBC documentary being aired and the girls in the office discussing it in terms of shock, anger and distress. The years have passed, but when I read the assurance review of Operation Augusta, I remained shocked, angered and distressed.
I will not go into the individual cases reported in the document, which hon. Members have referred to, but I highlight the fact that these are not simply cases or numbers: they are the lives of young girls, their families and, in some cases, their children. Those lives have been ruined, a community has been torn to shreds and authorities, even now, at this late stage, must take a long, hard look at the way things have been done. Their inaction has led to loss of life and the destruction of many lives.
Sometimes a series of events merge to create a perfect storm. Without one of the elements present, the storm could not take place. This was not a perfect storm of aligned, mutually exclusive events; this was a series of authorities, and the individuals working for them, simply not acting to protect these vulnerable girls. Different factors played into that: some people did not have the time or resources to do more than nod towards good practice, while others were frightened of rocking the boat, seeming racist or stirring racial tension. Whatever the underlying reason, the result was at least one death and thousands of instances of unaccountable abuse. That is truly unforgivable.
Through my work as an elected representative, I have tried to help a lady who was dreadfully abused as a child and used in the same way as these girls. Her scars are apparent and she has no peace. She cannot get over what happened to her and the lack of justice for those unpunished crimes. The same has happened on a wide scale to these girls. They must not be wandering around at the age of 40, still dealing with the trauma of what happened, without help or support, and with no one saying that it was unacceptable.
In my opinion, the report has been commissioned not only to prevent these things from happening again, in any town, in any local authority and in any way, but to send a message to these girls that a price has been paid, that notice has been taken and that the hurt they suffer will not go unanswered.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for the report to be truly effective somebody has to be held to account? The collective amnesia of the people involved at the highest levels is simply not acceptable.
I wholeheartedly agree. We are all here with the collective impression that that is what we want to see.
The first part of the report clarifies the dreadful litany of failures, which were followed by an investigation that did not achieve its aims and was halted in order to reallocate resources, without protecting the notified vulnerable children or ensuring that the hands that had stolen the innocence of these children—stolen most of the happiness of their future—were behind bars and prevented from harming anyone else. The operation was not brought to a conclusion, but simply concluded. That is not good enough.
I support my fellow MPs who are raising the issue again to ensure that no more children, cases or attacks on the vulnerable fall through the cracks. We must learn from this terrible ordeal, and put in place safeguards that are effective and a structure that does not allow those safeguards to fall like dominos, leaving a child open and vulnerable to abuse. It should not have happened, and it must not be repeated. I look forward to hearing how the Government will make necessary, long-lasting changes to help keep our children in care actually cared for.
My thoughts are with the victims of these crimes. I hope they have had the help and assistance they require to come to terms with what has happened to them, and that they go on to live positive and fruitful lives. I am sure they will.
In the short time I have, I want to make one point. The report is horrific. For 14 years, men in an area of Greater Manchester were allowed to commit the most horrific offences, and it was known to the authorities. That speaks for itself. In the report, individuals are identified who must be held to account. As a Member of Parliament representing a seat in Greater Manchester where police are investigating similar offences, I ask the Minister what the Government can do to hold to account those officers who have taken decisions and behaved in a way that has put young lives at risk and ruined them? Despite those circumstances, nothing seems to have happened.
The underlying tone of the report is that, for too long, nobody cared and nobody had any interest in these girls. I hope that is going to change. One of the ways we can make that change is by ensuring that those who are responsible for the decisions—or the lack of decisions—to protect their interests are held to account. Putting it bluntly, we cannot allow them to get away with it.
It is of course always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall, Sir Christopher, but today’s debate has been both sobering and searching. I pay credit first to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for raising these important matters—the events that have flowed from the awful, tragic death of Victoria Agoglia on 29 September 2003 and the extent to which she and many other victims of child sexual exploitation have been let down in the years since.
My hon. Friend put the case for a fresh inquest persuasively, and I am sure that that will be considered in due course by the Attorney General. I think we would all agree that the first duty of Government is to keep the public safe, but there is a particular duty with regard to vulnerable children—particularly those in the care of the state, whether that is under public authorities or, indeed, elsewhere. Clearly there has been a systemic failure in the case we are considering and in others. My hon. Friend made a persuasive point about Home Office research into grooming. I hope the Minister will take that on board and consider it when he makes his remarks.
I am also grateful for the contributions by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who drew on his well-known expertise from his period as the Minister for Children, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bury North (James Daly). They made powerful contributions. Although he did not make a speech, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) made a powerful and important contribution to the debate in an intervention.
The BBC broadcast in July 2017, “The Betrayed Girls”, was harrowing and seems to have triggered the second phase of investigations. However, serious questions must be raised about why it took so long. Operation Augusta was launched in February 2004, after Victoria Agoglia’s death the previous autumn. Many right hon. and hon. Members have described the report as harrowing, given the talk of abuse in plain sight of officials, and what it says about the death of Victoria Agoglia. As has been said, she died of a suspected overdose, months after telling social workers she had been forcibly injected with heroin and raped. Abusers seem to have been able to pick up girls from care homes in and around Manchester’s curry mile and to abuse them in the city.
However, on 1 July 2005, Operation Augusta was closed down. It had identified 57 girls at risk and 97 suspects. Those 16 months do not seem to have been wasted; they must have been pretty productive to have found that information. That makes it all the more incomprehensible that the operation was closed down. Hon. Members have referred to the review that was made available in January this year. The review team identified 68 individuals known to Operation Augusta who could reasonably be assumed to be part of that group of 97. Instead of the 97 persons of interest being prosecuted, and the victims protected, the operation was closed down. That decision has been described today as scandalous, and I find it incomprehensible why it would be taken, in the circumstances.
The hon. Member for Bury North quoted paragraph 1.18 of the independent assurance review, which said that
“the decision to close down Operation Augusta was driven by the decision by senior officers to remove the resources from the investigation rather than a sound understanding that all lines of enquiry had been successfully completed or exhausted.”
Paragraph 1.16 refers to
“fundamental flaws in how Operation Augusta was resourced”.
However, as the hon. Member for Bolton West pointed out, it was hardly a period that could be described as lacking resources, so it is extraordinary that that should have been the case. Clearly, in considering the matter, there must be a review of how that came to pass in 2005.
The consequences were even more worrying, because the review team examined a sample of 25 children and could offer no assurance at all that appropriate action was taken by Greater Manchester police or even the local authority to assess the risk in relation to 16 children in that sample. That—I remind the House of my opening remarks about the importance of children in the care system—is utterly unacceptable.
The BBC drama that has been referred to, “The Betrayed Girls”, gave rise to the investigation that we have all been quoting from. I understand that the police have accepted their failings in relation to Operation Augusta, and referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There is also the new investigation, Operation Green Jacket. I understand that, to date, the investigation has resulted in one man being arrested and another interviewed under caution, in September 2019, in connection with the abuse of Victoria Agoglia. The men have been released under investigation. I will obviously be careful about commenting on an ongoing investigation, but I think I can make the general point that it is far easier to investigate these things closer to the time than it is to do it 14 years later or, in the case of Victoria Agoglia, 16 years later.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said that there is the same problematic institutional mindset in public authorities elsewhere. He is absolutely correct about that, and it is something we now need to tackle. As we consider the matter today, so many years after the event, there are three things to raise with the Minister. First, can he guarantee that full funding, including special grant resource if necessary, will be provided to Greater Manchester police to ensure that they have all the resources necessary to bring perpetrators to justice, even after the time that has elapsed?
Secondly, there needs to be a reassurance that lessons are being learned. It is all very well saying, “Never again”, but that has to mean something. I would like the Minister to give some assurances. There should never be an expectation that vulnerable children and young people can provide protection for themselves. Also, as has clearly come out in the debate, we must listen to what child victims say, but in considering standard investigative practice, there is also the question of whistleblowers. We have heard today about the powerful testimony of those who have been willing to take risks in coming forward to expose shocking abuse.
Thirdly, and on the broader issue of the exploitation that has occurred, it is still extraordinarily worrying to see the number of children in care who have either been abused or ended up in prison. In the light of Operation Augusta and all the other failings, what consideration will the Government give to an independent review of whether authorities up and down the country, of whatever political stripe, are meeting their statutory responsibility to carry out that most important of tasks—the safeguarding of children in care?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want to thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate on the independent assurance review on child sexual exploitation in Manchester, and particularly for the serious and effective tone he set for the debate. The subject is clearly important not only to Members for Greater Manchester constituencies, but to Members representing places across the country, given what the review uncovered.
The report of the first phase of the review, focusing on Operation Augusta, was shocking. It told a story that has sadly become far too familiar, of vulnerable young people let down by those whose job it was to protect them. The Government welcome the publication of the report. While it is distressing to read, we must bear in mind that reviews such as the independent review in Manchester are critical. If we do not confront the failures of the past, we risk repeating them. Reviews such as this give a voice to the survivors of abuse and allow their stories to be heard—stories that previously were too often ignored.
I turn to one or two of the points raised during the debate by hon. Members. Regarding the query from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), we expect the review later this year. However, we as the Government cannot commit to a specific date, because the report is an independent one and therefore the exact date of publication is in the hands of the reviewer. There were particular queries in relation to the coroner’s report; I understand that there has been correspondence between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the Attorney General, and that the Attorney General is considering the request to look at reopening that particular inquiry.
There were also some comments, not surprisingly, about what is being done to hold to account those who failed so visibly in this investigation. My understanding is that the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is rightly independent of the Government, has been in discussions with the Greater Manchester authority and is scoping a potential investigation. I hope hon. Members will realise why the Home Office cannot go much further than that at this stage in commenting on particular individuals.
There was also commentary about the iOPS system in relation to Greater Manchester Police. I understand that the Mayor has commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to undertake an inspection, and we are awaiting the written report. We expect it to be published shortly and will, of course, closely consider any recommendations that it brings forward.
It was partly because of cases such as this that, in 2015, the Government established the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to get to the truth, expose what has gone wrong and learn lessons for the future. The inquiry is investigating institutional responses to child sexual exploitation by organised networks, with public hearings scheduled to take place from 20 April this year. There was some talk in the debate about commissioning research; I understand the inquiry has already announced it has commissioned research into the motivation and behaviour of perpetrators who operate as part of organised networks. Given that, we do not believe it would be appropriate for the Government to set about duplicating the work while it is under way. We will wait for the findings and are ready to commission further research if necessary. I feel I might be about to get some comments on this from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who I will happily give way to.
I am a core participant in that bit of the IICSA inquiry, and unfortunately the Minister has been sold a pup—it would be a nice pup—because it is looking very much at those six organisations and how they deal with the problem going forward. There is no retrospective accountability, and there is not the detailed investigation into the profile of perpetrators that the police really need.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will be happy to hear her response and discuss it, perhaps at greater length, if there are specific concerns. Obviously the independent review is independent and will scope its own research as it sees fit and appropriate, so the Government are loth to potentially duplicate that. Moreover, the point of having an independent review is to hear the view of an independent source, rather than its being the Home Office as such that is commissioning research. Certainly we would be more than happy to engage perhaps a little bit further than we will be able to do in the remaining six minutes of this debate, if she has particular concerns.
The victims and survivors of these crimes demonstrate enormous courage and strength in coming forward, reporting what is happening to them and sharing their experiences. In some cases, they have to relive those experiences to share them. For too long, the police and other agencies treated vulnerable children and young people as a problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, they referred to them as “child prostitutes”, when there is no such thing—there is a child being seriously abused.
The victims’ voices were not heard, children were left unprotected and predators were left to continue to abuse those most vulnerable in our society. I want to make it clear that we will not accept that now. Children and young people rely on both Government and local partners for safeguarding and support. It is therefore our duty to protect them from these appalling crimes. Their voices must be heard. We must recognise abuse for what it is and treat victims with empathy and respect, not doubt and suspicion.
The Government have driven change in the way that these crimes are responded to, and it is right that child sexual abuse is now prioritised as a national threat. We are clear that, when victims come forward to report abuse, they should expect every effort to be made to bring offenders to justice. One point I share with the shadow Minister relates to the idea that resources were reprioritised or investigations ended; it is almost impossible to think what could be more important than preventing children from suffering serious sexual offences. What could be more important than that?
The Home Office has therefore provided support through its police special grant fund for investigations relating to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, north Wales, west Yorkshire and other areas. In response to the shadow Minister’s point, we would of course consider any application that came forward from Greater Manchester as well. We are changing the way police respond to crimes against vulnerable people, including child sexual abuse. As part of this, we have worked with the College of Policing to draw up a comprehensive package of training to ensure the police are better placed to respond to child protection issues. We are also funding the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice programme to develop policing best practice in response to vulnerability as a whole.
Yet, as has been touched on, keeping children safe is not just the job of the police. We have also changed the way police and other agencies work together to ensure an effective response in safeguarding children. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced the most significant reforms in a generation, ensuring that police, health and local authority partners within an area work together to protect vulnerable children. We have also introduced joint targeted inspections of local agencies’ performance in protecting children from threats such as child exploitation. Effective multi-agency working is recognised as the foundation for success.
In 2019, the Government launched a new tackling child exploitation support programme to help safeguarding partners in local areas to tackle a range of threats to children from gangs, sexual and criminal exploitation, online grooming, trafficking and modern slavery. We have already seen some effective multi-agency working, such as the Home Office-funded Lighthouse in London. This ground-breaking service is based on international best practice and under one roof provides child-friendly, victim-centred, multi-agency support to child victims of sexual abuse.
However, we must go further and deprive predators of the opportunity to abuse and exploit our children in the first place. That is why, as part of our efforts to prevent abuse and exploitation, we have launched the Trusted Relationships fund. The fund supports local authority-led projects across England, working with 10 to 17-year-olds identified as being at risk of child sexual abuse or exploitation, criminal exploitation or peer-on-peer abuse, to build their resilience and strengthen their relationships with the trusted adults in their lives. As part of that, more than £1 million will be awarded to Greater Manchester for the four-year programme. The Home Office has also provided funding support for a regional network of exploitation prevention officers, who are helping local partners to join up, spot the signs of abuse and intervene early to safeguard vulnerable children. It is our priority to ensure that all victims and survivors believe they can come forward to report abuse and get the assistance they need.
That is why we have increased grant funding for victim support services across the country: in this financial year, the Government are providing more than £7 million of funding for non-statutory organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, and in September the Government announced an additional £5 million of funding for separate specialist sexual violence support services, including £1 million towards recruiting more independent sexual violence advisers, who play such a critical part in supporting victims through the criminal justice process. The Government have also increased spending from £31 million in 2018 to a planned £39 million in 2020-21 to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault referral centres.
While we can and must do more, it is important that we acknowledge how far we have come in the years since the closure of Operation Augusta and recognise the improvements in how police forces and other agencies deal with these crimes. Inspection reports tell us that professionals’ understanding of vulnerability has improved and there is now a real emphasis on the safeguarding and protection of vulnerable children across England and Wales.
On 4 September 2019, the Government announced an additional £30 million to safeguard children from child sexual exploitation and abuse, increasing funding for cutting-edge technology and making available the best intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, which will enable police officers to target offenders and provide more support to victims. Later this year, the Government will publish a national strategy, the first of its kind, to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse. Our new strategy will set out our whole-system response and how we will work across Government, law enforcement, safeguarding partners and industry to root out offending.
I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton once more for securing this debate. Vulnerable children, victims and survivors of these appalling crimes, rely on us, both in Parliament and in local communities, to represent their needs and ensure they receive the support to which they are entitled. As a Government, we will continue to work tirelessly across all Departments to tackle child sexual abuse in all its forms.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Operation Augusta.
User-led Social Care
I beg to move,
That this House has considered user-led social care.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I draw inspiration today from Jerry Ndi, a student at Northolt High School who just last night won the Ealing regional final of Jack Petchey’s “Speak Out” challenge. I am sure that all Members here will join me in saying that everyone who took part and spoke last night should be very proud of themselves.
Social care is in crisis. Some 1.5 million people over the age of 65 do not get the social care they need. More than a third of people who receive local authority-funded care or support have to purchase additional support themselves. In fact, over the past two years nearly 10,000 people have had to approach their local authority for help after running out of money. That is the result of the Government’s deep cuts to public services since 2012, with a total of £7.7 billion taken out of social care budgets. As councils have been forced to narrow the eligibility criteria for social care, far too many people are denied the support that they need. This chronic underfunding, alongside a shift to private providers, has hit not only those who need social care, but those working in the sector—people who are routinely paid below the London living wage or the living wage outside of London.
There are more than 122,000 vacancies in the adult social care sector. Care workers are far too often undervalued, underpaid and overworked. The numbers providing care informally to friends and family is growing rapidly too; 1.25 million people in the UK, nearly 70% of whom are women, combine looking after young children with caring for older or disabled relatives. Nearly 90,000 of these care workers provide more than 35 hours of care each week, and half are still in paid work.
Our social care system is in urgent need of proper funding and a system that no longer incentivises a race to the bottom on quality and on workforce conditions, which is why, on 16 January, after giving my maiden speech, I voted to ensure that health and social care are properly funded, with an additional £26 billion in real terms. This extra funding is vital to support the social care system that we need.
Alongside greater funding, we also need to look at the way that social care is provided, which is why the focus of the debate is on the key role that co-operative principles can play. Under a co-operative approach to social care, care services should be not-for-profit. We will never be the caring society that we should be when services supposed to help the vulnerable are driven by profit. Services should protect workers’ rights. Those who protect this most valuable and often difficult of services deserve our support and protection, not to be forced on to lower wages and insecure contracts. Services should put care workers and providers at the heart of decision making. The commissioning and running of services should benefit from the invaluable knowledge of those who receive and provide care.
These principles and co-operative approaches to care are not just theoretical; they are beginning to be implemented and developed in places across the country. The Equal Care Co-op in the Calder Valley is just one example of a local area leading the way. I am pleased that the London borough of Ealing is also taking a lead on this. Following the local elections in 2018, Ealing Council held a public meeting for local residents who were interested in establishing a care co-operative. That led to a founding group being formed, including carers and those receiving care, who deserve our thanks for their valuable work on this matter. The group is currently developing a feasibility study, and their experience, particularly of the challenges they face, can help us to better understand the barriers that co-operative models of care face more widely, and therefore what support is needed from national Government.
It will not surprise anyone listening to learn that the feasibility study faces the challenge of growing demand for care services in the face of inadequate funding. However, it also faces challenges with the competitive commissioning regime, the current system of Care Quality Commission registration and the lack of an appropriate Government funding framework.
The experience in Ealing shows that councils could do far more if they had support from national Government, so I will put several points to the Minister. First, there should be a right of first refusal for social workers to step in and take over failing private organisations that provide social care. At the moment, when private organisations face financial difficulties, they are often sold on to another private organisation or simply closed down. Where private organisations are failing, employees should have an opportunity to take on all or part of that organisation.
Secondly, we need protection against asset stripping. Mutualised social care services should be asset-locked, to ensure that assets of all types are locked within the organisation, which is crucial to preventing asset stripping or demutualisation. Thirdly, we need regulation to support co-operative models over for-profit ones. Currently, all non-state providers are categorised as independent, which undermines the ability of care users and their families to distinguish between for-profit and not-for- profit providers. The CQC should modify its inspection methodology to ensure that the benefits of non-profit co-operative models can thrive. Fourthly, local authorities should be given a duty to promote co-operative organisations to deliver care in their area. We can learn from the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, which puts a duty on local authorities to promote co-operative organisations to deliver care in their area.
These steps by national Government would help support co-operative approaches to social care, putting the people who need social care, their families and their care workers at the heart of decisions about how social care is provided. We must stop allowing private companies to profiteer while those who rely on social care, and the workers who provide it, pay the price.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) on securing this important debate. I welcome him to his role—I know that he was only recently elected—and hope that he will have a long and enjoyable career in Parliament.
I join the hon. Gentleman in recognising and paying tribute to user-led organisations, carers, care professionals and the army of incredible unpaid carers working in adult social care, striving for the best possible care and support for people across our country. They do a remarkable job every single day, and they work with great skill and compassion.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that the sector is under enormous pressure, but he is wrong to say that this is new or the result of Government cuts. Unfortunately, I am a very elderly lady—he has the benefit of being a lot younger—and I can recall successive Governments over past decades wrestling with how to fund adult social care.
We have had unpleasant exchanges where adult social care was used as a political football, with unhelpful language on both sides of the argument—nobody is blameless—describing attempts to solve adult social care issues as a dementia tax or a death tax. In the 2017 general election, the Labour party committed in its manifesto to tackling adult social care and putting it on a sustainable footing and never actually got around to doing it. Successive Governments have wrestled with this. We have had numerous Green Papers, White Papers and independent papers and, one after the other, every Government has put this in the “too difficult” pile.
Surely the Minister recognises that, notwithstanding our need for a long-term, cross-party solution to this issue, it is a fact that more than 1 million people who do not receive care today would have been entitled to care in 2010.
I think those facts are a little misleading. We often read about the facts that the hon. Gentleman cites—the Age UK fact that 1.4 million people out there have unmet care needs. In fact, that is a little misleading, because it suggests to me that there are people out there whose care needs are not being met at all. A large number of those people are actually self-funding.
We do need to have a conversation and to try to build a consensus on how much people should be contributing to their care, and whether they should be contributing to it at all, but their care needs are being met. However, the fact is that one in 10 of the population will have catastrophic care costs—care costs in excess of £100,000—and of course that is not acceptable, and we need to find a way to address it. There are more than 10 people in this room, and one of these 10 people will have catastrophic care costs, but the terrible thing about it is that we cannot predict—there is no way of predicting—which one of us it will be. That is why we need to work collaboratively, in a cross-party way, to seek some kind of consensus on how we move forward and address the issue.
Let me talk about some of the things that this Government have done. We have provided councils with access to £1.5 billion for adult and children’s social care next year. That includes an additional £1 billion of grant funding for adult and children’s social care and a proposed 2% council tax precept, which will allow them to raise a further £500 million in council tax. Let us just think about those sums for a moment. We throw around the words “billion” and “million” as if this were pocket change. They are huge sums of cash, which just shows the extent of the issue that we are dealing with. The new funding is on top of maintaining £2.5 billion of existing social care grants. That will support local authorities to meet the rising demand, which has been referred to, and continue to stabilise the social care system. I often hear talk about cuts to the social care system, but thanks to that investment, public spending on adult social care in 2018-19 reached £17.9 billion in cash terms. That is the highest level on record, and since 2016-17 that sustained investment has enabled spending to increase by 7% over this period, so we do need to be up front with the facts.
There has also been a much more open and competitive market in adult social care. For more than 30 years, private providers and voluntary sector organisations have increasingly been responsible for providing services, which leads to increased choice and better outcomes for individuals. That results in improvements in quality. In January 2020, for example, 84% of all registered adult social care locations were rated good or outstanding by the Care Quality Commission, which of course is independent. High-quality, personalised care and support can be achieved only where there is a vibrant and responsive market of service providers. The role of local authorities is of course critical to achieving that, both through the actions that they take to directly commission services for providers to meet needs and through the broader understanding and interactions that it facilitates with the wider market for the benefit of all local people and communities.
The Government want to give people much more choice and control over their care and support, and user-led, strengths-based approaches will help to deliver on our ambitions to achieve better outcomes for all. That is why I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ealing North has brought this debate to the Chamber today; I really welcome the opportunity to talk about this issue. I am delighted that we have taken substantial steps to embed person-centred care and support at the heart of our social care system. Personalised care has demonstrated the ability to improve outcomes and enhance quality of life, enabling people to take a level of control and responsibility that they feel comfortable with. Fundamentally, it recognises what we all know: a person is an individual, with their own unique needs, wishes and opportunities. That is why in the Care Act 2014 we enshrined personal budgets—including user-led, co-produced personalised care and support plans—as the default model of delivery. It is a bespoke way of meeting their needs and circumstances.
Having had this ministerial role for two years, I have met some of the individuals who have benefited from personal care budgets and seen the immeasurable impact that they have had on their lives. They included one incredible lady called Jackie, a former Metropolitan police officer who was injured in the line of duty, and who had quite extensive health and care needs. She is in a wheelchair and has a whole range of physical and mental health needs, to the extent that she was being blue-lighted to hospital about 70 times a year. By using her personal care budget, she now has an assistance dog, called Kingston. He is quite remarkable and fabulous: he understands about 200 commands, which is incredible, and he has changed her life. He is able to predict an epileptic fit about 45 minutes before she has one, and he can ensure that she is in the right position to be able to cope with it. Also, without any training, he can predict a diabetic attack about 15 minutes before she has one, and he then brings her the insulin kit. Since having Kingston, Jackie has not been blue-lighted to hospital at all. That shows that, as well as being an amazing friend and companion to her, he has had an immeasurable impact on her health and wellbeing. That is the strength of a personal care budget. It is really remarkable.
Ultimately, our ambition is for high-quality, personalised care to become the norm across the health and social care system. I am confident that we will maintain the energy and commitment necessary to meet that goal, but the ambition cannot be achieved without a cultural shift to holistic, strengths-based practice. What I mean by that is shifting the focus to what people can do—their strengths—not what they cannot do. It concentrates on the things that really matter to the individual, their family and their local community. It engages and empowers people to identify solutions that will allow them to experience the care and support that they need to live as independently as possible and to fulfil their wishes. Through that approach, social care practitioners and commissioners can connect people to the types of support and community organisations that will enable them to improve their overall quality of life. It is gaining ground across the country and working very well in areas such as Wigan, Hertfordshire and Thurrock.
Person-centred practice and co-production are at the heart of social work. The hon. Member for Ealing North mentioned social work, and it comes as no surprise that social work has led on developing and applying strengths-based approaches. In 2017 we published a report, alongside the Social Care Institute for Excellence, on strengths-based social work, and last year the chief social worker for adults produced a practice framework for supporting practitioners. Social workers are unique in working alongside people to consider the totality of their life and advocate for their freedom, dignity and human rights. They are also key in working with our communities as a whole, supporting people to live independently and to live much more included lives.
To achieve the transformational, personalised care across the country that we want to see, we must work much more collaboratively. Cutting across multiple agencies and professions, social workers undoubtedly play a role in ensuring that that happens. Together with the chief social worker, we will continue to support local authorities to embed that kind of practice in adult social care. We will also continue to collaborate with leading—they are incredible—user-led organisations such as Think Local Act Personal, which encourages good person-led practice locally.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about co-operatives. Under the Care Act, local authorities are required to shape their whole local markets to ensure that they are sustainable and diverse and that they offer high-quality care and support for people in their local area. Clearly, there will be local areas where co-operatives can play a really important role in the provision of care services. More- over, as part of their Care Act responsibilities, local authorities have successfully worked with individuals and communities to develop preventive and community-led social care opportunities.
We know of course that social care is under pressure, because of growing demand from the ageing population. Sometimes I get frustrated because we all talk as if the ageing population is a terrible thing. That people are living longer is a good thing and something to be celebrated, but we need to ensure that those additional years of life are happy and healthy for as long as possible, that people are able to live independently for as long as possible and that care is there when people need it. That is why we are providing councils with a £1 billion grant for children’s and adult social care, on top of maintaining £2.5 billion of existing social care grants. The additional resources will help councils to commission care services that are sustainable and diverse and that offer sufficient high-quality care and support for people in their areas.
The Government have been very clear that fixing the issues with social care is a significant priority. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, the Government will deliver on our promises: we will bring forward a plan for social care this year. These are complex questions to address, which is why we are seeking to build a cross-party consensus, but we have been very clear that everybody will have safety and security, and nobody will be forced to sell their home to pay for their care.
Question put and agreed to.
Beer and Pub Taxation
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered taxation on beer and pubs.
I am delighted to have secured another important debate covering the brewing and pubs sector in the UK. This one is particularly timely because the all-party parliamentary beer group will hold its event celebrating the beers of the UK in Parliament this evening, to which, of course, all Members are very welcome.
Beer and pubs in the UK are a home-grown manufacturing success story. They are represented in every part of our United Kingdom and in every one of our constituencies. Some 80% of the beer brewed by this country’s fantastic brewers is consumed in this country. The industry supports almost 900,000 jobs in all corners of the country, including more than 1,000 in my constituency.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and he is absolutely right about the success story of our pubs and brewing industry. However, does he agree that we have seen far too many pubs close in recent years and that we really need to value them as community hubs?
The hon. Gentleman could not have read my mind more thoroughly if he had had a copy of my speech.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I had almost answered the previous intervention, so I will of course give way.
I am most obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. May I amplify the point that was just made and ask whether he agrees that the public house is the heart and soul of the local village in many rural areas?
I would go further than that: in many areas, and not only rural areas, the pub is the last service, and often the last facility, in the town or village. Often, it is not just a place to drink, but also the place with the shop or where people get their hair cut. There might also be a jobs club or any number of other services there.
The Plough Inn in Radford, which is in the inner city of Nottingham and which is also the brewery tap for Nottingham Brewery, is precisely the sort of nucleus of the local community that he has described and the landlady, Mel, is a legend. Does he agree with the managing director of Nottingham Brewery, Phil Darby, who says he is worried that if action is not taken on beer duty and small brewers relief, the price of a couple of pints in a pub will simply not be able to compete with the price in supermarkets for much longer?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. As has been made clear, pubs are much more than just a place to drink.
The debate is about taxation of pubs and breweries. I received an email from one of the three excellent small breweries in my constituency—it was from Les O’Grady, who runs Neptune Brewery, as well as a taproom there. He employs three people, and he makes the point that his challenge is the current relief—the taper—and the fact that it is difficult for him to overcome that barrier in growing his business. That is a challenge faced by all small breweries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a strong case for pressure to be put on the Treasury to change those rules, to enable these brilliant manufacturers and employers to grow as they wish to?
The small and microbrewers of this country have been one of the great success stories of the past 20 years in brewing. They have transformed brewing and beer across the country—both the diversity and the quality. The small brewers relief scheme that was introduced under the previous Labour Government has done a fantastic job in increasing the number of small brewers. However, we now need to look at the disincentives the existing thresholds create in terms of growth, expansion and employing more people. For example, Black Country Ales, which is based in my constituency, faces exactly the issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and my hon. Friend are exactly right about the importance of the small brewers tax relief. Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is about not only changing the shape of the relief curve, to remove that barrier to growth for the really successful craft brewers, but maintaining the 50% reduction in duty for the very small craft brewers so that they can get a foothold in the marketplace?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have a feeling the Minister might just touch on small brewers relief in his response to the debate, because the Treasury has of course conducted a review into it, and we are all looking forward to seeing some of the results of that review—hopefully, we will see them before too long.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If I may, I will give way to the hon. Lady first, and then I will come back to my hon. Friend.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing this extremely important debate to the House today. Does he agree that we also need common-sense rateable values? The Glassford Inn in our community is under threat of closure due to the ridiculous rateable value that has been placed on it, meaning that it would actually have to sell a drink to every single person in the village every single night of the week just to meet the rates, never mind make any profit and pay the staff. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that common sense is needed in this agenda and that we must support our rural pubs so that they can continue?
The system of non-domestic rates—business rates—is fundamentally a system of local taxation that was designed in the 19th century, building on the previous poor law. It really does not suit the needs and features of a 21st-century economy, particularly one where so much retail is increasingly moving out of town or on to the internet—as yet, nobody has designed an effective virtual pub that can serve a virtual beer that is quite a satisfying as the real thing. We are in a position where our community pubs are at an unfair disadvantage, as the hon. Lady says, compared with businesses that can reduce their liabilities.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene before he moves on?
I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that I would give way to him.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. One of the things I have been most proud about over the last 12 years is that, at the beginning of that period, we introduced assets of community value. If that system is operated properly, as it has been in my constituency, it allows a huge number of pubs to become self-owned by their communities so that they can continue to prosper. Does he see that system as a good way forward?
We have some exceptionally good community-run pubs up and down the country; I visited one in Stafford a couple of years ago. It was on the point of closing down and could easily have become derelict. However, because of the assets of community value system, it was possible for the local community to take it on and see it succeed. We are also seeing such pubs in Twickenham, and I have a feeling that the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) may refer to similar schemes in her own constituency later in the debate.
As well creating and supporting jobs, the beer and pub sector is a massive contributor to the economy more widely and, of course, to the Exchequer, as the Minister will know. The sector’s total value to the economy is almost £23 billion; in my constituency, our breweries and pubs contribute £30 million to our local economy. Nationally, the sector pays almost £13 billion into Treasury coffers, which I am sure the Minister is grateful for ahead of the Budget.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pub is not only, as he described, a great financial asset to the UK, but a unique selling point for it? People come from all over the world to visit our pubs, including our rural pubs, right across the country. That is why we must support them by having differential rates.
Again, my hon. Friend pre-empts a later part of my speech. In terms of attracting tourists and investment into the United Kingdom, beer and pubs are one of the top three things tourists say they want to do while they are visiting. Of course they want to have fish and chips. Normally, they also want to visit some of the heritage, whether it is Buckingham Palace or Stratford-upon-Avon. The third thing that always comes up is that they want a pint of proper British beer in a proper British pub.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way, and I know he wants to make progress, but will he help me put on record the sheer scale of the attendance at this debate? Clearly the Minister would be incredibly popular if only he cut tax on beer and pubs. With that, I will let my hon. Friend resume his magnificent speech.
Order. The hon. Gentleman prompts me to comment that this debate is hugely popular. A lot of Members would like to speak—I have some 17 on my list. It is of course up to the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) whether he takes interventions, but constant interventions will mean that his speech is very long and that there may be time for only five to 10 speeches from Back Benchers. If we keep interventions a little bit under control, we can get more speakers in later on.
I will endeavour to follow your guidance, Mr Gray. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) makes the point extremely succinctly. I would like to pretend that I was the big attraction in this debate, which has brought so many Members from all parts of the House to this Chamber, but it probably has a little more to do with the quarter of a million people who have signed the Long Live the Local petitions. That has resulted in nearly 130,000 emails being sent from constituents to Members of Parliament, encouraging them to support our beer and pubs and to press for the kind of support that my hon. Friend was calling for the Minister to announce. I know the Minister will not feel too confined to his briefing and his mandate; I am sure he can go a little off-piste later.
It is not an exaggeration to call the pub an essential part of British life, but the link between beer and pubs is completely inextricable. Seven in 10 of the alcoholic drinks sold in pubs are beer, and beer accounts for more than half of a pub’s turnover. A thriving brewing sector is intimately entwined with successful local pubs. The statistics, the employment and the economic contribution are extremely impressive—including the £100 million raised for charity every year by pubs up and down the country—but there is so much more to beer and pubs than figures alone.
The great British pub is one of our most loved national institutions and is the heart of so many of our communities. We only have to think of the times we have stopped for directions in our constituencies. Those directions are more likely to be, “Turn left at the Old Cat and then go straight on at the Red Lion”, than to refer to street names. Pubs also make a huge difference on social issues. Loneliness and isolation are among the top social issues facing our society, and pubs do so much to help.
We have already talked about the many services that pubs offer. When the pub is the last service or facility in the town and it closes, it is not only a place to drink that goes, but all the services. Visiting Cornwall with the wonderful Pub is the Hub charity in 2018, I saw pubs that were home to convenience stores, hairdressers and jobs clubs. Last year, the all-party parliamentary beer group conducted an inquiry into unlocking pubs’ potential, which we should be publishing in the next few weeks. We heard evidence of the social contribution made by pubs in rural and urban areas alike, whether that was pubs providing meals for people with dementia and their partners, Christmas meals for the isolated and lonely, free meals for older people, yoga classes, literacy groups, or parent and toddler groups. Pubs are the original social network, bringing people and communities together. Unlike some more modern social networks, Facebook pays just over 1.5% of its UK turnover in tax; pubs typically pay about a third. That averages to some £142,000 a year a pub to the Exchequer.
A large part of that money is in the form of business rates. The recently announced extension of the pub-specific relief, which knocks £1,000 off the bills of pubs with rateable values of less than £100,000, will help a huge number of pubs—in particular, smaller ones—as will the 50% reduction in business rates bills for certain businesses. For pubs, the burden of business rates remains particularly acute because of the way pub valuations work. Pubs account for 2.8% of all business rates revenues, despite accounting for only 0.5% of rate-paying business turnover. That amounts to an overpayment of £500 million every single year. Pubs pay more in business rates compared with turnover than any other sector. That is a basic fairness issue.
Every extra pound on the business rates bill makes it harder for a pub to survive, while some sectors of the economy simply do not seem to be paying their fair share. We need the fundamental review of business rates that the Government promised in our election manifesto and a new system that reflects the realities of the 21st-century economy.
The other main tax burden on our beer and pubs is duty, and beer duty remains much too high. It is much higher than in any other major beer-producing country in Europe. In fact, someone who bought a pint in each of the five other major beer-producing countries—Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Poland—would still have paid less duty on those five pints than they would on a single pint in Britain.
Successive coalition and Conservative Governments have taken action to limit the impact of beer duty on pubs since abolishing—I have to call it this—the hated beer duty escalator in 2013. That has saved pubs and pubgoers millions of pounds, which can be seen in the change in the fortunes of many of our brewers and pubs. I hope the Treasury will go even further by offering support for British beer and pubs in next month’s Budget, because keeping a lid on beer prices helps to keep pubs viable. What is more, taking action to limit beer duty increases sends a positive signal to the quarter of a million supporters of the Long Live the Local petition, not to mention the 25,000 individual pubs backing the campaign. A cut or freeze in beer duty will appear on the Treasury’s books as a cost, but evidence suggests that keeping costs down for brewers and consumers leads to increased revenue.
The hon. Gentleman may wish to remind his colleagues in the Treasury of a helpful precedent that they may wish to follow. The coalition Government cut the duty rate on spirits by 2p. At the time, that was expected to reduce revenue; in fact, revenue increased fairly significantly as a result.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, there is an even more recent example. The excise revenue from beer is up £250 million compared with Treasury forecasts since 2017-18. That appears largely to be down to boosts to beer and pubs following freezes in duty in the 2017 and 2018 Budgets. Further action on beer duty in the Budget would clearly boost jobs and investment in beer and pubs. It would also likely lead to additional custom, which generates extra revenue.
Beer duty needs to be lower overall. Within that, we need to look at how that beer duty is levied. We need a wider review, first to look at the operation of small breweries relief and whether it acts as a disincentive to growth and expansion, and secondly to look at how beer duty can better support our community pubs, rather than the “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” produce in some off-licences and supermarkets.
Now that we have left the European Union, with the implementation period ending at the end of the year, there is an opportunity for a fundamental review of how duties are structured. I urge the Treasury to look at how beer duty could be levied at a lower rate for beer that is likely to be sold in pubs, and particularly when it is levied on draught beer, kegs and casks rather than small-pack cans and bottles. Supporting our community pubs in that way, without giving the dead cost of duty cuts to supermarkets, would make a big difference to many of those pubs.
Members on both sides of the House will not need persuading of the intrinsic value of pubs to not just the economy but society as a whole. As ever, it bears repeating that the pub is in many ways synonymous with the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this incredibly important debate. Alongside what he said about the economic and social value of pubs, does he agree that the pub is also the safest place for drinking to take place, particularly for problem drinkers? Supporting our pubs has a huge benefit in terms of health expenditure too.
Further to that, research from Professor Dunbar of the University of Oxford suggests not only that it is safer to drink in moderation in a well-run pub, but that people who drink regularly and in moderation in a local pub are more likely to be happier and healthier—both their physical and mental health is likely to be better. Although the immediate appeal of the modern temperance movement, calling for large increases in duty to try to reduce consumption, is understandable, high levels of duty tend to move consumption away from well-regulated and licensed premises to people buying cheap alcohol to consume at home, or in public, without the protections that licensed premises provide. The issue is therefore one of safety, health and public health.
I am delighted to see so many Members present to support Great British brewing and the pub industry. I hope the Minister will hear the messages of gratitude for the action that has already been taken, as well as the messages of hope and desire for—and even expectation of—continued support, which is needed to ensure that brewing in pubs remains viable for many years.
Order. It will not take a genius to see that around 22 Members wish to speak in the 40 minutes or so before I call the Front Benchers, which would mean around two minutes per speaker. I do not intend to impose a limit, because I think that that sacrifices quality in favour of quantity, but I appeal to colleagues to limit their speeches, if they can, to two or three minutes, to allow each other in. I call Siobhain McDonagh.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I am delighted to be called to speak so early. My only problem is trying to rule out a lot of my speech, and the important pub puns I had included in it—there was to be a gift of a pint for those who identified all of them.
My contribution will focus on small breweries and small breweries relief, particularly in relation to the Wimbledon Brewery in my constituency—I cannot imagine why they wanted to call it the Wimbledon Brewery, rather than the Mitcham and Morden Brewery, but I will leave that to Members’ imaginations. Although the relief is vital, the current system stifles growth and profitability for small brewers, discouraging exports and mergers. For the benefit of Members without small breweries in their constituencies, let me explain that if a brewery produces less than 5,000 hectolitres per year, it pays 50% of the full excise duty of the big breweries. That is to help balance the economies of scale from which the biggest breweries benefit, ensuring that the consumer has a greater choice and that smaller breweries can stay in business.
However, the 5,000 hectolitres point is a cliff edge. If production goes above that level, the brewer pays excise duty not just on the additional amount produced over the threshold, but on the whole production. A brewer would need to reach levels of around 20,000 hectolitres to offset the additional tax by the economies of scale. Wimbledon Brewery was in no man’s land, producing around 8,000 hectolitres per year—above the threshold but far below the 20,000 summit. It was therefore burdened with the extra tax, but without the economies of scale. For a business of that size, no man’s land is simply not an option, and it was forced to fall back below the threshold, limiting production and reducing the staff count from 15 to 10.
In its current form, the small breweries relief has punished Wimbledon Brewery’s good business practice and disincentivised its growth. The relief has acted as a barrier to mergers and acquisitions for everyone other than the biggest breweries in the industry. Surely a more progressive scale of relief is necessary, aligned with the industry’s economy of scale, to ensure that all brewers are incentivised to grow. Take the Irish relief for small brewers—the Irish are always good people to look to when talking about alcohol. A proportion of their export volume is excluded, yet such brewers can still obtain the maximum relief.
Urgency is paramount, with small brewers warning me in advance of the debate that a further period of consultation would simply lead to even more unintended consequences. For those brewers, this hangover really has gone on for too long. The upcoming Budget is the Government’s opportunity to support this much-loved sector, to make the system fairer and to support business growth. Long live the local.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I had prepared a speech but will throw it away, as you have 17 speakers; you will be delighted with the speech I will read instead, as it is very short and to the point.
There has been a 0.8% increase in pub numbers, which has led to a 1.6% expansion of employment in the pub industry. That sounds very good, but it is all to do with food and town centres rather than our rural pubs. For 55 years I have been an actor touring the country, and I am known in most pubs across the country. My wife is always amazed when we turn up in some strange town, and I go into the local pub in the wilds of Nottinghamshire or somewhere and the landlord says, “Hello, Giles.”
The pub is a feature of our countryside and it is terribly important to preserve it. There is a little village near the wonderful town of Stratford-upon-Avon. When I first stayed there, 25 or 30 years ago, it had a beautiful pub called The Crown. The community would coalesce in that pub of an evening. The landlord was responsible; if he saw that old Fred in the corner was drinking too much, he would ensure that he was all right, that he could get home, and that he did not drink to his detriment. If Mrs Miggins around the corner had a problem, they would talk about it and look after each other. The pub was a great centre of the community. At that time, the village had a vicar, the pub, the village hall and the local copper. Well, the copper was taken back to Stratford-upon-Avon because there was no crime in the village; everybody looked after each other.
I went back after 20 years or so to work again in the Stratford-upon-Avon area, and I went back to the same village. The pub had closed and been developed into housing. I now found a place where people were no longer talking to each other. The heart had been torn out of the community. It is not about going out and drinking too much, because in that pub everyone was under the watchful gaze of a responsible landlord, who had a very good reason to look after his clientele: he wanted his pub to thrive. However, it had gone and the village had fundamentally died.
People were now buying their cheap supermarket booze, going home and watching their high-definition, widescreen televisions. Who could blame them? The booze is cheaper and the entertainment is superb. If we went back to 405 lines, we would go to the pub again. But no; we have widescreen televisions. People were no longer talking to each other, so people did not trust each other. That is why I support not just a cut in taxes, which we have done—since 2010, a pint is now 14p cheaper than it would have been—but a differential cut, to support our rural pubs, which are the centres of communities right across the country.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) on securing this most important and popular debate.
In the brief time available, I want to make a few points about the value of supporting and expanding the resurgence that we have witnessed in British brewing. The debate is of interest to me on several levels—my interests are very well known. I am fortunate to have the exceptional Castle Eden Brewery in my constituency, under the excellent leadership of Cliff Walker and David Travis. They have provided me with an insight into not just quality beer—I hope we will be able to sample it in the Strangers’ Bar at some point— but some of the problems that the industry faces.
As we have heard, British beer is being exported to markets right across the world in traditional markets such as the USA and the EU. In more recent years there has been significant growth in new regions, particularly China. Some years ago, before I was a Member of Parliament, I had the opportunity to visit the huge Tsingtao Brewery in Shandong. Beer is the UK’s third largest food and drink export. The brand of “British beer” is a global trademark of excellence and innovation, which we must exploit, support and promote post Brexit.
I fully support the points that have been made by Members across the Chamber today. I support the campaign to reform business rates and freeze beer duty to support our local pubs. I am also a proud supporter of the Long Live the Local campaign, and I want to highlight the importance of small breweries relief. I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned that it was Labour that introduced small breweries relief in 2002—some credit should be given. That has seen some success in that we have seen a resurgence of the British independent craft brewing industry, with a fivefold increase in small brewers.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that, in setting alcohol duties and regulating the price of alcohol, which the Scottish Government are leading the way on, it is important that we protect small-scale breweries, craft brewing, high-quality products and local jobs, including those provided by the Kelburn Brewery in my constituency?
Absolutely, and there are a number of measures that the Minister can take. Despite the success that we are all very proud of within the craft brewing sector, it accounts for only around 7% of the UK market, compared with the 88% share of the market controlled by the big four global brewers. Small breweries relief has given small brewers the opportunity to compete with their larger multinational counterparts, but they benefit from economies of scale, brand recognition and huge and expensive advertising campaigns on a scale that small brewers simply cannot compete with, and which allow the big four to dominate the market and to offer significant discounts to wholesalers.
The other challenge we face across the country is the shrinking number of outlets that the brewers have for their products, with the number of pubs falling from around 54,000 in 2012 to 46,000 last year. That is a separate debate, and I know we are very short of time, Mr Gray, but I must take the time to criticise the large pub companies and the unfair rents and terms that they offer their tenants, which has contributed to the situation.
Post Brexit, manufacturing and exports will be vital in determining whether the UK will be successful outside the EU. I hope the Minister will take on board the comment made here today. There will be consensus across the House, if he comes up with a suitable formula.
I will be quick. I very much welcome this debate, which comes in the context of a great thrust of Government policy towards investing in economic infrastructure, which I wholeheartedly welcome. Equally, we should surely be investing in the institutions of our communities, and that should be just as important an area of Government focus. We are thinking about all sorts of interesting ways that we can do that and about new forms of investment in the social capital of our communities. What we have already is the tax regime around pubs and, as we have heard, in many places pubs are the absolute heart of our communities.
Mr Gray, the Devizes constituency is of course the most beautiful part of Wiltshire. We have a whole number of brilliant pubs and brewers there. There is the great Wadworth Brewery in the heart of Devizes town, there are Ramsbury ales, and there is a small micro-brewery that I visited recently, called Stonehenge Ales, run by a Danish couple who came over here many years ago because of our culture of brewing and because they believed in the traditions of English ales and brewing. They have made a tremendous success of that.
I echo the points that have been made, particularly around small breweries relief. There is a clear problem with the cliff edge and a need to smooth the withdrawal of the benefit. Surely any loss to the Exchequer that would follow from increasing the tax relief for brewers would be more than made up for in the growth in receipts as the industry grows.
Business rates are probably the biggest barrier to the hospitality sector and the role it plays, particularly in towns and high streets. I very much welcome the Government’s review of business rates, because we need to see our pubs strengthened as the heart of our communities.
I thank the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for securing this debate. As the newly elected vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for beer, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate.
In St Albans, there are a number of independent businesses that do not know if they will survive this financial year because of eye-watering increases in business rates. This Government have seven weeks to save them. St Albans is not only home to CAMRA—the Campaign for Real Ale, of which I must declare I am a member—but has regrettably also become home to the Save St Albans Pubs campaign and the national Save UK Pubs. More than 30% of our pubs have a rateable value greater than £51,000, which means they are not eligible for the business rate relief announced in the Queen’s Speech. I urge the Minister to look at that cap again and, as an immediate measure, extend the business rate relief beyond the £51,000 cap for pubs.
We all know that the business rates system is broken. We all know that it punishes property-based businesses, as well as those successful licensees who increase their turnover, but the implication of that is that our landmark pubs are most at threat—the landmark pubs that draw people into our towns and city centres. They are part of our landscapes and our tourist guides. They are the pubs that are printed on postcards, that are at the centre of food and drink festivals, and that host the charity events. They are steeped in our nation’s history and heritage.
Let me try to persuade the Minister with a few examples. Sean Hughes is the licensee of a pub called The Boot—the war of the roses started on its doorstep. The pub’s rateable value has gone up by 281% from £27,000 to £76,000. The Boot now has to sell an extra 22,000 pints a year just to cover the increase in business rates. It is simply not possible.
Christo Tofalli is the owner of Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which dates back to the eighth century and is recorded in “The Guinness Book of Records” as the oldest inn in England. It has been forced to close two days a week to make savings to off-set the increase in business rates. The Cock, a grade II listed building, dates back to around 1600. Its rateable value is up by 216%.
Let us consider this disparity in a tale of two pubs: the Rose and Crown, and the Six Bells. These two pubs, both in the beautiful village of St Michael’s, on the edge of Verulamium Park, are less than 30 metres apart—it takes just one minute to walk from one to the other. They are a similar size and, until 2017, the difference in their rateable value was just over £8,000. Since the business rate review, despite being broadly the same size and practically next door to each other, the Rose and Crown has had a very welcome decrease in its rateable value, but that of the Six Bells has almost doubled. The gap has widened from £8,000 to a massive £43,250. The rateable value of the Six Bells is now three times as much as the Rose and Crown.
How on earth does the Minister expect that pub to compete, when the Government are hammering its ability to do so? They have got to get a grip. They have been dragging their heels on business rates reform for years and years. We need immediate rates relief to save some of these pubs, which are at the heart of our heritage, and we need wholesale reform of the entire system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for securing this debate. If he is successful in his mission, this will surely be the last time we see him sober. In my constituency and across the country he will be welcome in taverns and pubs. I want to make four brief points, but first I should like to welcome the Government’s decision to reduce business rates for pubs across this country, and I also welcome the further rate review mentioned by the Chancellor and Chief Secretary. It is welcome news indeed.
To add to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), the essence of a pub makes it community-orientated. When I think about the pub, I think about community ownership through organisations such as the Pub is the Hub, which provides services such as libraries. I think of the integral value that it has for rural and urban communities. It is important to remember that urban communities play a significant part in the role of the pub.
I want to touch on the economic aspect. We know that when we reduce the tax revenues on beer duty we can get more people into pubs and see revenue rise. Perhaps Members will cast their minds back to the 1600s and the introduction of tea and coffee into this country. The high prices drove people out of the coffee shops and into the pubs and taverns, and I would like to see that again. I am sure many Members will agree.
On the essence of localisation, every Member in this House embraces having a strong local community and a vibrant local economy, and pubs are at the heart of that. Perhaps we can encourage further business and attach new businesses to our pubs. We have an opportunity to do so. The history and culture of our pubs goes back to the Romans. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) could do the Latin; if only I could, but I am afraid I shall disappoint colleagues.
I want to mention three pubs in my constituency. The Queens Arms in Brixham has recently fund-raised to put a defibrillator outside its own building as a service to the local community. The second is the Avon Inn, which has recently branched out to help host local community groups. The third is the New Inn in Moreleigh, which has been there since the 1700s and is family-run. Those are all embodiments of community spirit. They are localised and drive the local economy.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
Let us save time and not say that.
Pubs have always sat at the heart of our communities and our societies. I remember how my dad, at the end of a hard day’s work, would go to his local for a pint to enjoy the companionship and relax. If we look back at history, we see how many of our rights originate from people sitting down in the local and planning for a better world: democracy, workers’ rights, trade unions. All of those had many of their roots in this country in the local pub. Even today, pubs play an important role. They are where we celebrate our success in work, love and life. It is where we cheer on our nations in sport and mourn our losses in wakes, raising a parting glass for those we have lost.
Pubs remain an integral part of the St Helens, Whiston and Prescot communities. We have many fantastic pubs across the constituency, including the Cricketers Arms, which deservedly won the 2017 national pub of the year award, but we have seen dozens of pubs close. Many local pubs across the country are struggling under current taxation arrangements, which makes it extremely difficult for local pubs to compete with massive supermarkets and large pub chains. People in the UK pay almost 40% of all the beer duty in the EU, while consuming only 12% of the beer. If we compare ourselves to similar sized nations such as Germany, their beer duty is 11 times lower than the UK’s rate. We need to ask ourselves why our taxation rate is so much higher. Some will argue that it is to discourage people from excess drinking: an aim I completely agree with. It is vital we make sure that people drink responsibly.
If we look at the Green Budget published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in February 2016, we see:
“The current structure of alcohol duties is not well targeted at harmful alcohol consumption.”
In fact, because local pubs cannot afford to offer the same prices as supermarket chains, people drink excessively at home in pre-drink sessions. They feel under pressure to drink as much alcohol as they can before going for a night out at a pub or wine bar, where prices for drinks are higher than in supermarkets, partly because of the way in which our taxes are applied.
Many independent pubs in my constituency, particularly in Otley, complain about business rates as well as beer duty. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is also an important taxation issue?
Of course it is. We have heard colleagues talk about it today.
If the aim is to raise money for the Exchequer, I agree with that aim, as taxes are important and pay for the vital things our society needs. However, the brewing and pub industry is a massive employer, with almost 900,000 jobs across the UK. The loss of those jobs would have a major impact on our economy and offset much of the income from the high taxes. We also find that the taxes are not applied evenly, with wine and spirits’ duty rates per litre of pure alcohol on an almost constant decline since 1978, yet beer has largely stayed constant and has gone up in some cases.
I therefore call on the Government to look at the way in which we support our local pubs. One way to do it is by improving the current structure of the small brewers relief. I also call on the Government to implement a modest cut in beer duty so that we can help our local pubs.
As the hon. the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) has said, 250,000 people have signed up to the Long Live the Local campaign, showing that the British people want to protect our pubs. Let us take the steps necessary to ensure that our great British institutions do not have to call for last orders permanently. I urge the Government to act.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) on securing this debate. My brief speech will not be a tale of gloom and doom, but will be about success and Bar SO16, a new pub set up by the community—I went to its opening on Friday night. It was incredibly badly timed because it was still dry January. The community found an investor and premises and really pulled behind a new venture in an area that has lost both the Stile and the Stoneham Arms in the past few years. So that is a success story.
In Nether Wallop, the community has come together with a neighbourhood plan and the Five Bells is going through the process to be registered as an asset of community value. People are optimistic that they will get a pub that has been closed for seven years back up and running again. Likewise, people in Longparish are pursuing the same objective for the Plough Inn.
The challenge is not finding the community that wishes to pull behind its local. It is finding the economic environment in which it can thrive. I respectfully point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that is about the taxation of beer, as we have heard this afternoon—I will not bore anybody with stats again—and it is about business rates. It is about making sure that we have an environment in which the pubs we are hearing about this afternoon from all corners of the Chamber have the circumstances in which they can not only set up, but go on to thrive.
Diolch, Mr Gray. I am sure many people will offer to buy the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) a pint after this debate. As a south Walian MP, it will come as no surprise to Members that I have numerous breweries, big and small, in my constituency that I know will be impacted by the proposed changes to beer duty.
Along with rugby and music, pubs and clubs are a vital part of our community across Rhondda Cynon Taf. They were at the heart of our miners’ institutes, and today they serve as a common meeting place for a range of people and remain at the heart of our communities. Long may they continue to do so. When Wales plays at the Principality Stadium, one would be hard pressed to find a pub that was not full to the brim of passionate fans, full of hwyl, eager to support our team on the turf. I promise not to mention the weekend scores.
Although I am lucky to have small breweries such as the Bragdy Twt Lol and the Glamorgan Brewing Company in my constituency, I know that they face immense pressures and tax burdens. We all know that UK beer duty is among the highest in Europe. It has already been mentioned that there is a 5% beer duty on a UK pint. It is 54p compared with 5p in Germany. For Bragdy Twt Lol in Treforest in my constituency, where a team of five led by Philip Thomas produce a quarter of a million pints every year, the duty has a massive impact.
Like other colleagues, I am also concerned by the review of the small brewers relief, which has allowed breweries specialising in British independent craft beer to grow and thrive. If the relief is reduced, or the production level lowered, it will make the market extremely challenging for the small breweries that are so central to the local economy, in south Wales and beyond. Smaller breweries are often denied access to markets because larger breweries are often tied to pub chains, and I am aware that some larger breweries are using what we might call more aggressive approaches, offering incentives to pub landlords in return for buying all their beer through their brewery chain.
I am sure that all colleagues will agree that we need to support small businesses that produce beer unique to our areas and heritage. I fear that if beer duty is reduced it will be the local economy across Rhondda Cynon Taf that will suffer. Far from being just about output, small breweries such as those in my constituency often support local talent and other local companies, procuring their services for a range of purposes. Small breweries in Rhondda Cynon Taf are also regularly involved in charity events. As others have said, they make a vital contribution beyond just their beer production. I shall continue to work ceaselessly with breweries in my constituency to oppose any plans to reduce the small brewers relief. It must not happen, if we are to continue our proud heritage of brewing craft beer in Pontypridd and beyond.
It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. I have the great honour of representing a constituency with St Austell Brewery at its heart. St Austell Brewery should be of particular interest to us, because it brewed the beer for the Long Live the Local campaign. I had the great honour of sampling one of the very first pints that were produced. I pay tribute to James Staughton, who has for many years been the chief executive of St Austell Brewery, and recently retired and stood down from that position. He was rightly recognised in the honours list with an OBE. He has been the driving force that has led the brewery’s success over the past 20 years or so, so that it now produces the finest beer in the country, Tribute.
There are 85 pubs in my constituency. I do not claim to have visited every one of them, although I suspect that over the past 40-odd years I have probably visited the vast majority of them. Every one of them is important to the community that it is a part of. As we have heard from many hon. Members, pubs are about much more than drinking beer. They are the heart of our communities—important for bringing people together to celebrate, commemorate and even, at times, mourn together. They are great for social cohesion and good for mental health. I believe it is possible that one reason we see mental health deteriorating is that people are not gathering to socialise, support one another and build friendships around a pint. We should therefore recognise the important role that pubs play. They are also important for raising money for charities. Many community pubs raise thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds every year to support local charities.
I am all for taxing things that do harm. I am all for tax on cigarettes. I think it should be higher. My question, however, to the Minister is why, if we recognise that pubs are so good for and important to our communities, we tax them so highly. According to the statistics that I have, pubs in my communities contribute about £105 million a year to our local economy, but they pay £30 million a year in taxation. That is too high. I call on the Minister: let us do all we can in the coming Budget and in the years to come to reduce tax on pubs. Yes, we can do it by cutting beer duty. We should do it as quickly as possible by reviewing business rates for pubs; but I ask him also to look carefully at how we can have a differential duty rate for beer sold in pubs—particularly on draft beer. If we can find a way to lower the duty on beer sold in pubs it would be an important step towards protecting pubs and making sure that they succeed for the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for securing the debate. Is not it interesting that it is so well attended, and that we are all in such accord on one issue? I think it will be a long time before we find another one on which we are in such accord.
None of us has a monopoly on fantastic breweries and pubs in our constituencies, and that fact signifies the key importance of the issue. The debate, by my reckoning, focuses on two principal issues: one is the fairness of taxes that breweries and pubs face, and the disproportionate burden they must support; and the other is the value of pubs. To begin with the second issue, the pub, as many hon. Members have pointed out, is a venue for solidarity between members of communities—particularly small communities, or communities within larger conurbations. It is an opportunity for company for the isolated, and it provides opportunities for entrepreneurial advancement, whether artistic or in micro-brewing and other things. Notwithstanding any of those softer, more pastoral benefits that pubs generate for communities, they also generate £23.1 billion for the economy, which is not to be sniffed at either.
It seems to me there is something important for the Government to do. First, they need to admit that there is a problem. By the calculations of the Office for National Statistics, 11,000 pubs—23% of the entire estate—closed in the past 10 years. I think that we would all pretty much recognise that that signifies a problem that we need to deal with. We need to take a collective look at the burden of rates, VAT and duty on pubs. I am pleased that pubs in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland benefit from the most competitive rates regime in these islands, but that is no help to anyone in England, Wales or Northern Ireland—so there is work to be done there.
I am not sure whether we should touch on the question of VAT, but we should touch on duty. In the research that I undertook to prepare for this speech, I could find only Ireland and Finland ahead of the UK, in the European context, for beer duty. I cannot speak for Finland, but I know that Ireland is also wrestling with a pub closure problem. A yawning gap between the price of on-sales and off-sales in the UK is feeding directly into the pressure on pubs. As many hon. Members have pointed out already, off-sales products are much more attached to the more harmful types of drinking—particularly lone drinking. Also, something that I believe is now popular with younger people is pre-loading before going out. I do not know anything about that, but it is definitely associated with problems of excessive consumption, leading to matters of public health concern, and to public order concern when things get a little out of control. If we do nothing else by coming here, I join colleagues in other parties in their pleas to the Minister to take a serious look at beer duty. I hope it will be reduced. Many of our brewers need that, and many pubs will not survive without it.
No area or constituency has a monopoly of beer and brewing heritage, but Suffolk comes close. In Adnams, Greene King and Aspall, it has some of the largest brewers in the country, and it has many small ones as well. When I think about the time I spend in my constituency, many of my best moments have been in pubs. Last Friday I was at the Kingfisher pub at the heart of the Chantry community, celebrating Brexit. Also, I decided on my flat on the basis of where the nearest pub was—the Greyhound, a fantastic pub. We have a fantastic heritage, but we are struggling. In 2010, there were 75 pubs in Ipswich: in 2017, there were 55. That is quite a rapid rate of deterioration in the number of pubs in our town.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) about the importance of urban pubs as well as those in rural areas. They are crucial in Ipswich. There are 1,500 jobs tied to pubs in my constituency, with more than £19 million in wages, so I want to say to the Government that the tax regime in which pubs must operate at the moment does not work. It is bad for jobs and communities, and for the country. Earlier this week I wanted, before speaking today, to talk to local landlords so I could relay the points that they raised with me directly through the debate. One of them said that he sometimes feels like a tax collector, not a small business person. The small business people who own pubs are creative and dynamic. They want to move their businesses forward and strengthen our communities. Let us get 150% behind them in the Budget.
To say that pubs are the pillars of our community and the foundation stone of British culture is a cliché; but it is a cliché for a reason, because it is true. There is much to be said for pubs and what they bring to the country. I am sure that we all have some great memories of being down the local, although I could not possibly comment about my own experiences. Derby North has some spectacular pubs, such as the Wilmot Arms in Chaddesden, with its incredible quiz master, Jerry, and the Nags Head in Mickleover. In London, especially within zone 1, one would think that pubs were going through a renaissance. However, it is very different outside the metropolitan zone, where pubs are closing in their droves. So many of our communities have lost their heart as a result of those closures.
Pubs bring so many benefits, which I could talk about until the end of days, really. They combat loneliness; in fact, I have a nibble and natter down at our local, the Travellers Rest, for that very reason. They foster community cohesion and promote social wellbeing, and if somebody happens to have one or two too many, there is always a friendly face to offer them a glass of water. It goes without saying that pubs also make an economic contribution. In Derby North alone, there are 52 pubs and 11 breweries supporting 888 jobs. The industry in my constituency pays about £10 million in wages, £2 million in investment, and £9.1 million in taxes. However, pubs are under a lot of strain as a result of high rents and supermarket prices.
The Government are not blind to the issue. They have introduced a raft of measures such as the asset of community value scheme, a freeze on beer, cider and spirit duty, and business rate reliefs. The results have been spectacular: the rate of pub closures has halved. However, we can do more. We can bring down the number of closures even further, so that no pub has to close its doors. The Budget would be an excellent opportunity to do so, and I would wholeheartedly support the Government in that endeavour.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for securing this important debate. Pubs form the iron core of British culture. Whether we are going for a Beck’s Blue in January, sneaking in a swift half on a Sunday with our mates, or soaking up the sun and spilling out on to the pavements at five minutes past 5 on an idle summer afternoon, pubs facilitate a strong sense of community and act as a social fabric across the country. They are indispensable.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are the proud home of the Titanic brewery, which has benefited from small breweries relief. Titanic is a local, family-run success story; as its website boasts, the brothers Keith and Dave Bott went from brewing
“7 barrels to over 4 million pints a year”.
Is that not the Conservative vision: family, passion and the entrepreneurial spirit to be the change we want to see in the world? How then can it be right that Titanic’s tax contributions are more than Amazon’s corporation tax, and 10% of what Facebook pays? I want to see more entrepreneurial spirit. I want this Government to make it easier for breweries, landlords, business owners and punters. There are three ways in which that could be done, many of which have been touched on already.
First, we need to establish a long-term, sustainable model for business rates. If a pub wants to expand, or a new starter wishes to get on the property ladder to become a publican, that investment in a site is immediately taxed through business rates. Secondly, we must reduce beer duty. We have one of the highest rates of beer duty across the continent, and I want this Government to take advantage of our release from EU regulations and provide relief to pubs by lowering beer duty.
Thirdly, small breweries relief is a fantastic scheme, and I very much support its principal aim. Currently, a 50% reduction in beer duty is offered to all breweries that produce under 5,000 hectolitres per annum. However, there is a harmful cliff edge for breweries that go above that amount. Increasing the threshold for the volume of beer produced per annum will relieve all brewers of some extra cost, while removing a barrier to growth, investment and the creation of employment opportunities. Just under 900 people in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are already the beneficiaries of those opportunities.
Pubs are so important in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that on the day of recent general election the Foaming Quart was part pub and part polling station. As I have said, pubs are the very fabric of our society. I have been busy working hard on behalf of pubs in my constituency, nominating them for national and regional awards, and I am scheduled to hold my first pub surgery soon. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I hope that more help will be offered to publicans and brewers alike.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) on securing the debate. There will be a huge level of excitement and enthusiasm across the publicans’ world when they see the number of Members of Parliament who are showing their support for the industry. Many important points have been made about the overall burden of taxation, the inequities of the business tax regime, and the importance of making sure that small breweries relief continues to work and acts as an incentive for those brewers to grow into new areas.
It is also important that we continue to put pressure on the Government regarding beer duty. A lot has been said about the beer duty escalator introduced in 2008, but we should remember that it remained in place for three years under a Conservative Government. They milked that cow very well until 2013, and the level of duty paid on beer is actually more now than it was in 2010. However, whichever side of that argument Members are on, a message is being sent loud and clear right across the political divide that there needs to be a reduction in beer duty.
Finally, we sometimes overlook the role that taxation plays in damping down investment in the production of goods that can be exported around the world. We export huge amounts of whisky, gin and other spirits, and British alcohol producers are also tremendous innovators in many ways, including by creating products such as the ready-to-drink beverages that are manufactured in my constituency by companies such as Global Brands. If the Government listen to what has been said today, that will make a real difference to our industry.
I, too, wish to speak about how small breweries are taxed. Unlike pubs, which are closing, small breweries have experienced amazing growth over the past 20 years; there were 400 in 2002, but now there are over 2,000. As we have heard, every constituency seems to have one, and Hampshire has 35. However, that growth has stalled, and I believe that the Government can help.
I look forward to the review of small breweries relief. That relief is vital but, as we have heard, it tapers away at over 5,000 hectolitres. A brewery that doubles its production from 5,000 to 10,000 hectolitres might incur a 250% increase in duty. This Friday I will be visiting The Flower Pots in Cheriton, a Meon Valley brewery, which has told me that this punitive tax tapering means it is unable to expand. Small brewers everywhere face the same problem. This well-intentioned tax regime benefits small breweries, but it can also hamper their growth. Relaxing the taper rate could result in more production and employment, leading to higher tax receipts in the long run. I hope that the Government will consider giving small breweries that much-needed shot in the arm in this year’s Budget.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) on securing the debate. I will be brief.
We have over 100 pubs in my constituency, many of which I have already visited, and I pledge today to have visited them all by the time of the next general election. As my hon. Friend for Dudley South has said, in many parts of my constituency pubs are the last community facility. I support the recent business rate changes but want them to go much further. I also support relief for small breweries and hope to see the cliff edge removed. That cliff edge particularly affects Consett Ale Works, a brewery in my constituency located behind The Grey Horse. I look forward to getting its beer behind the bar at the Strangers’ before the summer recess.
As an MP, I personally back all local pubs in my constituency, including by holding meetings and surgeries in them. However, I was recently attacked by some local Labour activists for holding surgeries in licensed premises in my constituency. It has come to something in our country when Labour activists are attacking the Tory MP for North West Durham for holding surgeries in the Steel Club in Consett. I continue to support the Long Live the Local campaign, and urge colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to ignore the woke, new-age temperance movement and back their local pubs. I hope that the Minister will pass on our collective pleas regarding the Budget to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Loughborough has 80 pubs and two breweries—I declare an interest, because my son works in one of them. In my maiden speech I referred to reducing business rates for pubs, which I am very keen to do. I am also keen to support the campaigns to cut duty on draught beer. There is an old-fashioned premise that a pub should be a cash cow for the Treasury, but the choice of cheap alternatives is now vast, and the impact of the loss of a pub on the local community is huge. That pub is often a community centre, a club headquarters, a friendly society or a meeting place that also just happens to sell beer. We need to save those local facilities.
I welcome the Government’s review of small breweries relief. My constituent Andrew Reed, who founded the Charnwood Brewery, emailed to inform me that the brewery is a small family business that supplies pubs and restaurants in a 15-mile radius. Although it does not enjoy the economy of scale of other brewers in the area, and its annual turnover is below £1 million, it still contributes £300,000 to the Exchequer. He says that losing the relief would have an impact: how could the brewery compete in the local market against national and international brewers?
I thank the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) for securing the debate. This is my first experience of a Westminster Hall debate, and it is fantastic that so many hon. Members are interested in beer—more than are interesting in sitting in the main Chamber most of the time. That is the state of play in politics.
We have heard some interesting contributions, not least from the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), who highlighted the fact that he is well kent in many pubs. I invite him to come to Aberdeen South any time he wants to go for a beer, but the pint is on him.
I actually have shares in a brewery company, but I do not need to declare them because I have only two. I am sure that many hon. Members are aware of the company, BrewDog, which is one of the huge success stories of north-east Scotland. We have many brilliant local craft breweries in north-east Scotland that must be celebrated, such as Park Brew in Angus and Eden Mill in the constituency of the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who I saw earlier. We have to celebrate the number of breweries in Scotland and across the UK.
The brewing industry is important to the Scottish economy across the nation. In my constituency alone there is the Caledonian Brewery, the headquarters of Heineken UK, the award-winning Edinburgh Beer Factory and the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Chancellor wants to help the Scottish economy, he will cut beer duty?
It is an important discussion and I will come on to that point. I have been an elected Member in Scotland for a considerable period of time, and what I hear from Conservatives there is that the business rates in Scotland are a complete and utter mess. Having listened to this debate, it appears that they are an even bigger mess in England, if the contributions from Conservative Members are anything to go by.
The important point in the Scottish context, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) noted, is that Scotland has the most competitive business rates in the entire Isles. Indeed, more than 100,000 businesses, many of them local pubs, are in receipt of the small business bonus, without which they would not survive. In the Scottish Parliament the Conservatives have put that at risk in the last few days. It was only after a dramatic U-turn that they decided to side with the Scottish Government to ensure that the small business bonus was kept in place. That was right, but it should never have been in doubt. With regard to business rates, we in Scotland are well placed to say that we support local pubs and local industry, but there is certainly more that can be done.
One aspect that has not been touched on in enough detail when it comes to taxation is the public health impact.
The cost to the NHS of excessive drinking is clear. Does the hon. Member agree with the sentiments put forward by me and other hon. Members that pubs offer a secure method of drinking? The key is moderation. A landlord can give drivers free soft drinks all night or remove keys from someone who is still standing and talking yet unable to drive. When it comes to the message of drinking sensibly, that is the way to do it.
The hon. Member makes an important point, which many hon. Members have also made. That is why we have to take a holistic view. We cannot simply say that taxes need to be cut without looking at the public health impact. Notwithstanding that, a pub is a much safer place to drink than the pre-loading we heard about earlier.
It is important to note that about 22 individuals die every week in Scotland due to alcohol abuse. That is a shocking figure that none of us can be happy about. There has been action on that in Scotland, through the introduction of minimum unit pricing, which is expected to save 392 lives over just five years. We certainly support the reform of beer excise duty, but we need to look at taxation holistically and in terms of public health.
The elephant in the room is the fact that great swathes of our hospitality sector rely primarily on the work of EU nationals. In Scotland, roughly 11% of EU nationals work in the hospitality sector. They are crucial to the success of our pubs, hotels and the entire hospitality industry. That is why Scotland needs freedom of movement, and why it is incumbent on Conservative Members to ensure that when the Brexit deal goes through, free movement of people from the European nations to Scotland continues.
The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), who was supposed to wind up for Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, apologises for being unavoidably detained elsewhere. I am grateful to Stephanie Peacock for standing in.
It is an unexpected pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) on securing this important debate and on his work with the all-party parliamentary group, of which I am proud to be a member. The fact that the debate is so well attended by hon. Members from both sides of the House shows how important pubs are to our constituents. Indeed, this month, I have had more emails about this debate than about Brexit, so that is some progress.
Several important issues were raised by hon. Members on both sides, including how important local pubs are. They are a world-renowned institution that dates back to the 11th century. In Barnsley, we sadly lost the Black Bull pub a couple of years ago, which was 250 years old. That is just one example, but pubs often have an historical and cultural significance. Through the generations, people have gone to sit in the pub and talk about their everyday lives.
Supporting our pubs makes economic and social sense. The statistics have been rehearsed today. Pubs provide more than 600 jobs in my local economy in Barnsley. The Acorn Brewery is one example. Across the country, they provide 900,000 jobs, £23 billion of economic value and £13 billion of taxation.
A number of issues have been raised, and the Minister has a number of questions to respond to. Labour has called for a radical overhaul of business rates to help local pubs, and a review of the pubs code and pub closures. As CAMRA has pointed out, 18 pubs close a week, which is a tragedy. Once we let them go, we will find it much harder to get them back.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of closures on high streets? I represent a town. I am not saying that pubs are not important to cities, but in small villages and towns, they are the hub of the community, so it is important to look at the impact. That also feeds into the Government’s loneliness strategy, in which pubs were cited. What assessment has been made in relation to that?
The crucial issue for this debate is the impact of high taxation. For every £3 made in a pub, £1 is sent to the Treasury, so surely we need to reconsider beer tax. On average, pubs in the UK pay £140,000 in tax, which is disproportionately high. We need to look at that. There are also important issues about public health. While there is a public health impact, they do provide a safe, secure and perhaps moderate area in which to drink and socialise.
I thank and congratulate all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I look forward to listening to the Minister.
I join hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). He has done the unusual thing of bringing half of Parliament along to a Westminster Hall debate, which is not only a great tribute to his popularity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group, but a reflection of the importance that we all ascribe to this issue, which affects our communities.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. As has been said, there has been a tone of great unity on the issues. There is a clear consensus about the centrality of pubs and the beer industry, and about the solutions that exist in terms of making sure we help the sector to thrive long into the future. It must be said that asking elected representatives to talk about lowering the burden of tax on beer and pubs may be the nearest thing we ever get to motherhood and apple pie in this place, but it is a serious issue that goes to the heart of community life, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said. Pubs are places to meet and socialise, and breweries are important regional employers.
In his delightful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) reminisced about his trips to Stratford. As we know, Shakespeare has a line for everything, including the following from “A Winter’s Tale”:
“a quart of ale is a dish for a king.”
He was, of course, right—we can surely all agree on that. With that in mind, it is a great tribute to the United Kingdom that we have over 2,000 small breweries, and beer exports accounted for almost £500 million-worth of sales last year.
Does the Minister agree that, with a benign tax regime, independent British brewers can be an even greater exporting strength? The DEYA brewery in my constituency has achieved extraordinary international strength over the past five years. Has the time not come to back independent British brewers to go global?
I could not agree more, and that is the spirit of Brexit. We need to take advantage of opportunities to drive exports. It is something that we want to do across the piece to ensure that we deliver a successful economy, have a competitive business tax regime and support businesses large and small. That is what the Government have been intent on doing. Our employment allowance changes reduced national insurance contributions by up to £3,000 for over 1 million employers. We have cut corporation tax and frozen or cut beer duty in six of the last seven Budgets, which means that beer duty is now at its lowest level in real terms for over 30 years, and we have repeatedly given support to pubs through the business rates system.
UKHospitality has said that these businesses represent 10% of UK employment and generate £39 billion of tax for the Exchequer. Does the Minister agree that engaging with the sector would help businesses to survive and to grow?
The hon. Member is an assiduous attender of Westminster Hall debates, and I am absolutely delighted to say that his persistence will be rewarded. My officials and I will always be glad to engage with the sector.
One of the most important issues that came up in the debate was raised by the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) and my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden): the impact of business rates and the associated challenges. Since 1 April 2019, eligible pubs with a rateable value below £51,000 have received a one-third discount on their business rates bills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) rightly pointed out in his excellent speech, they will receive even greater support from 1 April as we increase the discount from one third to 50% and introduce a new £1,000-worth of relief for pubs with a rateable value below £100,000. Eligible pubs will be able to claim both reliefs.
I am pleased about the support the Government are putting into pubs. As hon. Members have mentioned, they are the centre of our communities. I want to highlight a pub in my constituency, The Pride of the Peaks in New Mills, which this Christmas gave 50 hampers and Christmas meals to elderly people to help combat loneliness. Does the Minister agree that pubs are the absolute heart of our communities?
My hon. Friend’s intervention draws attention to precisely the social value that pubs add. His constituency is a rural one in Derbyshire, and many small pubs currently benefit from 100% rural rate relief, as well as small business rate relief. Those are the kinds of reliefs that we want to encourage in order to ensure that we support businesses in all areas of the country, not just in our big towns and cities.
All pubs will continue to benefit from wider reforms to business rates, most notably the switch from RPI indexation to CPI indexation, which took place in April 2018. That change alone is saving business rate payers over £6 billion over the next five years. More widely, the Government are committed to carrying out a fundamental review of the business rates system, and further details will be announced in due course.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East mentioned the impact of pub closures on the high street, which is something the Government take into account. We have initiated the future high streets fund, which is designed to mitigate the pressures on the high street due to changing retail patterns.
One of the main burdens on pubs in my area is the disgraceful expulsion of Bury football club from the Football League. Anything that can be done to assist pubs in my area and the rebirth of Bury football club would be an eminently good thing.
I was genuinely saddened by the expulsion of Bury. I am a football fan myself, and Middlesbrough came very close to expulsion from the Football League in 1986. I know the damage that it does to a community and the fear that it strikes. We will do everything we can to support pubs in Bury and elsewhere in the March Budget.
As hon. Members will know, recent data from the Official for National Statistics are more encouraging, showing that the number of pubs in the country has increased for the first time in a decade. The number of pubs employing fewer than 10 people also grew, showing that the revival extends beyond the big chains. I appreciate that it is early days, and we are certainly not claiming that we have reversed all the challenges facing the pub trade, but it is good to see data showing that the cumulative impact of the changes we are making is positive. In fact, pub revenue is at its highest level since 2010, and employment is at a high not reached since 2001. Those are fantastic results for the sector and show that the pub remains a vital part of modern Britain.
I now turn to future possibilities. The Conservative manifesto committed the Government to review the structures of our alcohol duties now that we are free to determine our own priorities outside the European Union, and the Chancellor will make announcements about this in due course. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) referred to our review of small brewers relief, which is obviously really important—indeed, the hangover has persisted for too long.
A few years ago, I owned and ran a microbrewery, so I know some of the difficulties facing breweries, including the fledgling Magic Dragon brewery in Wrexham. I urge the Minister to support the cut in beer duty and increase small brewers relief.
We absolutely want the Welsh dragon to be roaring, so I take my hon. Friend’s point. As a serial entrepreneur, she has a lot of experience in this area. We want to ensure that the operation of small brewers relief helps to drive innovation and growth, and we will shortly make further announcements about that through the Budget process. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) that the review is not about whether to abolish small brewers relief; it is about its operation and ensuring that it is working effectively.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) referred to the 85 pubs in his constituency, which I look forward to going round when I come down to Cornwall in due course. He referred to the burden of taxation. Obviously, when we are doing these things as part of the Budget process, a cut to alcohol duties represents a significant loss in revenue for the Exchequer. The effect of inflation means that, in real terms, beer duty has been cut every time that we have frozen it over the past several years. Even in nominal terms, beer duty is now lower than it was in 2012, but we will continue to review all taxes.
Can the Minister clarify his thoughts about the cliff edge after the production of 5,000 hectolitres, to which several hon. Members have referred? Will there be a taper?
I am a big fan of the Castle Eden brewery. As a fellow north-easterner, I used to pass it regularly. Treasury policy is to avoid precipitate cliff edges that distort behaviour. Clearly, I cannot pre-announce any of the findings of the review. There are a range of factors and representations that need to be borne in mind, but we will issue clarity to the sector in the next few weeks.
I appreciate what the Minister says about prior notice, but will he take a look at the disproportionate effect of tax on on-sales compared with off-sales? It is unsustainable, notwithstanding the issues of public health, public nuisance and community support.
I take the hon. Member’s point. Clearly, we want to support drinking in social settings such as the pub. It has clear societal benefits as well as business benefits, and the Treasury takes that into account.
The Treasury keeps all taxes under review and is deeply sensitive to the range of challenges facing the pub sector and brewery sector, which we are keen to support. The support of all hon. Members present is powerful, and it speaks to the fact that this is a decision we need to get right. I know that all hon. Members will keep us under close scrutiny about the decisions we make.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South for securing the debate. What has happened today is a great tribute to his leadership on these issues, and he deserves our thanks.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. We have had many contributions from six different political parties representing all four nations of the United Kingdom. They have displayed a rather rare unity of opinion, purpose and passion: beer and pubs are a force for good, and they should be supported through our taxation system.
I thank CAMRA, the Society of Independent Brewers, the British Beer and Pub Association, Long Live the Local and the quarter of a million people who have signed up to the Long Live the Local campaign for highlighting the importance of this issue. We have the opportunity of two Budgets this year, and I hope we will have support on beer duty in March. At the end of the year, we can have the announcements on a new system of beer duty for a post-Brexit Britain.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered taxation on beer and pubs.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Rail Services: Maidenhead, Twyford and Branch Lines
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rail services for Maidenhead, Twyford and linking branch lines.
I am pleased to have obtained this debate, because the train services in my constituency—for the mainline stations of Maidenhead and Twyford, and the branch line stations of Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham—are absolutely critical for my constituents and local businesses. Many of my constituents use the train services to access employment, particularly in London, which they also visit for leisure—visiting theatres and galleries and going shopping—and for other purposes. Local businesses also rely on the train services to bring potential customers, employees and other visitors. They all want fast train services on those lines.
I have campaigned on this issue throughout my time as a Member of Parliament. The good news is that, over that time, Thames Trains and its successor, Great Western Railway, under its various names, have generally been responsive to the concerns that have been raised about services in the constituency. When there have been problems with the timetable, they have done their best to respond.
The bad news, I am afraid, is that I cannot set out that rosy picture today, because the service has deteriorated. Nick Brace, a constituent of mine, said that the most frustrating thing is that
“for much of 2019 GWR had this all sorted—the right number of trains, in the right format mostly running to time. And it has all gone down the pan with the new timetable.”
The key issue is not the timetable, but the reason behind it: the introduction of Crossrail.
Before I address that, I will set out clearly for the Minister the nature of the problems that my constituents currently face: fewer fast trains, less reliability and significant overcrowding. Great Western fast trains have been cut from the timetable during the morning and evening peak hours to provide more long-distance services, which has had a significant impact on my constituents.
I will share some examples of the complaints I have received from constituents. One said:
“Morning and evening rush hour fast trains to/from Paddington have been massively reduced. For example we have gone from fast trains at 8.02, 8.06, 8.16 and 8.32 to only two—8.02 and 8.32. The intervening trains have now become 35 minute trains, which means London commuters don’t use them.”
“Under the original timetable between the times of 07.40 and 08.30, there are three trains…that take 30 minutes or less to Paddington. From December 15th, there will be just one fast train within this time period—the 08.02. The fast train before that will be 27 minutes earlier, leading to a huge bottleneck of commuters.”
On the evening services, a constituent said:
“Most crucially is the cancellation of the two peak evening fast trains to London Paddington. These two peak trains—the first a 4.42pm and the second at 5.48pm—take approximately 21 minutes and represent a significant difference from the 39 to 47 minutes being introduced as part of the new timetable.”
Great Western Railway has looked at reinstating the two peak-hour morning services that were removed, but sadly it has told me that
“there is no readily available space for additional stops”
but that it has
“looked at a number of options including sourcing extra rolling stock and stopping high speed services that have originated in the west, such as from Bristol or Plymouth. Disappointingly, it has not been possible to find a timetable path that will work without causing congestion and significant performance delays in the key peak period.”
On the evening services, GWR told me on 30 January that it was
“in discussion with Network Rail about the possibility of introducing some additional evening services from Maidenhead to London Paddington, which we might be able to operate from May, or sooner if we can gain approval.”
At that stage, it continued:
“It is fair to say that NR are apprehensive about the performance ramifications of these trains”.
I can now tell the Minister that this week Network Rail refused the application for those additional services.
I have been here before. Network Rail has previously refused additional services and changes to the timetable but then relented. Great Western Railway will appeal against that rejection, and I will appeal, but I urge Network Rail to reconsider and to reinstate those two trains. That matters not just for my constituents, but for our local economy, the wider Thames valley economy and the economy of the nation as a whole.
The right hon. Lady is making some excellent points on behalf of her constituents. The railway links benefit not only Maidenhead but my Slough constituents. The western rail link to Heathrow, a four-mile link between Slough and Heathrow, would benefit our two sets of constituents and people in the south-west and west. The Welsh Government are also in favour of it, because of the huge boost to our economy and the decarbonising of our transport. Does she agree that it is about time that we delivered on this, given that the Government committed to it in 2012? We hope that the Minister will give us some good news about sufficient and solid performance progress on this matter.
The western rail link to Heathrow has been an issue throughout most of my time in Parliament. It has long been talked about, plans have been drawn up and people have looked at it. It has overwhelming support from business, different constituents and different political parties locally. It is something that global Britain would definitely benefit from having. I certainly support the hon. Gentleman’s proposal about the importance of that rail link.
I want Network Rail to reconsider Great Western’s application for two additional evening services and to reinstate evening peak-hour services to London Paddington. I also want it to work with Great Western on the possibility of bringing back services in the morning peak hours.
Not only has the reduction in the number of fast services had an impact on my constituents, but the service has sadly deteriorated. Again, I quote a constituent:
“The services that have been impacted the most are the 7.02 and 7.07 direct services which are now the only direct fast trains to Paddington during the 6.40-7.30am ‘super-peak’”,
and the reliability of those services
“plummeted from 96% and 93% respectively in the month leading up to the timetable change to just 74% and 37% post the timetable change”.
That included a significant number of cancellations. This is simply not good enough.
Lack of services and cancellations have led to the other problem that my constituents suffer from: significant overcrowding on the trains, including safety issues on the platform. Constituents report that they often cannot get on the 8.02 train from Maidenhead because there is simply no room. That service used to start from Twyford and a good number of seats used to be available; it now comes from Didcot Parkway, and when it gets to Maidenhead it is just not possible to get on the train, even to stand. That causes significant problems on the platform, and Great Western has had to employ security guards on the platform because of problems with overcrowding. That is a further issue that my constituents suffer from.
Sadly, I understand from Great Western that some problems with cancellations and carriage reductions were caused by a number of fatalities on the line. Those fatalities are tragedies, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of all those concerned, but those cannot account for all the problems in the service that my constituents suffer.
I have talked about Maidenhead and Twyford in particular, but constituents from Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham on the branch lines also want to connect with the fast services into London. Indeed, I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) is present, and his constituency is at the end of one of those branch lines. They, too, are impacted by the problems on the mainline services. The service problems need to be fixed. Network Rail needs to allow the extra evening services. It needs to work with Great Western see if the morning peak services can be reinstated.
Another possibility that would help my constituents is an expansion of the fleet, to increase capacity. I ask the Department for Transport to work with Great Western on the possibilities for increasing the rolling stock, such that extra carriages could be put on the services. That would allow greater space for my constituents to use. Other improvements to help my constituents would include better access to the platforms at Maidenhead, to help with the congestion in the subways and at the entrances and exits. That needs funding.
I noted in Prime Minister’s questions today that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, answering a question from another of our hon. Friends on railway infrastructure, indicated that there was a significant amount of money that the Government could spend on railway infrastructure. I am afraid that I commented to my neighbour on the Benches that that meant, I hope, that the Minister will be able to agree to the millions of pounds necessary for the infrastructure changes at Maidenhead, and indeed for more car parking, which is paramount at Twyford. On a Saturday in Twyford 10 days ago, when I was doing my street surgery, that was the single issue that came up time and again on the doorsteps. Again, it needs support from the Department. I will write to the Minister with details of those two issues, and I hope that he will be able to instruct officials to look at the proposals seriously and favourably.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the problem at Twyford. Part of that originates with people from Henley driving to Twyford to get the trains through. Will she accept my enthusiasm for joining her in getting the car parking?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is as important that we ensure services on the branch line, and that those of his constituents who wish to come to Twyford to use its services directly are able to park. That would also be in the interests of my constituents who live in the Twyford streets that those individuals would otherwise be parking in.
Those are issues with the current service, but I will now come on to the fundamental problem underlying the timetable change and the reduction in the number of fast services from Maidenhead and Twyford: the introduction of Crossrail. When it is fully running, it will benefit those of my constituents who want to get on a train at Twyford or Maidenhead and to sit on it as it carries on through London, perhaps even to Canary Wharf. That might be a benefit. However, for those who do not want that—for those who want a fast service to Paddington, for example—Crossrail is not the answer. My constituents are being asked to forgo a service that takes 20, 21 or 22 minutes to Paddington, on a train where they might get a seat, depending on the time of the train, and that has toilets. Instead they will get on a train that takes 45 minutes to get to Paddington, with fewer seats and no toilets.
Let me give a bit of context. Maidenhead and Twyford are two of the top 10 busiest stations in the Thames valley and Berkshire region—Maidenhead is the fourth busiest and Twyford is the 10th. Both are part of a dynamic economic area that hosts thriving businesses, including the headquarters of international businesses. They are not the backwater at the end of a metro service.
I was deeply concerned when I read the letter from Great Western, which stated that it had always been the intention of the industry that the “main” provider of services from Maidenhead and Twyford—well, for all the stations between Reading and London—would be Crossrail. That was never made clear, but it absolutely confirms the fears that I always had when the Crossrail project first started, which was that at some stage the Government might turn around to my constituents and say, “We want to remove the mainline services. You can just be part of a London metro service.” My concern was exacerbated when my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), when Mayor of London, suggested that the stations in my constituency should come under the complete remit of Transport for London, as part of the London metro services. I rejected the idea then, and I reject it now.
The industry should not be planning for Crossrail to be the main service provider for my constituents. The demand of my constituents—their choice of service—should determine the service providers for their stations. The attitude that the industry will decide what sort of trains people can get just confirms the view that I have had for too long—I had it when British Rail was in place and, sadly, I think there are those in the railway industry today who think like it—which is that some people in the rail industry enjoy playing trains and do not want to think about passengers. But passengers are the key. Yes, in future some of my constituents may choose to use Crossrail, but that must be a choice. Those who choose to use fast services must have those fast services available.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the Great Western franchise continues to provide fast services for Maidenhead and Twyford on the main line, and not just the principle of fast services; there has to be a sufficient number of services at the right times, with enough seats so that people can actually get on the train. We want services to be restored at least, and enhanced at best. Some might say that it is natural for me, as a local Member of Parliament, to stand up and say that for my constituents, but it matters beyond my constituency. Actually, some people using the services in Twyford and Maidenhead are not from my constituency, as we just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell); there will also be some from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), and others who come to those stations to use those fast services.
Some of my constituents have already started to drive to London instead of using the trains, because of the reduced service. How does that help our 2050 climate change target? We want more people to use the trains, but we will not achieve that if we reduce the services. We want the country’s economy to thrive. It is right to level up across the UK—that is what the modern industrial strategy, which was introduced when I was Prime Minister, is about. But levelling up does not mean reducing the vibrancy of a key part of our current economic powerhouse. Train services to Maidenhead and Twyford and the linking branch lines matter to my constituents, our environment and our economy.
I urge everybody involved—Great Western, Network Rail and the Department for Transport—to do everything to ensure that my constituents continue to have the train services that they need. We must continue to see people using those trains, to bring people from Maidenhead and Twyford to businesses in London, and from London to work in businesses in Maidenhead and Twyford, to continue to maintain our thriving economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir David. I promise to be very, very good and stick to time. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for securing this debate on rail services for Maidenhead and Twyford and linking branch lines. It has been an informative debate, and I will address as many of the issues that she raised as I can, as well as those raised by other hon. Members.
Forgive me for being slightly nervous answering my former Prime Minister in a debate in this fashion. A lot of the things I will talk about—the positive nature of our investment plans for our railways; the focus on passengers that we are demanding from our railways—stem from initiatives brought forward from a former regime. I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I tell her things she already knows, but they are useful for the public record. She is right to mention her constituents’ issues with fast trains since the timetable change. I was not aware of the process that she outlined behind the scenes directly with Network Rail and the refused application—I will come back to that.
To give an overall picture, let me reassure my right hon. Friend that the Government are investing in record levels of rail funding to deliver the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century—something that she set off. She mentioned that we are spending £48 billion between 2019 and 2024 to improve rail services for passengers and freight customers, while maintaining very high levels of safety and improving reliability. We are investing over £5 billion in the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion on electrification to deliver better services, new trains and thousands more seats. That programme has provided 4,900 extra seats into London in the peak, and a 40% increase into Paddington in the morning peak. The modernisation of the Great Western main line is improving over 100 million rail journeys each year, stimulating economic activity and growth, as she rightly outlined, from London through her constituency and further on into the Thames valley, the Cotswolds, the west country and south Wales. I am aware of the importance of her words.
A few words on Great Western Railway’s general performance and improvements are probably needed here. We are seeing the benefits of investment. GWR’s punctuality over the last year has been much better than in previous years. Since it had the recent issues, it has put a comprehensive performance improvement plan in place, and performance has improved substantially over recent months. The measure of punctuality as a moving annual average was 89.4% in period 10, which ended on 4 January 2020, compared with 83.1% in the previous year’s period. Most four-weekly periods since December 2018 have improved. That performance has been achieved with a timetable change on the Great Western route in December 2019, which was the biggest since the 1970s. The enhanced timetable introduced in December last year reduced most journey times on intercity routes and added additional local services in the south-west. We have improved passenger compensation; GWR introduced delay repay arrangements on 1 April last year.
My right hon. Friend is right to outline a number of issues. Some of the delays that she highlighted were caused by fatalities on the railway. When I inherited this job I did not quite comprehend that across the network, one person dies every 31 hours. We are working ever so hard across Government and the industry itself: we have trained more than 20,000 people, with the help of Samaritans, to try to intervene at an earlier stage. Hundreds of lives have been saved by people who have had that training at stations. It is a shocking statistic, and it causes unbelievable problems for grieving families, drivers who have been affected and the whole system. We are truly working on that. She is right to say that nowhere near all the delays are caused by that, but it is a significant issue.
Passenger satisfaction with GWR in the spring 2019 rail passenger survey was 87%—the highest ever for the franchise. The national score was 83%. There are a few improvements going on at Maidenhead station, as my right hon. Friend knows, most of which are due to be completed by the middle of 2021. They are being carried out by Network Rail and are due to be completed by the time the Elizabeth line opens. They include improvements to the ticket hall, a new lift to platform one, extended platforms for longer trains, new platform canopies to accommodate overhead line equipment, new signs, help points and customer information screens and CCTV. There is a comprehensive improvement plan for the station. Her constituents may well have items on their shopping list of station improvements that I have not mentioned. In the Department’s rail network enhancement pipeline we are only at the beginning of control period 6, as it is called in the industry, so further enhancements can come from that.
We are making improvements to the Maidenhead to Marlow branch line. GWR is undertaking a study, with local enterprise partnership support, of options for rail infrastructure at Bourne End. A key aim is to enable a half-hourly through service between Marlow and Maidenhead, in line with the frequency of other Thames valley branches. If initial studies show that scheme to be potentially successful, it will need to be progressed through our pipeline process. That is the usual process for enhancements that will end up with Government investment.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted concerns about the balance between Great Western Railway and TfL Rail services at Maidenhead and Twyford. The current balance was developed with Crossrail in mind. With the delay to the tunnel, it has been necessary to accommodate the services in an increasingly busy Paddington station, which has caused some issues. In managing the overall timetable, compromises have been necessary to achieve a balance between acceptable performance and what passengers at each station would like to see.
In December 2019, TfL Rail took over the running of stopping services between Paddington and Reading. That is another crucial step forward in the delivery of the Elizabeth line, which will transform rail transport across and into central London. When the Elizabeth line fully opens in 2022, it will increase rail capacity in London by a massive 10% and carry up to 200 million passengers a year, with passengers at Maidenhead—I know my right hon. Friend was not sure how keen her constituents would be about this—able to get a train directly to Canary Wharf in 55 minutes and to Tottenham Court Road in 40 minutes.
I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I give way first to my right hon. Friend.
I am grateful to the Minister for recognising the point I made about the balance between Crossrail and Great Western, but the point is that there needs to be a choice for constituents at Maidenhead so those who want a fast service can still get a decent fast service—and a good number of them. The danger is that it sounds as if the industry—I hope the Department is not thinking this—is pushing my constituents towards Crossrail services, and Crossrail services alone. I want to ensure that they have a choice and that there are still fast services. I also want semi-fast services on Crossrail.
I completely hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I hope that I will get to address that point properly in a moment.
On increasing choice, and further to my earlier intervention, I hope the Minister will give us some good news about the western rail link to Heathrow.
Time is quite tight. I would like to address in more detail what my right hon. Friend has said, but may I just say that if I do not cover all the issues she raised, I will write to her with a much fuller answer?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I am told—he kindly told me beforehand that he would raise that issue, so I was able to check with my officials—that Network Rail’s application for a development consent order is expected in summer 2020. That will be the next major milestone for that project, which we are keen to progress.
I have just a minute left, so let me conclude by saying that I will write to my right hon. Friend with more detail about some of the issues she raised. The Government are investing billions of pounds in the rail industry. As I mentioned, when the Elizabeth line fully opens in 2022, it will significantly increase rail capacity in London and probably increase demand from Maidenhead too, with the changes in service it brings. However, I will happily go back to my Department and contact Network Rail about GWR’s application for the reinstatement of fast trains, which I did not know about. As always, my right hon. Friend represents her constituents with passion and vigour, and I promise not to drop this ball on her behalf.
Question put and agreed to.
Release Under Investigation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of release under investigation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to all Members who have come along to this debate about a dangerous situation that has arisen in our justice system—a situation that poses a threat to both victims of crime and those who stand accused of committing them. I speak, of course, about the use of release under investigation.
It is ironic that a lot of attention has been paid recently to the dangers of early release; release under investigation poses at least as many questions, if not more, but it has received far less attention from the Government and the media. Unintended consequences and austerity have combined to create a dire situation. Rather than helping serve justice, RUI hinders justice and puts victims of crime in danger. It is creating a situation in which justice delayed is becoming justice denied. However, there are some straightforward solutions, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response and reaction to them. I will start by explaining the current use of release under investigation and outlining the problems surrounding it for victims and suspects. I will then outline suggestions by the Law Society and the Bar Council for improvements in the system.
The first important point to make is that being released under investigation is different from being released on police bail. When a person is released on bail, they are subject to certain conditions. For instance, they may be required to live at a particular address, not to contact certain people, to give in their passport so they cannot leave the UK, or to report to a police station at an agreed time—perhaps once a week. With release under investigation, the situation is dramatically different. The accused is released with no time limit—it could be for weeks, months or years—and is not subject to any conditions at all. That means the accused is free to contact anyone, including their alleged victim, and to go anywhere, including leaving the UK. It also means that those who are falsely accused can be left in a state of limbo for years, not knowing whether they will stand trial.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. In the Thames valley, the number of people on police bail dropped to 379 in 2018, while the number on RUI increased to more than 11,000. Police bail just is not being followed. Does he share my concerns about that?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will come to that point later. The use of police bail has dropped dramatically, and the use of RUI has increased exponentially. That is partly because police bail is out of date, but I will come to that.
As I said, justice delayed becomes justice denied. Before we consider all the implications of those stark facts, let me draw attention to the huge increase in the use of release under investigation. All evidence suggests that the use of RUI has expanded massively since changes to bail introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017. In London, for instance, 67,838 people were released on bail in 2016-17. In 2017-18, that number fell to 9,881, yet the number of people released under investigation in the same period was 46,674. That indicates that RUI is being used to replace bail. The checks and balances of the bail system are being swept away by a system that has neither.
The picture is incomplete, because only 20 of the 44 police forces in England and Wales have released data on RUI. However, despite the patchy data, a clear pattern emerges. For instance, in Nottinghamshire, the Thames valley and Cheshire, as in London, the number of people on bail has plummeted, while the number released under investigation has skyrocketed. Worryingly, the Bar Council estimates that the number of offenders suspected of violence against people or of sex offences who are released under investigation has risen from 1,300 in 2016 to 27,000.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Is not the real rub that because of the exchange in effect of bail for RUI, two safeguards are lost? The first is the protection of the accused in relation to the review process and time limits that go with bail and the ability to argue a case, and the second is the protection for the victim, who cannot have, for example, non-contact or address conditions attached? There is also, in terms of general public protection, the risk of reoffending. Is that not what Assistant Commissioner Ephgrave meant when talking about the unintended consequences?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point. It is the loss of those safeguards after the Policing and Crime Act introduced RUI, in effect to replace bail, that I am highlighting in my speech. It is easy to understand why this has happened: huge reductions in police and Crown Prosecution Service resources under austerity make it extremely difficult for evidence to be collected within the timeframes imposed by bail conditions.
I am a former criminal legal aid defence solicitor, and in preparing for the debate I spoke to a number of colleagues still involved in the area. They say that people can be in the RUI process for more than 12 months, but from the start, when a statement is taken by the police, to the end, 12 months later, the statement and evidence are the same—nothing happens between the two dates. Therefore, a charging decision could have been made right at the start rather than after a prolonged wait. I would welcome the hon. Member’s comments on that.
I agree with the hon. Member, who is entirely right about the taking of the statement, which provides the potential for charging early on. However, there is an issue with collecting digital data held on phones and other devices, which may need investigation. I will come to that.
Decreasing police resources make it increasingly difficult to complete investigations within a 28-day period as required under bail. When introducing RUI at Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), said:
“In the case of pre-charge bail, it is apparent that a significant number of individuals have spent an inordinate amount of time on bail only to end up not being charged or, if charged, found not guilty. Of course, the police and prosecution need time to assemble and test the evidence, particularly in complex cases, before coming to a charging decision, but we need to recognise the stress caused when people are under investigation for prolonged periods, and the disruption to their lives where they are subject to onerous bail conditions.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 45.]
However, the added time flexibility in the justice system given by release under investigation is coming at a dangerous cost. The available data indicates that tens of thousands of dangerous individuals are being investigated for a crime under no conditions and with no time limit. Victims can be targeted again by a perpetrator, and some case studies demonstrate that that is happening.
The super-complaint from the Centre for Women’s Justice detailed case studies of victims of domestic violence and rape. A woman in Yorkshire reported her ex-husband for repeatedly raping her during their 13-year marriage. He was released by the police after interview with no conditions. He forced his way into her house at 2 am, held her hostage for five hours, cut her with a broken glass and tied her to a table.
The Law Society has also uncovered examples. A solicitor’s client, who had been arrested for rape and bailed, was accused of a further sexual offence against the same complainant. They were placed under RUI for the original rape accusation due to bail not being extended. Let us consider that for a moment: an alleged rapist is left entirely free to contact, intimidate and even attack their victim again. That is an utter failure of the system. Here is another example: an individual in the west midlands was arrested for murder and then placed on bail, but after the bail expired they were placed under RUI. Again, a potentially extremely dangerous individual is left entirely free to commit a crime or intimidate witnesses.
How can that be acceptable? I argue that it is not. The bail system is not perfect by a long stretch, but allowing possibly tens of thousands of dangerous criminals to be entirely free to reoffend before a trial is dangerous—especially for the victims of domestic violence. It is a sad but known fact that virtually all domestic abuse-related crimes are of a repeat nature. It is therefore essential that bail conditions are used to safeguard victims while an investigation is ongoing, yet the big reduction in the use of bail and the huge increase in RUI means that highly dangerous offenders are released while investigations are ongoing. As Women’s Aid points out, there is absolutely nothing to stop highly dangerous domestic abusers contacting their victims or going to their homes.
Again, it is clear that part of the problem relates to a severe lack of resources and cuts. Because the initial bail period is only 28 days, an extension must be approved by a superintendent. That procedure imposes a big administrative burden on police forces, who, it seems, therefore avoid using bail altogether and instead release suspects under investigation. Unless the police are given sufficient resources to investigate crimes, the use of RUI will continue to spiral.
It is clear that RUI is creating a situation where vulnerable victims may be made more vulnerable and their lives placed in danger, but, looked at from the other side, its use is also grossly unfair to those accused of committing a crime and yet to be found guilty. They are essentially left in limbo for long periods—sometimes more than a year—with no updates or no indication from the police about if or when the case will progress.
I recently spoke to a barrister in my constituency who said she has a client who stands accused of serious sexual violence along with others. The allegation was made within 24 hours of the incident in 2017. All the suspects were arrested and interviewed within a matter of weeks, and they were all released on RUI. The investigation continued, but the defendants were not charged until the beginning of 2019. The trial has been fixed for a date in 2020, almost three years after the allegation was made. There can be little doubt that both the complainant and the defendants will be affected by that significant and serious delay.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing our attention to this matter. He is eloquently showing why RUI is almost totally failing to achieve anything. Has he worked out what it is intended to achieve? From what he has said so far, it appears simply to be a way to take pressure off the police as a consequence of their not having the resources to investigate crimes.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I think that was the intention. At the time, there were significant cases where bail was constantly extended, so it was designed to allow the police to investigate further, but it has had an adverse effect and needs to be reformed.
In another case study, my constituent said that she has a youth client who has been subject to RUI for more than 15 separate investigations. It has not been possible to find out the details of each RUI or the status of the investigations. Accordingly, her client could end up being charged after he turns 18 in relation to allegations that date back to when he was 16. If that happens and he pleads or is found guilty, the court will not be able to impose any youth sentences such as referral orders or youth rehabilitation orders. Under the law, we have an important principle of innocent until proven guilty. It is not reasonable for suspects or victims to have to put up with such delays. Again I repeat: justice delayed becomes justice denied.
Data from police forces that have provided it shows that the average time people are subject to RUI is shockingly long, ranging from 114 to 228 days. There are cases where RUI has gone on for years. Let us pause for a minute and consider the impact of that on suspects—let us remember, they remain innocent until proven guilty. They are left unaware of what is happening with their case, whether they remain a suspect or whether the police are even investigating their case. Such uncertainty creates enormous stress, which can impact on personal and family lives as well as employment.
The Law Society has unearthed case studies that illustrate that. In one case, an elderly man was interviewed about allegations of sexual abuse in a care home in 2015-16 and released under investigation. He received no updates on the case despite five letters from his solicitor to the CPS. The man, now aged 82, was finally told at the start of June 2019 that he would not be prosecuted. Unsurprisingly, the length of the process placed extreme strain on the man and his wife, who is seriously ill.
As I said at beginning of the debate, some straightforward changes to the system could be implemented. I am glad that the Government are embarking on a review, and I was heartened to hear that they today agreed to commence their consultation on pre-charge bail. It is pleasing to see that, in the consultation document, they recognise the impact of longer investigations, the need for better resourcing and the need for regular updates to victims and the accused on RUI. I would be interested to know more about their proposed new framework following the consultation, and I hope that my speech today is considered part of that consultation.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel there is any merit in going back to the system that I well remember—of giving the custody sergeant the right to charge for certain offences? The question, which the hon. Gentleman is eloquently putting across, is about the delay in investigations. In my experience, an investigation can be done in the first 24 hours in the vast majority of cases, as very little changes. X says Y has done it, and Y says, “I haven’t done it,” and that is it for the majority of cases. The idea that most cases are extremely complex and need weeks, or even months, to be reviewed is not correct. In my view, we should go back to the old system, where the custody sergeant was able to assess the evidence there and then. From my experience over many years, that did not do justice any harm whatever.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We need to review the process that takes place before charging, but we now live in an age where more information has to be collected from phones and digitally, which takes up a fair amount of resources.
It is vital that the following issues are taken into account by the Government. First, it is essential that RUI incorporates time limits. It is understandable that the bail system needed reform. Time limits attached to bail have often been unrealistic in terms of dealing with huge amounts of digital and social media evidence, which is now often relevant to cases. It has been suggested to me by a senior police figure that a longer and staggered time period, with different levels of approval, might make bail work better. However, it is still essential that time limits of some kind are brought into the RUI system so that victims and suspects are no longer left in limbo. For these time limits to work, it is also vital that the police, the CPS and criminal lawyers are properly resourced.
Secondly, while the promised increase in police numbers by the Government is welcome, there must also be proper resourcing for the collection and sorting of evidence, especially where it is stored digitally or where forensic analysis is required. The Government must ensure that procedures and funding fit for the 21st century are in place.
Thirdly, it is imperative that certain categories of crime are excluded from the RUI system. It is entirely inappropriate for suspects accused of domestic violence, violent crime or sexual violence to be placed under RUI.
The hon. Gentleman is making an impressive speech. Could his last point be dealt with by reforms to the codes of practice set out by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to say that the use of RUI must be proportionate? If an offence were of the nature that it would attract unconditional bail, RUI might be a convenient way forward, but it is almost inconceivable that people charged with violent or sexual offences would be released on unconditional bail. In such cases, there would normally be a non-contact condition or a condition of residence—something of that kind. It would be simple to take those offences straight out of the system and go back to bail, to the benefit of everybody.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent suggestion. I hope the Minister takes note of that and that it is fed into the consultation.
Finally, it is vital that where RUI is used, some conditions can be imposed. There should be a mechanism for knowing where suspects are and for preventing them from being in contact with alleged victims and witnesses. All parties should kept updated at regular intervals.
To conclude, we must uphold the two vital principles of our justice system: justice delayed must not become justice denied, and everyone has a right to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
The Minister will already have got the feeling from the debate that there is unanimity on both sides of the House on this issue. I will not diverge from that. I understand that the Government are undertaking a review of this area. We want the Minister to take up the issues we are raising today as part of that and to make sure that we are heard.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said, we need a system that is proportionate. Just from the figures for the Thames Valley, it is clear that the use of RUI is not proportionate. The number of people released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768. However, in 2017-18 that fell to 379 people, and the number released under investigation was 11,053. What is happening within the police service is completely disproportionate.
In case the Minister has the impression that we are alone in raising this issue, we are not. It has been put forward strongly by the Bar Council and the Law Society, and by the Association of Chief Police Officers in its guidelines on how RUI should be brought into operation. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) has gone into great detail about it, so I will not do that.
While there is clearly an issue of justice denied, the major issue seems to be the victims being deprived of their rights. As we have heard, there is no ability to impose orders to keep people away from the houses of those they are accused of performing some disadvantage to. The imposition of those orders, alongside general conditions, is a major feature of the bail system that does not exist in RUI. There is no ability to place conditions on a suspect who has been released under investigation; it simply does not occur. That has an enormous impact on the lives of the victims. It is not just the people who have committed the crime who are left languishing for ages, wondering what on earth is going to happen. Victims are left not knowing what is going to happen with the person who has been accused of doing them harm. We need to make sure that proper conditions are imposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the need to make RUI proportionate, and that, above all, seems to me to be something that can help.
I finish with a quotation about the use of RUI:
“in reality, it has made the situation far worse”.
It goes on:
“Not only are people released under investigation for longer than they were kept on police bail, but the absence of proper scrutiny means police do not keep suspects updated as to the progress of an investigation.”
Everyone in the criminal justice system is a loser from that—from police officers to victims and the people alleged to have committed the crime. Defence lawyers are also victims of it, and my conclusion is that RUI has been a dismal failure.
There is another problem with the notification procedure. The single letter, which is sent under the current system, makes it difficult to keep tabs on people. Frequently a person has moved, making it difficult for their lawyers to keep in touch. That will then involve an application to the court for an arrest warrant, and there may be subsequent hearings and a bail application, if there is an explanation for why these things have happened. Any cost saving made by not having bail administered in the first instance is, perhaps, wiped out by the cost of extra court time for the issuing of the warrant and any proceedings thereafter. There must be a better way of dealing with that.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and there is another point to that: since we cannot take away people’s passports, they can go wherever they like and not be traceable. That makes a mockery of the system.
I understand why the police like RUI, since it allows them more time to gather evidence following the expiration of the timetable that they are under for pre-charge bail, but that is not a justification for continuing with a system that is now hopelessly discredited by all of us, the Law Society, the Bar Society and others. I urge the Minister to look thoroughly and carefully at this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing a debate on this very important subject. As he has set out very clearly the concerns on RUI, which I think are shared on both sides of the House, I will limit myself to asking the Minister three questions, if I may.
First, what is the purpose of RUI as far as the Government are concerned? My contention is that it is a pressure valve to allow the police to cope with the lack of resources that they have, but I am sure that is not the Government’s view, so I wonder what is. That is not a flippant point. RUI is relatively recent, having come in under the Policing and Crime Act 2017, I think, and therefore having taken effect less than three years ago. I was not on that Public Bill Committee, but I understand that RUI was not debated at any time during its considerations. Therefore, we cannot go to Hansard to look for any clues about what its clear purpose was. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that.
Secondly, was it the Government’s intention that RUI should grow so quickly and replace police bail in the way that it has? We have heard some figures quoted already, but the figures that I have been given are that, across England and Wales, the number released on police bail went from 216,178 cases in 2016-17 to 43,923 in 2017-18. That is a dramatic fall, but it is compensated by 193,073 releases on RUI in that same year, of which 93,000 were for people suspected of violent or sexual offences. Was it really the Government’s intention that this should be such a dramatic change in the way that people under investigation are dealt with?
Thirdly, what about legal aid? At the moment, legal aid will be paid for police station time and for trial, but for nothing in between. That means nothing for those important pre-charge stages—or at least, it will only be paid much later in the day. They are important stages of investigation, and the defence has a role here as well in querying whether evidence is being gathered, for example.
If there is to be a period of years, as we have heard in serious cases, where no progress is made in the case as far as the defendant is concerned, there is a risk of procedures perhaps not being followed as diligently as they might be. There is also a risk that defence solicitors, who are already under a lot of financial pressure, will not be able to take cases where they are acting speculatively and have no prospect of being paid, perhaps for several years. Effectively, they are subsidising the criminal justice process. Perhaps the Minister will respond by undertaking to look at that and, if RUI is to continue, at whether the payment for defence solicitors in relation to legal aid needs to be reconsidered.
I have the dubious extra background in this area of being one of the only people here, I imagine, who has been on RUI in recent years. I was on it for quite a significant period of time. I fully support the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and pay tribute to him for bringing forward this important topic, which for too long has been ignored. As he made clear in his speech, it was not the intention of the Home Secretary at the time to have a situation in which these cases drag on and on.
I have two main points to make about RUI: it has no conditions and no limit. No conditions is harmful to victims, by allowing the guilty to prey on them consistently, and no limit is harmful to the innocent, by keeping them stuck in a process without end. The only people who benefit from the system as it stands are the guilty, because they are free to continue to offend, and those who make malicious complaints, as it allows the destruction that they have caused for the innocent to continue with no end in sight.
I will pick up on a couple of points that hon. Members have made. First of all, a very fair point was made on electronic evidence. That is something that has come in over the past few years, and police have to wade through very substantial amounts of it, so there is some truth in the suggestion that they might need more time for that. I welcome the review that the Government are undertaking to look at that. Secondly, I think there is an element of Parkinson’s law in this failure—maybe a bastardised version—in that, because there is a lack of urgency due to a lack of bail conditions, police can string out investigations, so that justice for victims and the innocent is also delayed.
I will also pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about legal aid. Having to find the money in advance if the person has a household income of more than £37,000 a year—basically, every household with two people working full-time on the minimum wage or more—and having to wait potentially years to get that money back if they are found innocent in court, is a huge financial pressure. People do not have tens of thousands of pounds of savings lying around, waiting for the justice system to slowly creak into action, so anything that can speed up the process is also important. That was a point very well made. I look forward to the Government’s review, which I will be contributing to. I will happily work cross party on this matter with any other interested hon. Members in future.
I apologise if my speech sounds rather like a ramble through my years as a criminal defence solicitor. It probably will be that, but I hope that I can bring a little bit of experience on a practical level about how I have experienced the criminal justice system as a legal aid lawyer. I left just before the RUI process came into being. I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with police bail, which essentially was the same situation, but with bail conditions and people being arrested on a regular basis for breaching them. The delays were there with police bail, as they are with RUI, so that situation has not changed massively, as far as I can see.
My research for this debate was to speak to colleagues who are still practising in large practices. A friend I spoke to over the past couple of days told me that 75% of the people his firm represents who are interviewed in police stations are released on the RUI procedure. How can that possibly be? The vast majority of those case are straightforward offences. That was the point I was trying to make in my earlier intervention.
Another colleague of mine said that the situation has got to the point where, if my friend came to me and punched me on the nose—although that would clearly never happen—and I made a complaint to the police and said, “I have seen my friend, Fred Bloggs, punch me in the nose, and there is no doubt about it as I have known him for 10 years,” he would be released on this procedure. He would not be charged. He would go through this process for the best part of a year, and in the end he would almost certainly be released without charge, either because people had forgotten what they had said or the circumstances of the case, or because something else had happened.
It is a very unsatisfactory process. I would like the Government to consider going back to the custody sergeant ways. I know it is probably very old-fashioned, but I saw justice being done when I was a young lawyer. What is important here is how quickly we, as Members of Parliament, should expect the police to carry out their investigation. If the vast majority of cases are straightforward and involve two or three statements, how can that take more than 24 or 48 hours? Obviously people might be on holiday or away, but the vast majority of times, in my experience, the process literally involves a police officer going out and taking the statements, and that is it.
It has been confirmed to me by colleagues over the past couple of days that if that process happens—in most cases over a 24 or 48-hour period—and somebody is then released under investigation, when they come back to the police station in a year’s time it will almost certainly be the same evidence. Nothing will have happened, so the decision made 12 months down the line could have been made within 24 hours.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that he has real coalface experience of this. What might change a year down the track is that memories have faded, so the evidence will be less potent, which may result in a miscarriage of justice either way. We have talked about delays between charge and hearing dates in Crown and magistrates courts. If a delay is added before charge because of this system, the delay will be doubled up, which leads to that risk.
For cases involving fraud or some technical matters, a process such as this should quite clearly be brought into play, because the technical examination of computers or whatever takes weeks or months. My comments are not in respect of those cases.
To follow on from a point that my colleague made, I have been told in the last 24 hours of rape and manslaughter cases following this process, which is quite incredible. It is suggested that one of those cases has direct evidence of involvement, but this process is happening. A suspect in a most horrendous rape case, similar to the one outlined, was released under this process for more than 12 months. I do not know how that can be.
We should look at the process within the police station. When a suspect goes into a police station, they will almost certainly be interviewed by an officer who does not take responsibility for the case later in proceedings. The officer who interviews does not have ownership of the case and gives it to the investigating officer, who is perhaps somewhere else in the police station or is not on shift at that moment in time, and the case gets lost within the system. My colleagues report back to me that, when this process happens, it is months down the line before the first conversation with the victim, or even the person who has been complained about. This system encourages delay and delayed justice, and that simply cannot be right.
When I first practised in court, I used to represent shoplifters or people who had committed the most straightforward offences. The court would be full of people committing that type of offence, but they are no longer within the court system; they have been taken out. We have a limited number of cases for which we have created a system in which we do not investigate these matters within an appropriate period of time. I believe that, sadly—I know that this was not the intention behind the process—this encourages tardiness and officers not prioritising these matters.
The only way of addressing this is to bring back a system in which charging has to be made within a set period of time, one way or the other, unless there is a good, proportionate and reasonable reason, or else we will continue to have these problems. We cannot have a system in which people accused of rape or manslaughter are in the community for more than 12 months, able to speak to their victim, to leave the country and to do other things. That is not the intention of the Government, the police or anybody involved in the process, but that is where we are.
I am interested to hear the Government’s view and to contribute to the review, but I say to the Minister that this comes down to who has the case initially and to carrying out the investigation at the earliest opportunity. It may be that we do not need a CPS lawyer to review all the evidence. There may be an experienced police officer who can do that, such as the custody sergeant, or there may be another way of dealing with matters that protects potential victims and the interests of those who have been involved in this process for a long time and that means that justice can be done.
At the start of my career, I believed that justice was done, but the custody sergeant did not always get it right, and there were lots of cases in which no further action happened as a result, so there is a strong argument against what I am saying. However, I can tell hon. Members, on behalf of my legal aid colleagues—I am proud to stand here as one of them, trying to represent some of the things that they believe in very passionately—that justice was done, the public were protected and the public interest was protected. I will obviously do anything I can to assist the Minister in the review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to respond to the debate from the shadow Front Bench. This has been an excellent debate, with Members with vested experience in these issues, which makes it even more profound that there has been so much agreement on the challenges that these reforms to police bail have presented to the criminal justice system over the past three years.
I am delighted to see the Government acknowledge those challenges in the consultation announced today, which was clearly in direct response to the calling of the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), making this one of the most successful Westminster Hall debates I have ever taken part in. Some important points have been made. My hon. Friend made the point that there has been a lot of focus recently on automatic early release, particularly relating to terrorism. It might shock hon. Members to know that, according to the latest RUI figures, between 2018 and 2019 there was a 540% increase in suspects of terrorism offences released under investigation or bailed without condition.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate made particular reference to domestic abuse victims, and there has been significant scrutiny of that precisely because of the vulnerability of the victims involved and the fact that the suspects in their cases are free to contact them without condition. Major concerns about investigative capacity were also raised. We can change RUI and we can put conditions on it all we like, but that will not address the real root causes of the issues at the heart of our criminal justice system—the crisis in detective numbers, the enormous boom in digital and forensic requirements attached to investigation, and the total lack of capacity in the police force and the Crown Prosecution Service alike.
The Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), neatly summarised the loss of the three safeguards for the suspect, the victim and the public. All have been removed under the current system because of the explosion in RUI and the complete drop in police bail. He also made the sensible suggestion that RUI should apply only in cases where unconditional police bail would otherwise have been applied. The problem, as the Law Society points out, is that risk assessments are simply not being carried out across police forces and are certainly not applied consistently.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made similar points about the proportionality of the system, describing it as a dismal failure. I think it was well intentioned, but it has indeed been a dismal failure. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made important points about legal aid and the intention of the reforms, which I hope the Minister will respond to. I welcome the hon. Members for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and for Bury North (James Daly) to their places. Both spoke passionately from their opposite experiences of the issue, but with similar passion and on the similar challenges around particular types of offences. It is inconceivable that RUI should be applied to rape and violent offences, and there can be little justification for it.
The Government’s announcement of changes is welcome and requires careful consideration. We know of cases in which individuals arrested for serious crimes have been investigated for many months—if not years in some circumstances—with no conditions and no timeframe attached to those investigations. To my knowledge, this is the first time the reforms have been debated in this Chamber since they were introduced in 2017. It has been something of a silent crisis, but its cause is obvious: abandoning the time limits, monitoring and conditions that underpinned police bail inevitably led to a severely underfunded police force taking the much less cumbersome option of releasing under investigation.
That has been demonstrated in the figures. Not only have we seen a huge increase in the hard numbers, but the average length of time spent under investigation under this system has in some cases quadrupled in some forces, so a reform designed to reduce the amount of time individuals languish under police investigation has ended up extending it considerably.
This was both foreseeable and foreseen. The Government’s consultation on the reforms said:
“respondents expressed concern that enabling release under investigation would not solve the underlying issue of an extended period of uncertainty for suspects… Indeed, some respondents were concerned that, without even the minimal level of scrutiny brought by the current process of granting and extending bail, there would be the potential for non-bail cases to take even longer to resolve with priority given to cases where bail would need to be justified to the courts.”
The hon. Member for Bury North highlighted that this has not only led to but encouraged or incentivised delay.
What does the hon. Lady think about pre-charge advice? It is one of the reasons—it may be a good reason—for delays in the system. Does she feel that pre-charge advice plays a positive or negative role in this process?
It contributes to the delays in the system. Clearly it has had a role, alongside these reforms and issues around capacity and resources across the whole system.
It is shocking that 93,000 suspects of violence and sexual assault were released under investigation since 2017. The Secret Barrister tweeted this week:
“The primary driver behind the drop in prosecutions for sexual offences…is that lack of police resources means suspects are being released under investigation (RUI’d) for *years*.”
The Government’s reforms did nothing to address the reason people were languishing on police bail; they simply gave the old problem a new label, while investigations became more complex and time consuming due to digital explosion. We are now seeing cases in the Crown court for offences dating as far back as 2017. While suspects are left under the cloud of suspicion for years, victims of serious offences are denied closure and live in fear of being confronted by their accused.
I do not think the answers to this problem are complicated—some have been clearly expressed by hon. Members today—nor does it require an endless Home Office review. There is a place for release under investigation, but it must be used proportionately. The open-ended overuse of RUI has made a mockery of justice. Clearly, time limits must be introduced to prevent the perverse situation where victims and suspects are waiting too long.
The Government’s proposed mechanism to do this via codes of practice with no judicial oversight requires careful thought. The risk is that unless the codes of practice are strictly applied by officers, timescales will slip again. The police must be encouraged to use police bail where necessary to protect victims, particularly in cases of violent of sexual offences.
We look forward to engaging fully with the consultation in the coming weeks and months, but the elephant in the room is the crisis in the criminal justice system, and this consultation alone will not fix that. The problem is rooted in the utter mess the governing party has made of criminal justice, from the explosion in violent crime due to the reduction in police numbers, to the crisis in the probation system and our prisons, meaning that offenders are leaving prison even more likely to reoffend. All of that has meant detectives and investigators are dealing with an impossible caseload while facing a crisis in numbers.
The Minister knows that the recruitment pledge will only help marginally, because there is no commitment to replace the 16,000 police staff and investigators who have been lost. The party of law and order has veered so wildly on criminal justice that it is hard to believe that Ministers can maintain a straight face when they claim to be tough on crime. The cut of 20,000 police officers is now being reversed. Probation was privatised, but now it is nationalised. Bail reforms were introduced, but now they are reversed. On the central task of any Government—to keep the public safe—this Government have been shambolic. The silent crisis in bail reforms requires swift action, which we will support, as we will always support any proposals that help to correct some of the enormous damage that has been committed over the past 10 years.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you once again, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing this debate. This is an important issue.
I recognise the unanimity for change, as there was unanimity for the introduction of the reforms, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said, nary three years ago. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, the reforms pretty much sailed through the House and were welcomed by all Front Benchers. I think our friends the Liberal Democrats, who are not here, included the reforms in their manifesto in 2015. Nevertheless, we recognise the need for change. The Government are committed to ensuring that the police have the powers that they need to protect the public and that our criminal justice system has at its heart the welfare and best interests of victims.
The police often deal with complex and high-harm cases, with more digital evidence than ever before. As part of their investigations, the power to use pre-charge bail is an important tool. It allows the police to maintain contact with individuals under investigation and can support the timely progression of investigations; and conditions can be set to protect victims and witnesses. I should point out that a breach of bail conditions is not in itself a criminal offence. Although it means that people can be re-arrested at the time, they are then more than likely to be re-released on police bail. That might be one of the issues that we have to consider for the future. Whether incidents occur while people are on police bail or under investigation, offences are often committed, such as intimidation of witnesses, in some cases, or harassment. I would urge the police to pursue those as offences in themselves, never mind whether they breach conditions.
As my hon. Friends will be aware, in 2017 the Government reformed the rules on pre-charge bail to address legitimate concerns that suspects were spending too long under restrictive conditions with no oversight or redress. That included the ability to release individuals without bail conditions, or release under investigation, while inquiries continued. Reforms also introduced time limits, judicial oversight, and a presumption against the use of pre-charge bail. Importantly, those reforms maintained the police’s ability to use pre-charge bail when necessary and proportionate. It is important to stress that the police can still use pre-charge bail, and they should have our full support in doing so.
Since the reforms came into force, we have seen the use of pre-charge bail fall significantly, mirroring an increase in the number of individuals on RUI. Through conversations with partners across the criminal justice system, we have become aware of concerns that bail is not always being used when appropriate, including to prevent individuals from committing an offence while on bail or interfering with witnesses. There have also been concerns that individuals released under investigation are now under investigation for longer, with the negative impacts on victims, witnesses and those subject to police inquiries that many hon. Members have outlined.
We have listened to those concerns and decided to act. On 5 November, as a number of hon. Members mentioned, we announced a review of pre-charge bail to ensure that we have a system that prioritises victims and supports the police, while also respecting the rights of suspects. As part of that review, we have today launched a consultation, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a written ministerial statement with four proposals.
First, we would remove the presumption against the use of pre-charge bail. Secondly, we would ensure that bail was used when necessary and proportionate, including cases where there are risks to victims, witnesses and the public, as well as where the offences in question had significant real or intended impacts. Thirdly, we would extend the timescales for initial use of bail from 28 days to either 60 or 90 days, to more accurately reflect the timescales for complex cases. Fourthly, we would apply review periods to cases where individuals are not subject to bail, such as RUI, or where they are not arrested.
We believe those proposals will strengthen and encourage the proper use of pre-charge bail, help to prioritise the safeguarding of victims and witnesses, and support the police. Importantly, we hope that they will also support more effective investigations, regardless of whether bail is used. Our consultation will close on 29 April, and we will prioritise talking to victims and victims’ groups about their experiences, as well as hearing from those who may have been RUI. I will be happy to place the record of this debate as the first contribution to that consultation, to which hon. Members are welcome to make submissions on our website.
However, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, addressing concerns about RUI and bail is only one part of the solution. We in Government have a duty to cut crime, bear down on the worst criminals and have a system that works for the law-abiding majority, which is why we have pledged to recruit 20,000 additional police officers and to increase funding for the Crown Prosecution Service.
The upcoming royal commission on criminal justice will undertake a comprehensive review of the system and deliver practical recommendations that can make a genuine impact. The domestic abuse Bill will return to Parliament before Easter and is set to transform the lives of survivors, and the ongoing rape review is looking at the criminal justice response to rape—from the police report to the outcome in court—to identify issues where they exist, so that we can improve our response.
I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that they will make longer and more considered contributions to the consultation, because we are determined to get this right. Everybody who was in the House when the Policing and Crime Act 2017 was passed—the hon. Lady and I were new Members then—may now admit that, sadly, it has had unintended consequences. We are duty-bound to try to correct that, and we hope and believe that, following the consultation, we will be able to do so in the upcoming police powers and protections Bill, which we hope to introduce later this year.
It is pleasing to hear the comments from the Minister. Following the consultation, many of the issues will hopefully be addressed. He will have seen the cross-party consensus on the concerns about RUI. We will wait and see what comes forward from the consultation.
I still have some concerns, because some of the delays are not necessarily down to police resources, but resources elsewhere. For instance, the collection of data and forensic data may be handled elsewhere, so it could be that additional staff who are not necessarily frontline police officers need to deal with that. That issue needs to be looked at. The Minister mentioned the possible extension of timescales from 60 to 90 days. There is a police resourcing issue there in terms of whether that should be dealt with by a superintendent or by somebody at inspector level. That needs to be teased out as well. We need to put suspects and victims at the heart of this, as well as the general public. That needs to be front and centre of any reforms, but I welcome his comments, and I hope we see reform following the consultation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the use of release under investigation.