Tuesday 11 February 2020
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Waste Incineration Facilities
I beg to move,
That this House has considered waste incineration facilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Here we are again, talking about what for some of us in the Chamber seems to be our favourite subject lately. We have had similar debates, including one held just last month—I spoke in it, and other hon. Members present attended—but I wanted a much longer debate, to give everyone who wants to speak the opportunity to do so. The issue is particularly relevant for me due to a planning application for a waste incineration gasification facility in my constituency at Hillthorn Park—the appeal process against it is due to start a week today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She mentioned the appeal process. Constituents who contacted me about this debate are concerned that the voice of the local community is heard throughout the planning process. Does she agree that that is essential for large projects such as this?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the 10,800 of my constituents who have been in touch with me. They signed a petition, and they certainly want their voice to be heard.
I wholeheartedly oppose this planning application, and I will come to the reasons why shortly. Before I do, I thank hon. Members present who will be expressing their opposition—I assume it will all be opposition—to waste incineration facilities.
On Saturday, I held a public meeting about my local planning application, to give constituents an opportunity to express their opinions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said. It was well attended, despite the short notice—I arranged it only the week before—and people came from across the community and the political spectrum, with Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors and activists in attendance. As this debate shows, this is a cross-party issue, and I am pleased to see colleagues from all parts of the House.
As I said at the public meeting on Saturday, which was attended by more than 100 people, no one in that room was in favour of a gasification plant being built in our area. In my 15 years of being an MP, no other issue has galvanised so many people and brought them together against something in the way this issue has. It really is a community movement, with campaign groups such as No Monster Incinerator in Washington or Washington and Wearside Against Gasification leading the way to oppose the application by informing local residents and getting signatures on petitions. As I mentioned, 10,800 people have so far signed a petition in opposition, which I presented to Parliament last month.
I thank the hon. Lady for organising that meeting and the debate today. To pick up on what she said, does she recognise the expertise in highly technical matters that has been built up in communities by the groups she mentioned? They scrutinise legislation and regulations closely. In my constituency, the Docks Incinerator Action Group has drilled down into the detail and caused real problems to the proposers of a development.
That is an important point. I will come on to someone without whom I and most of the campaigners would not have been able to launch such a strong and informed appeal against this decision, making a world of difference.
I am so proud to represent and work with people who show such determination and community spirit. Like them, I oppose the planning application and will be speaking at the appeal process, which begins next week. I also thank the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network and Shlomo Dowen, in particular, for his work and support on this campaign. We could not have got this far without his expertise—a point the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) touched on.
As the shadow Minister for public health, it would be remiss of me not to point out the public health implications of gasification and incineration, which need to be taken into account. In the planning application in my constituency, we still do not know what technology will be used, even though the application has reached this stage. We know that the technology has never been used in the UK before, although we are told that it has been used in Japan, a country with very different safety standards and regulations from the UK.
The lack of information and transparency from the planning applicant does little to allay the fears of my constituents and me. On Saturday, constituents told me that young families were moving away from the area because of the fear of carcinogenics, diseases and birth defects. My constituents should not have to live in fear of being test subjects for something such as that.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In my constituency, an incinerator is due to be built near our local primary school and a number of local houses in Torry. Does she share my concerns about the potential public health impact on residents and the children at that school?
I absolutely do. In our previous debate, I spoke about how nine primary schools in my constituency, as well as many thousands of homes, are within a one-mile radius of this development. That is unacceptable, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Also, a technology that has never been used in the UK before is not welcome in Washington and Sunderland Wes—or, probably, in any of our constituencies.
Surely a technology that is expected to release millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide during the anticipated lifetime of the gasification facility should not be backed by the Government. Indeed, that is a direct contradiction of the Government’s policies on climate change and waste processing. For every one tonne of plastic incinerated, approximately two tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, therefore contributing to climate change, whereas, perversely, one tonne of plastic in landfill releases zero CO2, so incineration cannot be and is not the solution we seek—it has to be more recycling.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important issue. She just mentioned recycling. Does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage more recycling so that we do not have, or reduce, the need to rely on incineration or landfill?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More recycling has to be the solution; it will never be landfill, and certainly not incineration. How does the Minister expect to meet the Government’s climate target of being carbon neutral by 2050 if planning applications for waste incineration continue to go ahead?
A recent study by Waste and Resources Action Programme Cymru found that 75% of commercial and industrial waste sent to incineration or landfill in Wales is recyclable. With recycling rates flatlining, will the Government consider introducing a tax on incineration, as promised in 2018, to address climate harm and encourage recycling rates? There is a precedent, as that is what the landfill tax aimed to do. Surely it is counter- productive to have a landfill tax to deter burying plastic, which causes no CO2, but not to have an incineration tax for incinerating plastic, which causes masses of CO2.
Another issue that neighbouring MPs and constituents might not yet have fully realised exists is that, due to the prevailing winds, the people to the east of our proposed site, in Sunderland and South Shields, may also find themselves harmed by the plant. I hope that this debate will help to alert a bigger audience across the wider area to the impending threat that is being discussed just a few miles from them.
Sunderland City Council is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030—a target that will be totally scuppered if the planning application for Hillthorn Park is approved. The problem is the emissions from not just the plant but the 110 HGVs that will work around the clock to ship waste to it.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that the issue is not just the incinerators but all the traffic that comes with them to transport the waste? That adds to pressure on local roads, which is concerning because of CO2 emissions.
Absolutely. Residents raised that point on Saturday—especially those living around the proposed site, who will be bothered by the congestion, extra fumes and mess from those heavy goods vehicles. The HGVs are supposed to be strapped and covered, but every day stuff flies off the lorries that go to the other waste recycling plants in my constituency.
In 2017 I attended the planning exhibition for this plant. I was told that living next to it would be 40 times safer than living next to a major road. I find that dubious, to say the least, but surely, in time, with greater numbers of greener vehicles, that would not be such a defence, even if it was true. We should be going forwards, not backwards, so that argument cannot be valid. Local roads in Washington are already congested, with the added problem of HGVs parking up alongside roads and drivers leaving their litter—perhaps I will have a full debate on that issue another day. That shows how problematic some nearby businesses already are to the people of Washington and Sunderland West—they are not all the best of neighbours.
A constituent told me on Saturday that he could not have his windows open or sit in the garden on some days because the noise and pollution from nearby roads was overbearing—that is without the extra 110 HGVs per day. Constituents have raised similar issues over the years about the smell and vermin from nearby waste processing sites such as Teal Farm. The last thing we need is another contributor to the problem.
My constituents and I know that the Environment Agency is a little toothless in tackling the problems that waste processing sites cause. We are rightly concerned that any issues arising from this gasification plant will bring just more of the same. If the planning application is approved, my constituents fear that their houses will suddenly become worthless; because of all the concerns I have mentioned, no one would want to buy a house next door to a plant such as this.
It is not known yet who will use the energy generated from the gasification plant. It was thought that Nissan, which is almost next door to the site, would use it—a pipe from the plant to Nissan was visible on the plans when I saw them—but, as far as I am aware, no such agreement has been made. Sunderland City Council is keen to work with Nissan to negotiate a safer and affordable means of generating energy, so there really is no need for this plant at all with regard to Nissan. I should make it clear that the Sunderland City Council planning team rejected the plant and is making a strong defence against it. We are all united against it, from politicians to the council, residents and everyone else.
The chair of the Teal Farm Residents Association wrote to me recently. He said:
“Over the years, the environment and landscape of this region has suffered greatly and we are just starting to move on from the effects of all of that not just environmentally but also the health and well-being of the community.
The region now boasts some old and new landmarks which we are justly proud of, from Penshaw monument to the Spire bridge.
We don’t want an ecological eyesore to become the new ‘landmark’ which tells visitors they’ve reached Sunderland and we don’t want the health and welfare of residents to be jeopardised by having this proposal inflicted upon them. This is a proposal which is unwanted and unnecessary.”
It is exactly that: unwanted and unnecessary.
There are no benefits to be reaped from this planning application. There would not even be huge numbers of jobs created, as only 35 new full-time jobs are being offered. But the jobs pale in comparison to the public health concerns and climate change challenges. I hope I have made it clear, even in these brief comments, that the gasification plant at Hillthorn Park in Washington must be opposed, and I will continue to do just that.
Order. A significant number of Members wish to speak. I will not impose a formal time limit, because I do not want anyone to win an extra minute of injury time, but if colleagues could confine themselves to six minutes, we should manage to accommodate everybody. I call Caroline Nokes.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. Her parting shot was that her constituents do not want an ecological eyesore as their new landmark, and my constituents feel exactly the same way about the proposals to build a giant incinerator between the villages of Longparish and Barton Stacey. Only two weeks have passed since we last debated this subject, and it is right that we should do so again, because the Minister did not have time to respond. It is imperative that she should have the opportunity to give a fuller answer than she had time to do last time.
I regret to have to rehearse the issue we face in Romsey and Southampton North, where American conglomerate Wheelabrator seeks to build a massive, industrial-scale incinerator the size of Battersea power station in the Hampshire countryside. Billed by the applicants as a green waste-to-energy scheme, locally there are serious doubts that a proposal such as this can ever be green. So enormous is the development that it is to be determined by the Secretary of State—it is classified as a nationally significant infrastructure project—rather than by the local waste and minerals authority, Hampshire County Council or the local borough council, Test Valley Borough Council. I commend both those councils for being resolute in their opposition to it.
I will not rehearse the many good planning reasons why the scheme should be refused, but there are serious questions about whether it will ever generate the amount of power required to achieve the level of a national infrastructure project. On its website, Wheelabrator proudly proclaims that the scheme will have an energy generating capacity of up to 65 MW, but in public consultations with residents, the company has acknowledged that that is entirely dependent upon the calorific value of the feedstock. We know we have to get better at removing plastics from the waste stream, and those plastics have some of the highest calorific values when burned. I commend the steps the Government have taken so far, but much more can and must be done.
I visited a packaging manufacturer in my constituency with the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—we look terribly attractive wearing blue hairnets. The company’s managing director kept making the point that they wanted to use high-quality recycled plastics in their packaging, but it was too difficult to get hold of them. They used a percentage of recycled, but it was easier and cheaper to get fresh plastics than to extract plastics from the waste stream. They wanted Government action to ensure that the plastics that we all know are in the waste stream can be redirected into businesses such as theirs.
It is critical that we redouble efforts to ensure that anything that can be reused and recycled is extracted from the waste stream, whether metal or plastic. At Barton Stacey Primary School, the children have embraced the message we heard a few weeks ago in another room in Parliament, when a giant Womble urged us to repair, re-use, recycle and reduce. We have to keep striving to reduce the amount of material going into the waste stream.
Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of an incineration tax. I do not recall whether the Minister responded to that point, but I fear she did not, so perhaps she can today. Before I came to this place, I was a borough councillor in Test Valley. I always said I represented the ward with the most landfill sites—existing, former and proposed. Landfill is subject to a tax, and it is absolutely right that the next step up the waste hierarchy should be similarly taxed. The Budget statement of October 2018 included a reference to the consideration of an incineration tax. The time for consideration has passed.
Turning to emissions—I recognise that I only have a minute left—we all recognise that the EU relatively recently tightened regulations governing permitted levels of emissions from incinerators, but is the Minister content that being within permitted levels is good enough? Where is the aspiration and ambition? Surely, at a time when we are seeking to improve air quality, we should be looking to reduce the levels of emissions that are allowed. I have lost count of the number of times over the last three and a half years that we have been told that leaving the EU will provide us with opportunities. Surely, this is one area in which we can go further and faster than would otherwise have been allowed. We must do more and not slip back into the lazy argument that development will be allowed only within current regulations.
When it comes to monitoring emissions, the Environment Agency technique has been to sample test. The new BAT—best available techniques—measurements appear to require continuous monitoring. Certainly, should the abomination in my constituency go ahead, local people will demand continuous monitoring of key pollutants and an assurance that the EA will hold companies’ feet to the fire—apologies for the pun—to ensure that they abide by those standards.
The World Health Organisation indicates that there is no such thing as a safe level of particulate matter in our air, and that is echoed on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website. The particulate plume from the proposed incinerator in my constituency would cover the primary schools of Barton Stacey, Longparish, Wherwell and Stockbridge, and many other primary schools in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse).
We have declared a climate emergency. We have bold ambitions, through the Environment Bill, to make radical strides forward in creating a cleaner and greener environment for ourselves, our children and generations to come. We cannot do that if we keep pumping pollutants into our atmosphere. I urge the Minister, who I believe genuinely cares about these issues, to ensure that she has as tight a grip as possible on our future waste strategy so we simply do not keep doing that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. We were here two weeks ago to debate this issue, and it is very important that we raise it.
For too long, waste incineration has been labelled as energy from waste and seen as part of the circular economy and a green way of disposing of our municipal waste. Councils have been struggling with their budgets, and they look into anything that saves money. Bath and North East Somerset Council has just agreed a big contract for a waste incinerator. I have raised concerns about that, and I am still arguing with the council about whether it is actually a green solution. We have been looking at ways of diverting waste from landfill because it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but burning waste creates very high carbon emissions, too. That must get into the public domain so that people who make decisions know what they are doing.
I believe that we should not send waste to incinerators. Every tonne of municipal waste that is incinerated releases between 0.7 tonnes and 1.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Recovering energy from waste produces more carbon emissions than burning gas. As was mentioned, incinerators need a blend of waste materials, including plastics, to have the calorific value to create enough heat. Incineration is just a cheaper option than landfill for getting rid of municipal waste. The result is that we become a lot less active in avoiding, reducing and recycling. The order of the waste hierarchy is: avoid, reuse, recycle, incineration and then landfill. Incineration is only one step above the landfill solution.
The more incineration plants are built in this country, the less likely we are to achieve our target, because local authorities need to fill incinerators with waste for them to function. I have been a councillor and tried to ensure that people recycle more. It costs a lot of human resources to go around and ensure that households—particularly hard-to-reach households—recycle in a particular way, and it costs councils money. It is no wonder that cash-strapped local authorities are looking at cheaper options, but incineration is not the right option. The real way to reduce carbon emissions is to recycle more or, indeed, to find compostable materials. I had a meeting yesterday with an interesting company that is looking into compostable plastics, but those are not the plastics that an incinerator needs. We need to look at actual green solutions, not at incineration.
I recognise that 10 years ago, energy from waste seemed like a way to get to a low-carbon economy. When our target was to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, it was an option, but everything has changed since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. We now know that we have to get to net zero by 2050. The last 20% of emissions are crucial, and they are very difficult to get out of the atmosphere. For that reason, low-carbon solutions are no longer an option. We have no time to invest in low-carbon technologies; we need to put all our efforts into net zero solutions. I believe that incentives and disincentives are the way forward. I also support the idea of an incineration tax. The landfill tax has made a massive difference in diverting waste from landfill; an incineration tax would ensure that we do not just divert all our waste to incinerators.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate.
Research shows that the PM2.5 emitted by incinerators can penetrate deep into our lungs and impair lung function. The taskforce for lung health has stated that
“exposure to PM2.5 can cause illnesses like asthma, COPD, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer”.
I therefore echo the concerns of colleagues that incinerators may put the health of local residents at risk.
Unfortunately, however, that is only half the story in my constituency. As I mentioned in my maiden speech, the UK’s leading university for sport, Loughborough University, sits at the heart of my constituency and is home to a variety of world-class sport programmes. As its reputation for sporting excellence has grown and it has gained international recognition, the university has invested heavily in its sports infrastructure so it can continue to attract and train the best athletes from around the world. The university also plays host to international Olympic and Paralympic teams, which come to take advantage of its unique facilities. The university is a jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.
I understand that the average resting human breathes approximately 5 to 6 litres of air per minute. However, a typical endurance athlete may breathe around 150 litres a minute, and some world-class athletes may breathe 300 litres a minute. That increased ventilation means that elite athletes are far more susceptible to respiratory problems such as asthma. Colleagues will therefore be shocked to learn that planning permission has been granted for an incinerator to be built in proximity to the university and its sport facilities. It is simply unacceptable for people who breathe up to 60 times more air per minute than the general public do, and who are more susceptible to respiratory problems, to be put at risk in that way.
The World Health Organisation’s air quality guideline values are based on general ambient air concentrations and do not take into account the impact of physical activity, exercise, sports participation, or elite athlete training or competition. More research therefore needs to be undertaken into the impact of incinerators on those who participate in sporting activities.
I am also concerned about the impact of incinerators on the environment and the Government’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The Government’s own statistics show that in 2017, 4% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions were from waste management. Although I appreciate that some may consider that a small amount, if we are to achieve the target that we have set, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources. I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on that.
The Government have published a policy paper on how we can preserve material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy in England. As we are actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste, in time we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open, let alone justify building new ones. Leicestershire is already a top-performing waste disposal authority with respect to recycling and composting, so there is clearly not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator in my constituency going. Therefore, waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and A512, and creating further pollution in our area.
It is clear that a moratorium should be placed on the building of new incinerators. That moratorium should be extended to those that have been granted planning permission but not yet built, such as the one in my constituency, because they are a barrier to reducing emissions and achieving a circular economy. More research also needs to be undertaken to better understand their impact on people with higher activity levels.
I really appreciate you calling me to speak, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this timely debate.
Edmonton has one of London’s three major waste incineration facilities. The incinerator serves the North London Waste Authority and the seven north London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest. The current facility, which is over 45 years old, is reaching the end of its life, and a decision has been reached to replace it with a new energy recovery facility, which it is claimed will supply both heat and power. Last year, construction of the north London heat and power project began. Many of my constituents are incredibly concerned about the decision and what it will mean for their health and their children’s future.
I argue for an immediate pause and review of the construction of the new facility for three main reasons. First, there is growing evidence that the new incinerator poses a major health risk. Across London, our children already face a toxic air pollution crisis, and residents in Edmonton are at the centre of it, not least because of the constant traffic on the North Circular. According to King’s College London and the international clean air summit, high pollution days in London lead to an extra 87 cardiac arrests, 144 strokes, and 74 children and 33 adults being treated in hospitals for asthma attacks. That is why we must listen to the evidence on waste incineration.
Zero Waste Europe recently released an in-depth study on a waste incineration plant in the Netherlands, revealing how even state-of-the-art incinerators emit dangerous pollutants far beyond EU toxic emissions limits. The study found, for example, that eggs laid by chickens in people’s backyards within a 2 km radius showed dioxin and furan contamination exceeding the limits for safe consumption. We know that, as a result, the developing lungs of children can be irreparably damaged and have their function restricted, making illnesses such as asthma and respiratory disease worse.
It is thought that the new incinerator in Edmonton will produce more than 700,000 tonnes of CO2 every year. Research shows that particulates such as those currently emitted at the Edmonton incinerator cause the loss of an area the size of two large eggs in the lungs of every child. There is no filter on the planet that can capture those particles, which are free to lodge themselves deep in our lungs and other organs and cause permanent damage.
In Edmonton, the incinerator under construction is in close proximity to schools including Raynham Primary School, Meridian Angel Primary School, Wilbury Primary School, Eldon Primary School and the Latymer School. All the evidence suggests that, once it is completed, it will pour even greater amounts of pollution into my constituents’ bodies, with long-term public health consequences. All environmental and public health policy should be based on the precautionary principle that, where reasonable doubt exists over the safety of an initiative, it is paused or blocked until rigorous, independent evidence can be heard to inform a proper decision. That simple principle is why I ask the Government and Enfield Council to pause, review and consult on the decision.
Secondly, the new incinerator threatens to undermine and take resources away from London’s waste management strategy. The Mayor’s London environment strategy aims for 50% of waste to be recycled, up from the current rate of 33.1%. Enfield Council is rightly backing the push and has launched a new recycling arrangement across Edmonton. The vast majority of my constituents welcome the new recycling and reuse centre as a necessary addition to the Barrowell Green site. It will give the east side of the borough much easier access to recycling facilities, but if the Government or the council are serious about achieving these green strategies, we must back them with proper resources.
The new incinerator will have a vast capacity of 700,000 tonnes of waste per year, but if we deliver on London’s plan to increase recycling, it is hard to conceive why we could possibly need that much capacity. We all know that money is tight. In April, Enfield Council will make bin collections fortnightly in a bid to save £12 million, yet the projected cost for the rebuild of the incinerator is an astonishing £650 million, funded by a loan that will end up being repaid by council tax payers across the seven boroughs.
The London Mayor has been clear that central Government and local council support for incinerators is critically undermining the capital’s fight against air pollution. Speaking about a proposed incinerator in Bexley, he called on the Government not to grant permission for an unnecessary new incinerator and instead
“focus on boosting recycling rates, reducing the scourge of plastic waste and tackling our lethal air.”
That same principle applies to the new incinerator in Edmonton.
Thirdly, I know the Minister will not want to impose a new incinerator on local residents without properly engaging with what they have to say. Toxic air pollution is worsening and our health is at risk. London has signed up to increase and to resource recycling, our Mayor is against unnecessary incineration, our residents are against the incinerator, and the Government have just been elected on a platform of promising to listen to people and put decision-making power in local hands. I am confident that the Minister will want to keep that promise and avoid forcing a decision on local residents in Edmonton.
I conclude by inviting the Minister to come to Edmonton and chair a roundtable discussion with my constituents, Enfield Council and local environmental groups. I firmly believe my constituents must be at the heart of deciding what happens next. I hope the Minister will agree at least to listen to what they have to say and to the growing evidence against the new incinerator in Edmonton.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate so quickly after we last chatted about this issue. It is good to see so many familiar faces from the previous debate.
Members present at that debate will remember that I brought up the Beddington incinerator in my constituency, and I will give an overview of what it is like to live in the shadow of one of these things. I spoke about the harm it does to my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington and about my campaign to improve air quality monitoring near the site, both to prevent operators from regulating their emissions and to take into account the effect on local roads, congestion and air pollution of taking the waste from four London boroughs into that one site.
In this debate and the previous one, Members from all parties spoke of their concerns about what might happen to their constituents if incinerators are granted approval in their patches. I am sad to report that our previous debate was met—as I am sure this one will be—with scorn by my local Lib Dem-run council. Just to recount some of what has been said to me since the last debate, I have been told that we surely understand that there is no alternative to incineration; that Members attending these debates prefer landfill; that we do not recognise the benefits of district energy schemes—not the least of which is to lock residents into energy prices at least three times higher than the market average; and that none of us understand that incinerators are not nearly as bad as we have made out. That is the gist of the stories and labels that have been thrown at me since we last discussed this matter. However, I have not heard a single Member today—or ever—say that landfill is any better. None of us is saying that. Many have pointed out that incineration is considered only slightly better than landfill. In many cases, incinerators are worse—particularly when they burn plastics. That point has been powerfully made today.
Something the council should find sobering is the fact that the emissions figures for January 2020 have just been released, and they demonstrate how out of touch it has been on the issue over the years.
I absolutely agree. That is part of the reason I am campaigning for additional air quality monitoring near the Beddington site. I appreciate that incinerator operators are supposed to monitor their own emissions, and that the information is sent automatically to the Environment Agency. However, many of us are trying to make the point that it is not just a question of the incinerator itself: a lot more is going on—especially with the transport of waste to the site. That produces CO2, but it does not get taken into account in the emissions figures. That is why additional air quality monitoring and factually based evidence are important. I will move on to some facts, which the hon. Gentleman may find interesting.
Because of the consistency of breaches at the Beddington incinerator, the Environment Agency has increased the frequency of reporting from every half hour to every 10 minutes. The 10-minute maximum imposed by the Environment Agency is, I believe, 150 mg per cubic metre. On 26 January, the emissions from just one of the Beddington incinerator’s two chimneys were nearly five times that level, and consequently it was shut down for two days. The other chimney was even worse and exceeded emissions limits on 2, 14, 20 and 26 January. On 26 January the level was 10 times over the limit. To add insult to injury, the operators were still registering at least one invalid report almost every day of the month.
No one says that landfill is the alternative, or any better. However, we—both councils and the country—need to be much more ambitious about cleaning up our air. With advances in technology, there are more air quality-friendly options even in the energy recovery stage, which is only one better than landfill on the waste hierarchy—things such as mechanical and biological treatment. Of course, as we have all said, we need to look much further up the waste hierarchy as we look towards a greener future. That means boosting recycling rates and reuse wherever possible.
However, as in everything, prevention is key—saying no to unnecessary waste and cutting it out of the system altogether. We can do much more than follow the poor example set by the council in my area. None of us has the power to promise our constituents that we can stop incinerator proposals or get live incinerators decommissioned, but, representing an area where an incinerator is already operational, I will continue to hold the council to account for its failure and to do whatever I can to mitigate its effects. As I have said, that includes improving both air quality monitoring and traffic measures on the Beddington Lane and insisting on the rapid completion of the proposed Beddington Farmlands, which is supposed to act as a CO2 capture for the incinerator site.
My hope is that those Members facing the threat of incinerators in their constituencies will be able to use the Beddington example to convince local authorities and the Government, where necessary, that there are better alternatives and to deliver a much greener waste disposal programme in their areas, rather than just having to carry out mitigation.
I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and congratulate her on setting the scene so well, as she did in her speech last week.
The thrust of the debate so far is how we get rid of waste in a way that meets the environmental standards we all want. It is clear that something must be done to address the disposal of waste. The first thing is for more people to realise that they should reuse and recycle or pass things on to others to use. The world cannot contain a continued throw-away mentality. I have seen such a change in my local area from the encouragement of recycling—not only kerbside recycling, but also at household recycling centres, where people are asked to categorise their waste. That encourages much more recycling and less landfill waste.
I agree that we cannot continue to use landfill as we have done, but it must be acknowledged that there is still a need for an end destination for products that cannot be recycled—and the sea is not the place for them. We all know about the number of plastic articles in the sea; it is very obvious. By way of illustration, The Times today has a story about a whale with waste material wrapped around its body. Divers went down to cut that away from it. I am all for the end of single-use plastic and was heartened to read of a plant that might possibly be used as a plastic substitute that biodegrades. I am happy to see that some supermarkets are considering refill stations for cereal and even shampoos. However, while we can do much in that way, there still must be waste. Shipping it to other countries for disposal is not the answer. We cannot continue to use landfill as we do.
As the Minister knows, the matter is a devolved one for Northern Ireland. I want to refer to a project that has just been given approval by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency on behalf of councils. The key point for Northern Ireland, looking forward, is that landfill across Great Britain and Europe will be an option for only between 5% and 10% of waste by 2035, or 2025 in Scotland and Wales. That is the direction of travel, and for Northern Ireland to keep up we must build energy recovery infrastructure to process what is not recyclable.
I had a meeting to address the matter last Friday—it just happened to be then, with this debate happening today—to discuss proposals by arc21, where six local authorities come together. That body is attempting to design a programme to support and enhance recycling targets and waste issues. One of the projects deserves a closer look, and I met representatives to discuss it last week. The Becon consortium has developed plans to co-locate a mechanical biological treatment plant and an energy-from-waste plant using an incinerator with an energy recovery process at the Hightown quarry site on the Boghill Road, Mallusk. A visitor centre will be part of the project. A briefing I received on the proposed project states:
“This project represents a private sector major investment for Northern Ireland—approximately £240 million in development and construction alone. In the construction of the new waste facilities, local contractors will be used wherever possible, thereby maximising opportunities for employment and benefiting the wider local economy.”
Some 340 permanent direct and indirect jobs will be created, as well, when the plants are operational. The briefing says the project will provide a sustainable, long-term solution for the management of residual municipal waste in the arc21 area, assisting the six councils, including the one I represent, and where I live, to meet future climate change targets such as landfill diversion and increasing recycling. The briefing says it will increase arc21 constituent councils’ overall recycling rates by up to 10%, through the extraction of plastics, metals, aggregates and other valuable materials through the MBT. That could divert up to 250,000 tonnes of municipal waste from landfill per year and contribute to Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions targets through a reduction of approximately 57,500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, relative to sending waste to landfill.
Obviously, air quality is a massive issue for us as well. Last week I asked a question in the House about the fact that two hours of exposure to diesel emissions leads to 24 hours of negative effects. The briefing I have been referring to states that the project it describes would enhance Northern Ireland’s security of supply and increase diversity of energy production by exporting 18 MW of electricity to the national grid—enough to power in excess of 30,000 homes annually and help Northern Ireland to become less reliant. The correct energy efficiency balance is needed to ensure that the air quality is right and ensure that waste materials are disposed of.
Thanks to the return of devolution, our local authority and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly will, I am sure, consider every facet of that proposal, although I do not know what their deliberations will result in. I do know that it is important that we think outside the box on this issue and that we secure a better way of doing things. If that means that block grants are needed, let us sow into the lives of our children’s children and use our finance now to make a real difference to the country that we leave them.
I honestly believe that we must have a UK-wide strategy; while that is not the Minister’s responsibility, it is important that we have one. I look forward to her response. I believe that the end of the world will not come a second before the Lord ordains it, but I also believe that we have a duty to be good stewards of this wonderful world that has been granted to us. It is past time that we do what we can to be invested in our world and not simply to survive our time in it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I ought to declare my interests as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: my wife is employed at the Association for Decentralised Energy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on once again securing a debate on this topic. I am pleased that she has done so, because I had to miss the previous debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and I feared I might miss out on this series of debates about waste processing. Many hon. Members and I return to this issue because of the adverse experiences of our constituents who live alongside waste processing facilities, and whose voices often get lost in the decision-making process.
It has been four months since I secured a debate in this place to highlight the experiences of people in Avonmouth in my constituency. Avonmouth is home to a significant number of waste processing plants, and in the past decade it has seen a hundredfold increase in the tonnage of waste passing through our local facilities. That is not just waste from Bristol or the greater Bristol region; it comes from London on trains every night. We are processing waste from across the country. That exponential growth has real consequences for local people, the most challenging of which has been an annual spike in the fly population during hot weather periods, especially when there are large quantities of bundles of waste stored on open land.
I have had to raise this issue frequently since my election, and it is all the more depressing because so little seems to change. The persistence of the problem has understandably intensified local people’s sense of powerlessness over a decision-making process that has concentrated this number of plants in the area, often without local consent. People are angry, and I share their anger, not least because it is clear where the system has been going wrong. In Avonmouth, as in Sunderland and other parts of the country, these plants have not arrived by accident.
Bristol City Council changed planning policies in good faith in 2011 to try to favour the circular economy approach to dealing with waste, as opposed to landfill. Its intention was not for Avonmouth to become a dumping ground for the nation’s rubbish, but when the city council opted to reject planning permissions for large-scale incinerators and other companies in Avonmouth, those decisions were just overturned by national planning authorities. The Mayor is trying to do his best in Bristol City Council. He has invested a significant amount in the recycling centre and in opening a brand-new reuse centre, where people can reuse white goods and other types of furniture instead of putting them into waste, but on this issue he seems to be unable to fix the problem.
As I have argued in the past, two main things must happen. First, the Environment Agency must be given a much broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not immediately lead to the revocation of a licence. Secondly, the planning system must better reflect the clear human cost associated with the concentration of individual sites processing waste in a particular area. I have said before, and I say again, that I do not believe the cumulative impact of individual sites or their proximity is properly considered.
Avonmouth is a classic example of those issues. In my debate last year, I drew attention to a series of breaches by a company operating locally that had violated its permit more than a dozen times in the space of a year. It was eventually singled out by the Environment Agency, but a very high frequency of breaches had to occur before action could be taken. It should not take bad behaviour on that level to warrant enforcement action. Even when permits are revoked, the resulting appeals process is long, complicated and costly, imposing an obvious disincentive for the Environment Agency to deal with the individual breaches that collectively create such massive problems for local residents. The agency should have at its disposal a wider range of remedies, sanctions and fines that fall short of outright revocation.
Of course, we recognise that waste processing must happen, and we would rather that it be done in a way that is not landfill and that has wider circular economy implications. However, frameworks for granting permits and planning permissions need to work in tandem to consider the concentration of existing waste processing facilities locally, as well as their proximity to each other and to local residents. The local planning system must therefore work more intelligently and more compassionately, recognising that capacity considerations must be weighed against the wellbeing of the people who are most directly affected by the processes.
I am conscious that there has been quite a lot of change in Secretary of State and ministerial roles, although I am pleased to see the same Minister back again for this debate. I wrote to the previous Secretary of State, I have resent my letter to the current Secretary of State and no doubt I will need to resend it again next week, but I hope to get a response about how the Government can take action on this issue. The debate today shows that this is not an isolated problem in Avonmouth, but a problem right across the United Kingdom.
In my debate here in Westminster Hall last year, the Minister shared my concerns but seemed to suggest there was nothing further that the Government could really do at that time. I find that hard to believe. Will the Minister today set out what her Department plans to do about this issue, perhaps in the Environment Bill that is coming to the House soon, and whether, given the obvious national concern expressed here today, a wider review of waste processing in the UK is required?
I am pleased to be able to begin the summing up in this debate. I will try to be brief, because I think that the hon. Members who have spoken want the Minister to be given a significant amount of time to respond. It is quite clear from the number of hon. Members who have spoken, and from the unanimity with which they have spoken, that there is a major problem.
It struck me that anyone who seriously believes that Britain is a model of modern democracy in action should watch this debate. Something must have failed in this democracy for so many people, from so many different political standpoints, to have come here and said, “No, we can’t have this.” How did we get to a position where the planning framework, energy production regulation and all the rest of it are so out of touch with the real people for whose benefit the energy is supposed to be created? I will leave that question there, because it is a much bigger question than I can answer today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate and on the way she introduced it, and I congratulate everybody else who has spoken, because there has been a remarkable degree of unanimity. It seems to me that there is a major problem here: if it is decided by the Government that energy from waste is an essential part of the United Kingdom’s energy production to meet the country’s needs, where are we going to build those facilities? If all the facilities that people are complaining about today were scrapped and planning applications were put in in 10 other constituencies around the UK, we would have 10 other MPs complaining, backed by 10 other sets of councils, and so on.
It is not good enough just to say, “They are a bunch of nimbys.” There are clearly concerns about the incineration of industrial and domestic waste that go well beyond the attitude of “not in my backyard”. I think it was the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who commented that she had been assured that the danger to her constituents was less than it would be if they lived next to a major road. If I was a parent worried about my children living next to an incinerator, telling me that some other poor MP’s children or constituents were going to be made even sicker than mine would not be a particularly sensitive or sensible way to present the case.
I mentioned some of the steps that have been taken by the Scottish Government. I will list some of them and hope that the Minister will either confirm that these provisions are in place just now in England, or say whether there is any intention to introduce them. The Scottish Government are taking steps to try to get a balance between our obvious need for energy and the even more obvious desire to produce and distribute it in a way that does not affect people’s health.
For example, that the Scottish Government have already put a ban on the landfill or incineration of anything collected for recycling, because there have been so many scandals where companies would collect stuff that people had carefully separated out for recycling and then throw it into a hole in the ground because doing so was cheaper than recycling it. From 2025 there will be a ban in Scotland on any local authority sending biodegradable waste to landfill and, as I have mentioned, any new incinerators that are being planned now will be required to separate out plastics and metals before the stuff gets incinerated.
To my mind, those provisions do not go far enough. We should look to move quickly to a point where our energy supply does not rely on energy from waste at all, because it does not appear to me as though there is any way to indiscriminately burn waste material without creating an unacceptable health hazard to those who live close by. As has been pointed out, children and those who are more active tend to be the ones who suffer. I thought the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke very well about the almost ridiculous fact that for people living near an incinerator, exercise might actually make them more ill, rather than helping them to get healthy.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, we are covered at the moment by the European waste incineration directive. Can she give an absolute, unconditional guarantee that there will be no lessening of the standards contained in that directive once we have left the European Union? There will be pressure from big business to relax those standards, as there will be to relax a lot of other standards that are there to protect us.
Secondly, what assessment have the Government made of the amount of energy that we are likely to need to produce from waste to fill the gap in the United Kingdom’s energy needs? It is all very well for us to sit here and say, “I do not want this here or that there,” but if the Government’s energy planning has not provided for enough production to meet anticipated consumption, we have a problem. The power stations and incinerators will have to be built somewhere.
My final point, which has already been made by other hon. Members, is that if our energy supply depends on having waste to burn, we will have to keep producing waste. That is a bad thing. We should be reducing the amount of waste we produce. The fact that waste can be used to create energy does not make its production a good thing. We heard some good examples of that, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) listed some steps that have been taken in Northern Ireland. As a priority, we should reduce the amount of waste that we produce. If that meant that it was no longer economical to build an incinerator to burn waste because waste was no longer being produced, that would be a good thing.
Can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the amount of energy that is likely to be produced from waste in future? How does that fit with the United Kingdom’s ambition to become a zero-waste society?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. As she said, it is our second debate on the matter in recent weeks, and it is one of a series of contributions from her on the question of waste incineration, particularly in relation to what she described as the “monster” incinerator that is planned for her area.
Other hon. Members used that phrase, as well as the words “giant” and “enormous”, today when they spoke about planned or active incinerators in their areas. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, we need to understand why, in an era of zero-carbon ambitions for our economy, the idea of granting permission for such enormous plants to deal with our waste is still being contemplated.
In general policy, we must recognise that the age of incinerators is over. A decade or two ago, perhaps we could have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill. Indeed, in this country incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill over the last few years. However, as we move towards net zero, we are in danger of freezing in time our waste strategies by granting permission for large incinerators that capture waste streams over time. That will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with our waste generally, and in looking at it as a resource to be recycled, reused and put back into the circular economy—rather than put in landfill or burned, usually for minimal energy recovery.
It is significant that only 16 of the country’s 44 incinerators are enabled for anything more than minimal energy recovery. They are enabled for combined heat and power, to capture the heat as well as the electricity that comes out of the process, but only half of them actually produce any heat and power. The vast majority of large incinerators do not produce much energy, and they certainly do not capture the heat that comes out of the plants.
On the other hand, they capture the waste stream over long periods of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) described that process in his area, with waste arriving from all over the country to feed the furnaces of the incinerators. From the description of the plans for the new north London waste incinerator given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), I suspect that is also the case in her area. We are in danger of ossifying the process of waste disposal. Now is not the time to go down that route; it is the time to move rapidly up the waste hierarchy and think about different ways of disposing of waste.
The hon. Member read my mind. I was about to say that I do not want to blame local authorities for the actions that they have taken over a time when they have had no money to deal with the issue. They have merely had exhortations from central Government, and there have been no resources to go alongside the actions that they are required to undertake. There is a temptation to try to resolve the problems in a local area by going into partnership with a waste company. That may produce a solution to the local waste disposal problems, but it will do so at the cost of a 20, 30 or even 40-year contract that will fix the future policy of that local authority or consortium of local authorities.
It is imperative to recognise that to move up the waste hierarchy nationally, we need the resources to get away from incineration. There are further exhortations on the matter in the waste strategy. We cannot simply say that local authorities must have separate arrangements for collecting all the waste food in their area; we need to ensure that local authorities have the resources to enable them to move up the waste hierarchy without being subject to the temptation of using large incinerators to solve their problems.
We are at a turning point. The future is net zero; it cannot be incineration. We have to move rapidly up the waste hierarchy, and there are challenges and obstacles to that ambition. There will be some residual waste, but, as hon. Members have mentioned this morning, the current definition of residual waste encompasses things that it should not. For example, only 9% of plastic film is recycled. Most of it is incinerated or goes into landfill. Recently, I asked questions about 47 containers of plastic waste that were exported to Malaysia, and that the Malaysians did not want. They sent the waste back and said that it had been illegally exported to Malaysia.
When we recycle, we think that the waste will go wherever it should go. However, those containers of plastic that went to Malaysia and are now sitting there, waiting to be returned, show us that there needs to be accountability in the process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to know where recyclable waste ends up?
Absolutely. Part of moving up the waste hierarchy involves a proper and full accounting of what goes in and out at each stage of the process. I recently asked the Minister to assure me that the plastics that come back to the UK in those containers will be properly dealt with and will not just go into incineration or landfill. Other countries have started to bar us from using waste export as a route out of doing a proper job of recycling and moving up the waste hierarchy. We therefore need the next generation of resources to deal with that move up the waste hierarchy. We simply do not have enough plants in this country that can properly recycle all the different grades of plastic waste, and we do not have enough anaerobic digestion plants to deal with the putrescibles that will come out of the waste stream. The Government have a substantial responsibility to ensure that those facilities are available, so that we can move up the waste hierarchy as fast as we need to on our path towards a net zero economy.
I am sure that the Minister will have words to say on this, and I hope to hear from her plans to make real the Government’s rightful exhortations to move up the waste hierarchy. She will be delighted that, unlike last week, I will now cease my comments and give her plenty of time to tell us what the Government will do in the new era that we are moving into.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. She raised particular concerns around the proposed incinerator at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. The debate has sparked heated interest; one might say it is something of a red-hot topic. I thank everyone who has taken part.
I make clear at the outset that waste and air quality are devolved matters, and stress, as I did on 28 January, that the Government’s intention is focused purely on reducing, reusing and recycling waste and on the whole idea of moving to a circular economy to achieve greater resource efficiency, as many hon. Friends and hon. Members have referred to. Measures that we are introducing will help us to do just that.
Evidence of the Government’s commitment to that aim can be seen in our landmark Environment Bill, introduced on 30 January, which, among other things, contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as those for drinks containers; provides for consistency in the materials collected from households, including food waste; and sets out services that businesses must take part in. I am pleased that the devolved Administrations joined us in the extended producer responsibility scheme, resource measures and eco-labelling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned some of those.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was clear that businesses making products such as plastic bottles want consistent waste recycling collections —as a Back Bencher, I met Coca-Cola, which reiterated that. People want more consistent collections. The Bill will help us drive towards an ambitious 65% municipal waste recycling rate by 2035 and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030.
I point out that it is a Labour-run council in Sunderland, where the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West comes from, and has been since 1974. In 2018-19, its household waste recycling rate was just 27.1%, compared with the national average for England of 43.5%, and its total waste incinerated was 71% of collected waste. It is telling that the hon. Member herself calls for a great deal more recycling and consistent collecting, rather than incineration, which is the direction her council has gone down.
Many other hon. Friends and hon. Members stressed that they would like to move in the direction that the Government are trying to move us, including my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), whom I welcome to her place, and for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). Interestingly on that note, while the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) was strong in her case against incinerators, it was actually the Lib Dem-led Sutton Council that approved the Beddington incinerator that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about, and a Lib Dem councillor who publicly campaigned against it was expelled from his own Lib Dem group. We need to get our messaging right about what we are calling for.
I really do not believe it is good to play the blame game here. Cash-strapped councils have looked at many areas for affordable alternatives to landfill, because it became very expensive. As a councillor from a deprived area, I know that recycling schemes and enforcing recycling are very human and resource-intensive. Councils need more money from central Government in order to get proper recycling schemes off the ground.
I must be clear that local waste planning authorities are responsible for identifying their waste management facility needs and for working out the best direction to take. The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the measures in the Environment Bill that will be placed on local authorities will all be costed and funded.
Even after delivering high recycling rates, there is still waste that cannot be recycled or reused because, for example, it is contaminated or there is no end-of-life market for that material. There are choices about how we manage that unavoidable residual waste, and in making those choices we obviously need to consider the long-term environmental impact and the value of the waste resource. Methane is a potential greenhouse gas, and if we landfill biodegradable waste, for example, which is a component of many mixed waste streams, we face the prospect of significant methane emissions and toxic leachates over many years.
The legacy of our reliance on landfill is responsible for around 75% of the carbon emissions from the waste sector. We do not wish that to continue, which is why, as in our resources and waste strategy, we want to reduce the level of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less by 2035, which I think all hon. Friends and hon. Members suggested is a good idea. That is why we are actively exploring policy options to eliminate sending any biodegradable waste to landfill by 2030.
On taxing incinerators—I did not manage to get this point in last time, and I thank the shadow Minister for giving me a bit more time this time—if the wider policies set out in the resources and waste strategy do not deliver our waste ambitions, as laid out in the Environment Bill and the strategy, including higher recycling rates, the Government outlined in the 2018 Budget that we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, operating in conjunction with the landfill tax and taking account of the possible impact on local authorities.
No. Processes will be followed. So much of what is coming down the tracks, through the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill, should introduce a paradigm shift in the way we treat waste. The intention is that a tax may never need to be introduced, but one will have to watch the direction of travel and whether we are really cutting down on waste, because that is the intention before we ever have to introduce a tax.
As Members pointed out, incinerating has a carbon impact, but the evidence available is that the carbon impact of most mixed waste streams commonly sent to energy-from-waste plants is lower than if we sent it to landfill. Every day that passes brings new advances in carbon capture, and I am pleased to report that the Government will invest £800 million in this technology to deploy the first carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s.The technology could potentially be applied to energy-from-waste plants to capture the carbon emissions from incinerating waste, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions even further. I point out, because the shadow Minister mentioned this issue, that all municipal waste incinerators are combined heat and power-enabled. Only nine deliver heat, but they all supply electricity.
The Government are clear that energy from waste should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. Currently, England has enough operational energy-from-waste capacity to treat about 38% of residual municipal waste, including a proportion of commercial and industrial waste. The majority of the 40 or so existing plants use conventional incineration with energy recovery, as that is tried and tested, but other technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, could achieve greater efficiencies, reducing environmental impact and delivering outputs beyond electricity generation. This is a changing space, and science is obviously benefiting the sector. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, conventional energy from waste will continue to have an important role in diverting waste from landfill, and it is the best option for most waste that cannot be reused or recycled.
I mentioned on 28 January that the Government are working to drive greater efficiency of energy-from-waste plants. That is largely through Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy initiatives and it includes encouraging use of the heat that the plants produce, in addition to the electricity generated. The Government have in place other, wider measures that help to draw waste away from landfill and incineration. There is an opportunity to deliver significant greenhouse gas savings by converting the wastes into transport fuel, for example. Through the renewable transport fuel obligation—that is quite a mouthful—the Government incentivise the use of organic waste such as cooking oil and food waste to produce renewable fuels. The Department for Transport is examining the potential to support innovative waste-to-fuel technologies that have the capacity to produce advanced fuels, including even jet fuel.
Many hon. Members touched on regulation. Energy-from-waste plants in England are regulated by the Environment Agency and must comply with the strict emission limits set down in legislation. That includes plants using gasification technology. Every application for a new plant is assessed by the agency to ensure that it will use the best available techniques to minimise emissions and that it will not have a significant effect on local air quality. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant will have a significant impact on the environment or will harm human health.
Does the Minister agree that the cumulative impact of the number of these facilities in a geographical area must also be assessed and that there must not be just an assessment of the individual application when each application comes forward for consideration?
I obviously answered the debate earlier in the year about the incinerator in the hon. Gentleman’s area. He raises an important point. Certainly, local authorities are responsible for their own areas and should be looking to see how they can best deal with the waste in their areas.
Making decisions on planning applications is normally a matter for the local planning authority. They should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless other considerations indicate otherwise. Those would include, among other things, the assessment of the impact of the traffic generated, which has been mentioned. Indeed, when it comes to planning applications for waste management facilities of such a scale as the one that prompted this debate, there is a requirement to undergo an environmental impact assessment.
I am going to plough on, because I want to get some of the points across that I could not make last time.
As the planning application referred to by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is subject to an appeal, it is the role of the Planning Inspectorate to consider all the material planning considerations that are relevant to the case, and from all parties, including the local planning authority, the applicant and those who might have made representations on the application—and of course all those people who signed the petition. However, I note the request made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for him to recover the appeal for his determination. As it is a live planning appeal, I am sure the hon. Member understands that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
Once operational, energy-from-waste plants are closely regulated through a programme of regular inspections and audits carried out by the Environment Agency, which also carefully considers the results of the continuous air emissions monitoring that all plants must do to meet the conditions of their environmental permit.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) raised the issue of air quality in particular, but air quality is of course devolved to local authorities, and the Greater London Authority is responsible for what happens in London. However, energy-from-waste plants must report any breaches in respect of emissions to the EA within 24 hours, so there are strict controls.
Health issues were touched on in particular. As part of the permitting process, the Environment Agency consults Public Health England and the local director of public health on every energy-from-waste application that it receives and takes their comments into account when deciding whether to issue a permit. I must point out that our clean air strategy has been commended by the World Health Organisation, and there are aims in it to halve any harm caused to human health by air quality. We therefore have strict controls coming down the tracks, and local authorities are all becoming engaged with them. Hon. Members should note that Public Health England’s position remains that modern and well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. That is what that body itself has said.
My hon. Friend appears to have only one page of her speech left, so I am sure we have plenty of time for her to read that out. I am conscious that she has made many comments about municipal waste facilities, but unfortunately the proposal in my constituency is not for a municipal one but for an entirely commercial one. Although I accept her reassurances about current standards and EA monitoring, does she think that that goes far enough?
Of course there is a place for commercial waste incinerators, which is what my right hon. Friend refers to. We have in place an entire system of structures, permits, and checks and balances, but it is essential that they are seen to function properly and that they are monitored closely and conducted in the right way.
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for bringing forward this debate. This clearly is a heated issue, which has raised a lot of concerns, but I hope I have made it clear that harnessing energy from residual waste has its place as part of a wide, holistic waste management system. That will deliver value from waste as a resource. I wanted to be very clear, and I hope it has come out in what I have said, that the measures in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will enable a paradigm shift, in relation to reducing, reusing and recycling our waste, that should limit the amount that ever has to go to incineration and landfill. I hope that, from what I have said, hon. Members understand what is happening, the direction that the Government are absolutely committed to, and the move to a circular economy.
I thank the Minister for leaving me some time. This has been an excellent debate—the latest in an ongoing series. I have no doubt that, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, if it was not us here, it would be a different 10 MPs, but the message would be the same. I hope that Rolton Kilbride, the applicant for the proposed gasification plant in my constituency, has been listening—I am sure that it has—and that it withdraws its appeal. I live in hope.
The Minister mentioned the low rates of recycling in Sunderland, and I agree that they need to be much better, but that needs investment, as other hon. Members have said, and the hard truth is that the Government have cut Sunderland City Council’s budget by £350 million in the past 10 years, so perhaps the Minister can address investment to support councils to recycle more—I am sure they would.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) mentioned the Environment Agency—that is who the Minister said would monitor the plant in my area if it went ahead—and the number of breaches at his local plant being unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) said that the Environment Agency needs more powers, and I agree, especially on powers to spot-fine and revoke permits—I have raised that in past debates—without needing to go through protracted legal processes in the courts.
The solution to all this has to lie in more and better recycling and looking to other countries that are doing so much better than we are, but we also have to look to ourselves and how we live and consume and to be more considerate consumers. We need to create less waste.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered waste incineration facilities.
Consumer Rights Act 2015 and Consumer Ombudsman Scheme
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Consumer Ombudsman Scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank hon. Members for attending. I thank the House of Commons digital engagement team for its contributions to this debate, in which I want to highlight a failing in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and to call for its unambiguous enforceability in the future.
I have previously raised the 2015 Act on behalf of my constituents in a public petition more than two years ago, highlighting that it does not do enough to protect consumers against rogue traders who do not comply with the terms of the Act. To recap, the changes made by the Act give consumers the right to reject goods within 30 days and to receive a refund when the goods received are not as described or faulty. However, there is nothing built into the legislation to enforce the right to reject. Moreover, consumers cannot act against companies that do not participate in the consumer ombudsman scheme. Therefore, if the company does not co-operate, the only recourse for the consumer is to undertake the laborious and protractive process of raising legal action, either in a small claims court in England or via what is known as a simple procedure in Scotland, which is essentially the same process.
The petition I presented in December 2017 urged the UK Government to review the 2015 Act to ensure better protection for consumers. It also asked for a review of the terms of the Act, to make membership of a professional body compulsory for traders, thereby giving consumers the ability to pursue a complaint with the consumer ombudsman. In response the Government stated that,
“if a consumer has a complaint and is not satisfied with the company’s response to it, they can go to an ombudsman or other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) provider.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 6P.]
Martin Lewis, the money saving expert, has done a significant piece of work on this issue in his 2017 report, “Sharper teeth: the consumer need for ombudsman reform”. Does my hon. Friend agree that membership of ombudsman schemes, which can legally enforce decisions, should be mandatory of all organisations, and that that is at the heart of the problem? Those ombudsmen would be answerable to Parliament for how they enforce decisions on behalf of consumers, thereby protecting everybody from the kinds of mistakes highlighted by my hon. Friend.
I agree with the course of action suggested by my hon. Friend. It would benefit consumers and traders.
As I have pointed out, membership of an ombudsman scheme is voluntary, and a company can refuse to participate in an alternative dispute resolution process. Even though it may be in the best interest of consumers and companies to deal with problems quickly, effectively and amicably, I am sure no one will be surprised that uncooperative companies prefer to be obstructive, to prevent a quick, effective and amicable resolution. That was the experience of a constituent of mine with one such company, which I will come to shortly.
The Government response conceded that
“there is no mandatory requirement to use ADR although it is available for any dispute should the business decide they want to use it.”
This debate and my prior petition are about the Consumer Rights Act 2015, so it does not compute that businesses can decide whether they want to use an alternative dispute resolution while customers’ wishes are overlooked. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how that relates to consumer rights. The production of the consumer Green Paper—a positive outcome of my petition—was meant to
“closely examine markets especially those which are not working fairly for consumers.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2017; Vol. 632, c. 6P.]
The example I will give is a good case of that. As my constituent’s experience will show, there are markets that are not working fairly for consumers. Despite the Green Paper, no amendments have been made to the 2015 Act to address the situation.
Among other things, the Green Paper consulted on two matters directly related to my constituent’s case: how to improve the system of alternative dispute resolution, and how to support local and national enforcers to work together to protects consumers. I draw Members’ attention to “Creating a successful enforcement system for UK consumers”, a policy report published a year ago by Which? Among other things, it directly addresses those two relevant matters. It proposes seven changes to create a regime that will protect consumers effectively, because the current system is, unfortunately, too weak.
The report proposes:
“A robust and accessible ADR system is vital for people who have been unable to resolve their complaint directly with the business concerned.”
It further states:
“Key to a successful system is… fair and enforceable decisions by ADR bodies”.
I fully endorse and agree with those points. The report goes on to address the proposed obligation for an ombudsman scheme to be compulsory, stating that
“an obligation on sectors (particularly where significant or essential purchases are involved)”
should be “part of a scheme”.
I fully agree. I hope the Minister will address that.
The Green Paper consultation closed on 4 July 2018, some 19 months ago. Despite the Which? report being published 12 months ago, the UK Government’s website advises me that the feedback is still being analysed. I ask the Minister: when is the analysis of the “Modernising consumer markets” Green Paper expected to be completed?
That brings me on to my constituent’s situation, which exemplifies the ambiguity of the 2015 Act and the failure to enforce it. In March 2017, my constituent Mrs Johnston and her husband purchased a new leather living room suite from R&J Leather (Scotland) Ltd, which is based in Uddingston. The suite duly arrived on Friday 30 June 2017 while Mr and Mrs Johnston were at work. A third party was at home to accept the delivery. However, when my constituents came home, it was evident that the type of leather used was not as agreed and the workmanship was unsatisfactory. Therefore, it fell far from meeting their expectations after making such an expensive purchase.
The very next morning, Mr and Mrs Johnston visited the showroom where they had purchased the suite, to say that they rejected it. They were asked to intimate their rejection to R&J Leather’s head office, which they did by telephone and email, including pictures of the faults. Subsequently, on 3 July R&J Leather telephoned my constituents to say that a driver would be sent to their home. My constituents believed this meant the suite would be removed. It did not. Instead, the employees of R&J Leather had been sent to correct another fault—a defective mechanism in the suite—so they left the home without uplifting the suite, fully knowing it had been rejected, while Mr and Mrs Johnston were on the telephone to their employer’s head office.
Mr and Mrs Johnston wrote again to R&J Leather on 6 July intimating rejection under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, and seeking an uplift of the suite and a refund of payment. R&J Leather rejected this letter on seven separate occasions. Frustrated by the lack of response, Mr and Mrs Johnston sought my intervention on 17 July. I sent a recorded delivery letter and two emails to R&J Leather but received no acknowledgement. My constituents sent another recorded delivery letter to R&J Leather on 22 August, offering alternative dispute resolution. Again, the company declined to accept.
My constituents were, therefore, left with no alternative but to raise a court action. R&J Leather did not defend the claim. The sheriff court made an order for payment in Mrs Johnston’s favour on 14 December 2017, some six months after the suite was delivered.
It would be understandable to think that that was the end of a stressful process, but that was not the case. Mr and Mrs Johnston still had possession of the defective suite, which was unused and restricted the use of another room in their home. Mrs Johnston had asked the court to order R&J Leather to remove the suite, but the order made was purely for her to receive a refund of her moneys. Believing that the matter had now ended in her favour, Mrs Johnston gave away the offending suite, so that her home could be restored to its normal living capacity, which I think was a perfectly reasonable position to adopt.
R&J Leather proceeded to lodge an application to recall the order. The order was duly recalled and led to a court hearing that took place over two days spanning June and July 2018. The decision held in favour of the Johnstons. R&J Leather then appealed against the order for payment, based on the point that my constituents no longer had the suite and therefore could not return it. As a result, the company questioned whether Mrs Johnston was entitled to a refund for rejection of the goods.
The subsequent sheriff appeal court hearing took place on 14 December 2018. R&J Leather’s legal representation argued that, based on a proper construction of subsections (5) and (8) of section 20 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the buyer was obliged to make the rejected goods available to the seller without limit of time, and that that applies irrespective of any intervening developments or actions of the seller. In other words, it was argued that R&J Leather was not obliged to make a refund if the suite was not available for return.
My constituents argued that they had done everything that they were required to do in exercising their right of rejection and had given R&J Leather many opportunities to uplift the suite. The sheriff appeal court decision refused R&J Leather’s appeal and held in favour of the Johnstons. The ruling stated that having properly exercised their right of rejection, my constituents were entitled to the original order granted by the sheriff, and that that right was not undermined by the unavailability of the suite.
Interestingly, when reaching that decision, the sheriff appeal court made several observations. The first was that the argument that there is an unqualified duty, without limit of time, to retain the goods has a superficial attraction, given the wording of the Act, but such an interpretation has the potential to lead to both unfairness and absurdity. Secondly, when a consumer exercises a right to reject faulty goods, there is no duty for them to return the goods to the seller; all the consumer needs to do is make the goods available to the seller. This imposes an onus on the seller to come and collect the goods. Thirdly, the duty to make the goods available cannot be construed as being without limit of time or unqualified. In considering the nature and extent of the duty to retain goods that have been rejected, the court is entitled to take account of several factors, including the timescale within which rejection was intimated; the nature of the goods; the practicality of providing storage; the nature, extent and frequency of communications sent by the buyer to the seller; any response, or lack of response, by the seller; the length of time for which goods were retained; and whether proceedings have been raised. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sheriff appeal court judgment remarked that R&J Leather had
“only themselves to blame for their inability to recover the item”.
Even after that court ruling, Mrs Johnston still had to pay for the services of a sheriff officer to obtain a warrant before the money was eventually refunded on 15 February 2019, which was nearly two years after the original purchase was made. No one should have to go through such a long, drawn-out process, which in this case involved spending four separate days in court and the associated stress and expense that that experience involved, and neither should anyone have to go to such lengths to exercise what are their basic consumer rights.
Furthermore, besides the direct financial implications for the consumer and the business involved, this single case used significant public funds—in the form of court facilities, time and staff—over four days. Those costs would not have been required if the Consumer Rights Act 2015 was clear about the consequences of non-compliance.
This single case that I have highlighted shows undeniably that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 does not do enough to protect consumers against rogue traders who do not comply with or seek to obscure the terms of the Act. My constituents were lucky, in so far as they had the intellectual and financial resources to see this matter through to a conclusion that forced R&J Leather to abide by the law. I suspect that many other people would have given up long before then, or would not have had the time available to spend days in court or the money to pursue the action. However, the Johnstons were still out of pocket, due to loss of work and other expenses, such as for the engagement of the sheriff officers. Can the Minister tell me what would happen to other consumers who do not have such assets?
If businesses were obligated to join an ombudsman scheme, the process would be simplified for both consumers and businesses. If that obligation was brought into force, an independent assessment could be made, which could rule in favour of either the consumer or the business, without the stress and the expense that my constituents had to endure to get what they were legally entitled to.
Such cases are brought every day throughout the UK, and the court costs must be astronomical. I do not know what the numbers are, but I dread to think. Yet a simple change to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, with an obligation for a business to participate in an ombudsman scheme, would substantially mitigate the need to bring such cases to court.
Of course, it is fortunate for other consumers that Johnston and Johnston v. R&J Leather (Scotland) Limited  SAC (Civ) 1 is now a case in law and will set a precedent to help other Scottish consumers who find themselves dealing with an uncooperative company. However, my point is that people should not have to go to court in the first place.
I am a Scottish MP and this debate centres on my constituent’s Scottish legal case, which has no binding effect on English claims. However, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 applies throughout the UK, and given that the ultimate decision was made by the Sheriff Appeal Court, this ruling has the potential to be highly persuasive to county court judges in England and Wales, where similar issues are regularly raised.
To summarise, I find it deeply regrettable that the situation that I have highlighted, and the other situations that I have recently been made aware of through the efforts of Parliament’s digital engagement team, clearly indicate that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 is not working fairly for consumers in some markets. Based on the case that I have discussed, I hope that the Minister will agree that the Act needs to be reviewed, due to its legislation being ambiguous and, I believe, unenforceable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing today’s important debate, and I thank the other hon. Members who have made interventions.
In this country we have a strong consumer rights framework, which gives most consumers the confidence to settle any disputes directly with businesses. And they do—around six out of 10 such disputes are resolved directly with the business concerned. However, this debate has rightly highlighted the real problems that some consumers have in enforcing their rights, and addressing that issue is my top priority as the Minister with responsibility for consumers.
No consumer, and in fact no business, would want to go to court to resolve a dispute; the experience of the hon. Member’s constituent, Mrs Johnston, illustrates what a daunting experience that can be. Indeed, many consumers lack the confidence or the capability to use the courts, so they may be forced to abandon legitimate complaints. That is not an acceptable outcome.
We know that many consumers would prefer to have different ways to settle their differences with businesses. Alternative dispute resolution schemes, such as the Financial Ombudsman Service, give consumers and businesses a quicker and cheaper way to resolve disputes than going to court.
Alternative dispute resolution takes different forms; it is a flexible tool, which makes it very suitable for such civil disputes. For example, it can involve mediation to help consumers and businesses to reach a solution that satisfies both sides.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that we are all consumers, whether we are a member of the public or a Member of Parliament, and so I will quickly raise a case with her about my constituency office. We have a lease with Apogee and our rental agreement is for a photocopier, but that photocopier has not worked for two years. We have gone back and forth, but the photocopier is not fit for purpose. I have been trying to get out of the contract, but Apogee has said that I have to pay £28,000—of taxpayers’ money—to do so. Is the Minister available to meet me to discuss the matter further? It is part of the wider issue that we are discussing today.
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. Without knowing the specifics or the details, it is difficult to comment, but she mentioned contracts.
If parties cannot reach an agreement, alternative dispute resolution can also involve a final arbitration of the case that the business accepts as binding. Alternative dispute resolution has benefits for both parties, but I am concerned that tens of thousands of consumers still go to court to resolve disputes with business. I am also unhappy that many do so because the business refuses to participate in a cheaper, quicker and less adversarial alternative dispute resolution process. I want to make it easier and quicker for consumers to obtain redress across all sectors of the economy when things go wrong.
The Government consulted on the issue in the Green Paper “Modernising consumer markets” and launched a review of the consumer redress system. The review addresses in particular how Government can improve business take-up of the alternative dispute resolution, increase consumer awareness and raise quality standards. Consumers have a right to take a dispute to ADR in the finance, energy, telecoms, estate agent and legal services sectors. In other sectors, there is no mandatory requirement to use ADR, although it is available for any dispute should the business decide it wants to use it.
The Minister has mentioned a number of areas where there are ombudsmen, but the system is extremely confusing. Is it not time that the Minister committed to a complete overhaul of the ombudsman system to bring them all into line, to give them proper teeth and to make them mandatory, so that they can enforce their judgments?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and note her particular interest in the area as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. As I will come on to say, we are committed to making the process easier for consumers to get redress. I hope that the response to the Green Paper, and the Command Paper that we expect to publish later in the spring, will give her some confidence in that area.
ADR is not mandatory for the furniture and home furnishings sector, where the furniture ombudsman provides dispute resolution services. The furniture ombudsman is a highly regarded service, but it can only offer its services when businesses join the scheme. I understand that in the case highlighted by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, the furniture retailer in question had not joined the furniture ombudsman. That is why it was unable to help his constituent, Ms Johnston, leaving the courts as her only route to redress at the cost of much distress to her.
As I have suggested, much work has gone on since the Green Paper was launched. We have looked at these things, and our intention is to publish a Command Paper in the spring. In my role as Minister, I have been particularly focused on addressing consumer detriment wherever it exists and ensuring that consumers can get redress.
A key question that Government asked in the consumer Green Paper was whether there should be an automatic right for consumers to access ADR. In some sectors where participation is not mandatory, the volume and value of disputes have been high, but business take-up has been low. The Government are particularly keen to see a higher rate of business participation in sectors where there are significant levels of consumer complaints. Since the consumer Green Paper was published, my officials have been working closely with consumers, businesses and dispute resolution groups to develop practical and pragmatic solutions to increase the use of ADR.
I have taken a close interest in the work of the all-party parliamentary group on consumer protection and its helpful reports on ombudsmen, which looked at the effectiveness of ombudsmen from the consumer perspective. Those reports have provided valuable insights and proposals that have helped to inform our work.
My Department has announced its intention to publish a Command Paper in the spring of this year. In that Command Paper, we will bring forward a package of reform to make it easier and quicker for consumers to use ADR services. It will also cover ways in which we can strengthen our public enforcement system to tackle consumer rip-offs.
In the context of this debate, Members may be interested to know that the Government will carry out a five-year post-implementation review of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 later this year. The Act introduced some important new rights, such as rights to protect consumers buying digital content, including music and online games. The review will consider, among other things, whether the legislation has met its objectives.
When competitive markets are working well, consumers should be able to resolve most problems for themselves. Companies should be incentivised by a desire to win and maintain custom and promote their reputation. An important part of that is ensuring that consumers are satisfied and that disputes are resolved appropriately. I believe that alternative dispute resolution plays a significant role in supporting consumers to resolve complaints against traders. It is worth reflecting that more than 2.5 million disputes have been resolved through ADR in the past six years. BEIS research has found that 80% of consumers who used ADR thought that their problem would not have been resolved without it.
I recognise that the system is not working as well as it might. I assure Members that I am committed to making the system more effective, with better access. Through the forthcoming consumer and competition Command Paper, we will be closely examining the areas of the dispute resolution landscape that are not working for consumers and laying out our proposals for reform. Respondents will be able to comment on them and present evidence regarding the effectiveness of consumer redress mechanisms, including the role of ombudsmen and alternative dispute resolution provision, before the Government take any final decisions on the scope and nature of reform.
Again, I offer my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk for securing this debate and highlighting the case of his constituent. I am sure it will resonate with many who are watching this debate. We know how stressful it can be for our constituents throughout the United Kingdom to try to get simple redress. I thank Members for taking part, and I look forward to updating them in the spring when we launch the paper.
Question put and agreed to.
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the apprenticeship levy.
It is almost exactly 10 years since I secured my first debate, which was on apprenticeships, in this very Chamber. Ten years on from the arrival of the new coalition Government, with that a huge and welcome emphasis on apprenticeships, and three years on from the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, today’s debate is a good opportunity to review how the levy was introduced, what it aimed to achieve and how the levy process has gone so far.
However, let me first go back to 2010 as a starting point. At that time, I and various colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is beside me today, were desperately keen to recognise the value of apprenticeships, to restore their role in our nation as a key motivator and opportunity for social mobility, to improve the opportunities for our manufacturers, and to introduce apprenticeships into many of the service sectors where they did not then exist. We were looking for a renaissance of apprenticeships, and a boosting and strengthening of them, and we did that, broadly, in the first five years of the Government that was formed in 2010. Then there was the introduction of the levy.
I well remember that debate in 2010, not least because it had to be postponed because the Minister did not turn up on time, and so was held later. However, as the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships immediately prior to the 2010 election, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would care to acknowledge that there was a big expansion of apprenticeships up to 2010, just as I would acknowledge the increase that happened thereafter. However, is not one of the problems with the current apprenticeship levy that it is too rigid, so lots of industries, including creative industries such as the film industry, find it impossible to offer apprenticeships?
The hon. Gentleman kindly glossed over that. Some of the points he made about the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy are important, and I promise that I will come on to them.
In that debate—I have reviewed what I said then—all of us recognised that some work on apprenticeships had been done under the Government in which the hon. Gentleman served. There was no doubt about that, but we needed to put a rocket-boost into the system, and I think the figures confirm that we did, with 2 million apprenticeships being created between 2010 and 2015. Businesses and Government organisations, together with what the Government introduced by way of funding, made a huge difference. However, let us not go over that too much, because I want to see where we are today.
I will start with what the aims of the apprenticeship levy were. It is fair to say that the Government wanted to double the investment in apprenticeships, from roughly £1.2 billion to £2.5 billion, and at the same time deliver on their commitment in the 2010 manifesto to take the number of apprenticeships from 2 million to 3 million by 2020. Right at the beginning, there was also a quality expectation—an ambition to raise the level of the apprenticeships that were being studied for and to have more higher apprentices, who in turn would contribute to some sectors where we had and still have key competitive advantages—cyber and aerospace are obvious examples. In addition, there was certainly the implication of reducing the costs to the taxpayer by getting a greater contribution from the larger employers in particular.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The points that he has just made are really important, and I share his view of apprentices—until recently, I had a living-wage apprentice in my constituency office. However, when I met representatives of Barnsley College recently, they shared his views, but one of their concerns was that the apprenticeship levy is not benefiting the school leavers it was intended to benefit and that those who do benefit often are mid-career and doing things such as extra degrees, which is of course to be welcomed but is not what the levy was set up to do. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has any comments on that.
That is an important point, and the hon. Lady anticipates what I was coming on to. I have had my own apprentice now for nine years; they do a level 3 business administration course, and there will be other Members here who employ their own apprentices. There is a question mark about whether those at the starting levels of apprenticeships have been supported as well as they could be through the apprenticeship levy.
Interestingly, when I arranged an interview between Business West, which effectively took over the running of apprenticeships from the chamber of commerce in Gloucestershire, with the previous Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships, she said very clearly that in terms of small and medium-sized enterprises
“it has been difficult for the non-levy payers, but we are now transferring them over to a new system which we do want to be simpler for them.”
The Minister who is here in Westminster Hall—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan)—is not formally the Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships. Indeed, I believe it is true to say that there is still a gap in the Department for Education in terms of an actual apprenticeships Minister, which I hope will be filled soon through an appointment by our new Prime Minister. Nevertheless, I hope the Minister here today will be able to say a little about the speed of transferring the non-levy payers to the new system and how that has progressed. The previous Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships made her comments in July last year, so I hope there has been some progress in that regard.
However, just to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), it is quite true that the numbers of level 2 and level 3 apprentices have come down sharply since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, just as it is true that the numbers of levels 4 to 7 higher apprentices have risen sharply.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is absolutely right in his analysis of the figures. Last week, I had the great pleasure of shadowing a degree apprentice from my constituency who is studying at the University of Salford while working for Russell’s Construction—it was great to see a young woman taking such a good course in the construction industry. However, I asked Russell’s Construction what opportunity there was for it to deploy the levy through its supply chain to SMEs. The company seemed to be interested in doing that, but it could not see an easy process for doing it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something the Government might like to think about?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right in one way, but of course a lot has changed relatively recently. Levy employers can now transfer 25% of their levy to other organisations, and the obvious opportunity there is to do it through their supply chain. For example, in a briefing I received from it in November, Tesco said it contributed roughly £20 million a year to the apprenticeship levy but that it is able to spend only about 15% of it, due to the inflexibility of the system. We will come on to the inflexibility of the system, but the key thing is that there is now this opportunity for Tesco to deploy a quarter of its levy, which would be £5 million, to some of the companies in its supply chain, which are typically SMEs. That is incredibly valuable, and I hope it is something that Tesco has taken up.
As a result of the hon. Lady’s question, I hope that other levy employers out there will be more aware of this opportunity. Business West asked a very similar question of the previous Minister with responsibility for apprenticeships:
“What would you advise colleges to do in September if they have gone over their non-Levy allocation and have 16 year olds wanting to start an apprenticeship with a non-Levy employer?”
The previous Minister—the former right hon. Member for Guildford—replied:
“I would approach the larger Levy paying firms in the area…There are lots of Levy payers who have not spent their levy pots.”
That is quite true; the question is whether it is as well-known as it should be. I know of examples from Gloucestershire Engineering Training where our county council and I think another public sector employer have used part of their levy to help an SME to ensure that its apprentice receives the training they need. However, such opportunities are not as widely known about as they should be.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the importance of apprenticeships and the benefits that they bring to our overall economy. However, in Northern Ireland we face a difficulty in that, although firms contribute to the apprenticeship levy, no one has access to it. That came from the absence of an Executive, but now that we have one up and running, I hope we can level the playing field and ensure that we get an opportunity to comment on any new scheme that is introduced.
I think the hon. Member was highlighting the issues faced by some small and medium-sized enterprises. There will be great opportunities through some of the larger manufacturing companies with a turnover of more than £3 million in Northern Ireland. I am thinking particularly of companies such as Thales. They have a wonderful opportunity to use some of the levy to help SMEs. It may just be about publicising those opportunities, both among SMEs and larger employers.
On devolution, the four Welsh police forces give £2 million between them through the apprenticeship levy. Policing is reserved, but education and training are devolved. The Welsh Government insist that they are not responsible for the policing education qualifications framework, while the Home Office insists that apprenticeship funding is a devolved matter. There was a one-off funding package in 2018-19 to resolve that position, but it remains uncertain who will fund what sort of training in Welsh police forces, whether those forces are out of pocket, and what is expected of them from the reserved aspect in Westminster and is not being passed through from the Welsh Government. On such matters, the reserved-devolved interface really requires further discussion. There were warnings at the time that that would happen.
I thank the hon. Member for her point. I think that the Welsh Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee published a report last week highlighting the fact that the levy was introduced without the Assembly being consulted. I have no doubt that the Minister will respond on that issue.
My hon. Friend is making a well-informed and excellent speech. He spoke about the potential benefit to SMEs from the changes to the apprenticeship levy. However, I am sure that he recognises that there is sometimes quite a challenging relationship between the different parts of the supply chain in agriculture. The introduction of agricultural apprenticeships has not always been very successful. What would be a good way to address that problem, and what advice would my hon. Friend give the Minister and the Government?
I intended to raise that issue in relation to the timber industry, but perhaps I will do it now. The timber industry has certain similarities with the agricultural sectors to which my hon. Friend alluded, because it too has found enormous difficulty in creating standards and courses that are applicable to a sector that employs some 75,000 people. The Timber Research and Development Association, TRADA, which is the national body, still does not have accredited apprenticeships. It has been unable to get a course accredited—it believes accreditation takes 12 to 18 months—and is deeply frustrated.
There have been similar comments from other sectors. My hon. Friend mentioned agriculture. The Minister will know that there are significant pockets of huge dissatisfaction. TRADA states that the
“Institute of Apprenticeships are trialling the concept of a face to face interview panel…But we are not being offered this interview as things stand.”
It also states that the institute has been interested in creating a course for a “timber product technician”, but that term is apparently not actually used in the timber industry.
There are detailed frustrations about how to get the right standards and courses accredited. I hope the Minister will be able to offer us reassurance that for any sector, or indeed any significant levy payer, somebody from the Institute for Apprenticeships will be available to have a face-to-face meeting to try to resolve these issues, giving us all the confidence that it will not take 12 to 18 months to set up a course, during which time employers are contributing to the apprenticeship levy, but it is not being used for their own employees.
That, of course gives rise to one of the big issues with the way in which the apprenticeship levy was structured—namely, that it is seen by many people as a tax. The principal of South Gloucestershire and Stroud College said that many major companies now contributing to the levy see it as such. They are unable to spend their levy, and
“rather than transferring this money to the restricted non-levy pot, which benefits smaller employers…the money is being held back by Treasury”
and not reinvested into training and skills for the younger generation.
As I said earlier, I do think that, to some extent, the emphasis is on levy employers to understand what the offer is and how they can use the pot more creatively. There will be individual cases where companies are not investing enough in training and skills, and should be proactively doing more to engage with the Institute for Apprenticeships to design courses, and so on. None the less, the perception that the levy is a tax is large enough that it would be helpful for the Minister to clarify whether it was always intended that there would be an element of tax contribution to the levy, and whether the £2.5 billion that I believe is being invested this year in apprenticeships by taxpayers, via the Government, is a gross or a net figure? That is to say, to what extent is the apprenticeship levy used to reduce the total cost, or is it a net figure, regardless of what comes into the apprenticeship levy?
That is important because for as long as employers view the levy as a tax and not as something that can benefit them and their supply chain it is less likely that we will have their complete buy-in. I cannot help wondering whether part of the solution might be to increase again the figure of 25% that can be passed on or traded, like carbon emissions, to SMEs. I cannot help but feel that that would increase the number of apprenticeships, which is clearly where the problem has been in delivery, and reassure businesses that the Government really do want the levy to work, maximising opportunities for both big and small employers.
I do not feel that today’s debate should be about trying to beat up the Government, either for their failure to deliver 3 million apprenticeships or for some of the complexities of the apprenticeship levy. The scheme remains relatively young, and the direction of travel should be to reform rather than scrap it. I think that that is also the view of the Chartered Management Institute and other employers’ groups. None the less, we have to recognise some of the challenges.
On the positives, the increase in higher apprenticeships has undoubtedly paid off, particularly in sectors such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), where aerospace is a huge driver of employment, growth and exports for the nation at large. We have doubled the number of higher apprenticeships over the past three years, from 36,000 to 75,000. There are literally thousands of employees through some of the larger companies, such as Channel 4, Royal Mail and Lloyds Banking Group, as well as the NHS and our armed forces in the public sector. They are very comfortable, by and large, with what has been introduced, and just raise very specific implementation issues, which I will touch on.
The challenges are the fall in the number of apprentices and the complexity of some of the bureaucracy around the levy. According to the University of Gloucestershire, there have been further Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education delays to approvals of standards through each stage. The university gave the example of the senior leader master’s degree apprenticeships, noting that
“the standard did not achieve full approval (i.e. was not ready to be delivered)”
until several months after the launch. The university also stated:
“There is a significant administrative burden as the funding claims process is not straight forward, and subject to frequent policy and regulation changes.”
During the debate on the health Bill in the House the other day, I raised the issue of the complexity created by nursing apprentices, who must be supernumerary because the Nursing and Midwifery Council has ruled so. That makes nursing degree apprentices unaffordable for many local NHS trusts, so that issue has to be resolved.
I have been told by an intermediary business that works with large employers all over the country that
“the bulk have millions of unspent levy funds”
and that this particular company has
“attempted to introduce leadership training for which the levy would be used”,
but that there are
“so many hoops to jump through in order to get something up and running”
that it has given up. I was also emailed by the owner of a small business that employs one apprentice, who said that employing an apprentice is
“far greater a challenge than anticipated. Support in numbers, time or financial resource is limited.”
Of course—this has been said previously—one reason for employing my own apprentice was to find out precisely how complicated the process is. I do not think it needs to be that complicated, but clearly, the message from some SMEs is that it is that complicated. I hope that a change of direction to make the process simpler has taken place, and that the Federation of Small Businesses is completely behind it.
I am conscious that time is moving on, so I will just touch on a handful of key points I hope the Minister will be able to respond to. First, a number of colleagues have mentioned complexity, so any news about how the levy can be made less complex would be welcome. Some Members have also touched on the issue of inflexibility; there is a constant question mark about whether the apprenticeship levy has to be spent on only those courses that are accredited by IFATE. I understand the reasons why that might be the case, but it puts the onus of responsibility on IFATE to approve these courses—agriculture, timber, or whatever—much faster, so that people can get on them. I welcome the reduction in the amount that non-levy payers contribute to the cost of apprenticeships; it has been halved from 10% to 5%. I wonder whether that contribution is financially important, or whether it is symbolically important.
By implication, Members also mentioned the current restriction whereby at least 20% of apprentices’ time has to be spent training off-site. That is a real issue for many employers, particularly smaller ones, so I ask whether that can be either waived or improved. As has been touched on, there is a question mark about the amount of knowledge in the supply chain regarding the transferability of the apprenticeship levy, so anything the Minister could say about being able to increase that would be welcome.
Ultimately, this programme was introduced as part of the Government’s commitment to improving an apprenticeship programme in order to deliver the skilled workforce that employers need. We know that employers need more skills and more apprentices, so we need those numbers to rise, as well as the percentage of higher apprentices. A more transparent breakdown of the levy, and whether it is a net or gross contribution to apprenticeships by the Government, would be welcome. I hope that by the end of all this, IFATE and the Government will be listening more to business, so that there will be more voices out there strongly supporting the apprenticeship levy and encouraging other employers to make as much use of their levy as possible. I also hope that a new apprenticeships Minister can be appointed who will listen, oversee, champion and communicate what should be a really good, positive story for Government, business and the country as a whole.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on having secured this debate. I will drill a little bit further into the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts).
Apprenticeships are a devolved issue in Wales. Although I praise the Welsh Labour Government for doing what they can to make the levy work and to ensure that apprenticeships are delivered according to the needs of communities and of the Welsh economy, funding for apprenticeships and graduate training is an ongoing issue for Welsh police forces. The UK Government need to provide clarity and to resolve this issue, because for over two years Welsh police forces have been forced to use their own budgets to fund those apprenticeships.
Although training and apprenticeships are devolved to the Welsh Government, policing remains a reserved area. As such, if the Government apply their apprenticeship levy policy to Wales and to all employers with a wage bill of £3 million or more, including police forces, they must also commit to provide the funding for it, not just pass the buck and shirk their responsibilities. My constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney crosses two police force areas—namely, those of South Wales police and Gwent police. Gwent police have paid some £400,000 into the apprenticeship levy every year, while the figure for South Wales police is closer to £1 million. Collectively, the four Welsh police forces pay over £2 million a year into the levy, but they do not receive that money back from the UK Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the report of the Commission on Justice in Wales, chaired by former Lord Chief Justice Thomas and commissioned by the hon. Gentleman’s Welsh Labour Government, that now is the time to demand that policing in its entirety be devolved to Wales? That would bring us clarity on exactly this matter.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. That is a wider issue, one that is probably too large for this debate, but it should certainly be considered going forward.
In England, the money that police forces have contributed to the levy fund has been reimbursed—they have had their fair share of the funding back—but that is not the case in Wales. This is another example of the Government dodging responsibility on funding and trying to shift the blame, based on a technicality of devolved and reserved powers. The Government must devolve the money required to go alongside their policies, including the apprenticeship levy, not just devolve the policies themselves. At a time of rising crime levels, when we need to be investing heavily in our police and providing them with the support they need to keep our communities safe, the Government should provide the money that Welsh police forces need and deserve so that they can fund those critical apprenticeships.
Jeff Cuthbert and Alun Michael, respectively the police and crime commissioners for Gwent police and for South Wales police, have repeatedly called on the UK Government to provide the funds for those apprenticeships. The Home Office previously advised Welsh forces that from 2019 onwards they would be provided with their fair share of the levy. It is now 2020, more than a year on, and that has still not happened. Welsh police forces have still not received a penny of that funding. With apprenticeships providing an established way for police recruits in Wales to enter the force without a degree, it is crucial that police forces in Wales receive their fair share of the funding as soon as possible.
We know that once the Government’s planned police recruitment drive is complete, whenever that might be, overall police numbers will still be lower than those inherited from the last Labour Government in 2010, as will police numbers in both of the police areas in my constituency. If the Government will not commit to providing the funding for apprenticeships lost through the apprenticeship levy, there will be even fewer police officers on the streets of Wales. This issue has gone on for a very long time and that funding is needed to support police forces across Wales, so I hope the Minister can provide clarity and reassurance.
It is an honour to serve under you, Ms Nokes, and to be sat next to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has done so much to support apprentices. Like me, he understands the importance of promoting the prestige of apprentices, which is why he employs one. My own apprentice, Dan Swords, is present in the Public Gallery. That prestige is incredibly important.
I will make a general point before talking about the levy specifically. The solutions proposed by my hon. Friend are very important, but a number of other things need to be considered. We can tune the apprenticeship levy as much as we want, but we have to address prestige and careers as well; otherwise the levy, however good or bad, will not succeed in the way we would like. Prestige is important. The fact that Mr Speaker is going to employ an apprentice in his office sends an important signal to millions of people across the country about how prestigious apprenticeships are. More parliamentarians should employ apprentices.
One of our biggest problems in terms of the prestige of apprenticeships and the number of people who want to do them comes from the fact that apprenticeship careers are so poor. One of the last things I did as Skills Minister in 2017 was to introduce the Baker clause, which compels schools to invite apprentices, apprenticeship organisations and further education colleges into schools, but that is not happening as it should be. I strongly welcome the letter that Lord Agnew is sending to schools, but a letter is not enough. The Ofsted guidelines must be much tougher and look at the outcomes. How many children in those schools are going on to apprenticeships, further education qualifications, or technical education as that comes through the system? We will not change the attitudes of parents and families unless we transform careers.
There is an incredible duplication of careers organisations from the Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions. I would like there to be one organisation—a national skills network—and a UCAS-type system for further education, skills and apprenticeships, which would also include universities. Rather than having separate education systems, there should be a one-stop shop for students or apprentices to get advice on the best FE college or kind of apprenticeship. That is the way to promote parity of esteem, not by having separate systems. We have talked for a long time about a UCAS-type system for FE, skills and apprenticeships, but it has still not happened.
Unfortunately, there has been gaming of the levy system. The Times Educational Supplement has published a report today saying that more than £100 million of apprenticeship levy funds have been spent on masters degrees for managers. New polling by YouGov for the Centre for Social Justice shows that in the last 12 months almost one in five businesses has used the levy to accredit skills that their workers already have. We need to reform the apprenticeship levy so that funds are used more productively. The Government could do that by restricting funds for employees who are already qualified to degree level, or by allowing employers more generous terms when they create apprenticeships for low-skilled workers. In other words, if employers used their levy for gaming the system, they would use a tiny part of it, but if they used it to get more young people, more 16-year-olds, doing apprenticeships that meet our skills needs, they would use much more of it. We need to look at the levy in that way.
We also need to do more to ensure that the disadvantaged have access to degree apprenticeships, which are my two favourite words in the English language, as those who know me know. I am not talking about the gaming of the system for masters degrees, but degree apprenticeships in law and engineering. Last week, during National Apprenticeship Week, I went to the TUI holiday store in my constituency of Harlow and met a degree apprentice who is doing law for TUI. She is an outstanding individual who wanted to earn while she learned, so she has no debt at all. She is virtually guaranteed to get a job with TUI at the end, so her career is made.
We should be doing more. We should have an ambition that at least 50% of our students do degree apprenticeships. We need to increase and ring-fence funds from the apprenticeship levy. We could do that by broadening its remit so that employers with a salary roll of £2 million qualify.
We have to be more imaginative in removing the bureaucracy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has said. He touched on nursing degree apprenticeships, on which the Education Committee did an inquiry. There could be many more if the bureaucracy, the rules and regulations, and the apprenticeship levy were more flexible in all sorts of ways. We are missing an opportunity. We had an argument about the bursary—I am glad it has come back in one form or another—but it would be better if the vast majority were doing nursing degree apprenticeships, and if the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the Department had the vision and provided strategic guidance and a more flexible levy and rules. There has to be flexibility.
Better-off families are two and a half times more likely than their disadvantaged peers to know about degree apprenticeships, and that is linked to careers advice. The Government should hardwire apprenticeships into all careers advice and we should enforce the Baker clause more stringently. In my previous job as a Minister, and in my current job as Chair of the Select Committee, I have gone around the country visiting incredible providers—private providers and FE providers—but in 2018-19 only 56% of providers inspected were rated good or outstanding. The Government should strengthen Ofsted’s capacity to carry out monitoring visits much earlier for new market entrants and across a large part of the market.
Let us think imaginatively. We have a research and development tax credit. Why on earth do we not have a skills credit to help companies that are doing the right thing, such as smaller companies employing apprentices? We need to look at wider issues, such as whether we should extend the levy across the board, as proposed by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, whose representatives are also in the Gallery, and get rid of the training costs for employers.
I support university technical colleges, and I think that the entry age should start at 16. My dream would be to have a technical school in every town in the country, because they have good outcomes, but they need to be reformed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned that from 2020 we have a £2.5 billion budget. We need to know what the apprenticeships budget will be over the next five years. If the Minister cannot provide that information today, I hope we will find out in the Budget.
I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for setting the scene. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and to participate in this debate.
I have always been a great believer in education in its many equally important forms. Some people excel in academic subjects, such as science, mathematics, literary subjects, medicine and languages. We need people who excel in all those things, but we equally need people who excel with their hands and understand how a car works, how to make electrics safe, how to build and how to create. Society cannot function without all sorts. That is what the debate is about, as apprenticeships cover many different aspects of life, and that is why I was thankful that the Government recognised the need to push apprenticeships.
One of my constituents, a mother, came to see me about a different issue and told me an interesting story. She said that she tried to save half her daughter’s child benefit each month in an individual savings account. Her reason for doing so was simple. She and her husband both worked, so their children would never be entitled to grant aid, but their wages were not high enough to allow them to put aside much money. Her endgame has stuck with me for the five years since she came to see me: “I need to save as much of my daughter’s child benefit as I can to help her with university or to buy her the tools of whatever trade she goes into. Whatever job she gets, she will have help to be the best at it.” That mother understood the importance not just of academia, but of ensuring that her child would have help to get into a trade if academia was not her calling. Today everyone, male or female, has or should have equal opportunity for an apprenticeship. If mothers are making sacrifices so that they can invest in their sons’ and daughters’ futures in trades, should we likewise invest more? I look to the Minister to address that.
On 6 April 2017 the apprenticeship levy came into effect, with all UK employers with a pay bill of more than £3 million per year paying the levy. The levy is set at 0.5% of the value of the employer’s pay bill, minus an apprenticeship levy allowance of £15,000 per financial year. The levy is paid into an apprenticeship service account, and funds in the account have to be spent on apprenticeship training and assessment. The Library briefing states that since the changes in 2017
“there has been a large fall in the number of apprenticeship starts, leading to criticism of the levy and other reforms that have been put in place.”
The hon. Member for Gloucester referred to that. In 2016-17, before the changes, there were 900,000 new starts. That system worked. Perhaps the Minister will outline why we cannot revert to a system that seemed to work.
I have read statements that indicate that the quality of training is better under the new system, and I understand the logic behind that. In Northern Ireland, where big companies are scarce, it is imperative that apprenticeships are available in SMEs as well. The hon. Member for Gloucester referred to apprenticeships and SMEs in his introduction. He understands the issue clearly, and I hope we will come to a better understanding.
Apprenticeships are vital for the construction sector in my constituency. I met someone there a few weeks ago and was impressed by what they were doing. The apprenticeship levy that they pay enables them to make a long-term commitment to those they bring on board. Bombardier, part of which was recently bought by Spirit, is committed to apprenticeships. It had some events here at the House of Commons, and its commitment to giving boys and girls opportunities in engineering was great. I was encouraged to meet some of the apprentices.
We now have a Northern Ireland Assembly that is up and running. It is good to see it working, and we look forward to what it can deliver. Whether the responsibility for this matter lies with the Department for the Economy or with the Department of Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and I will be in touch with the Minister responsible to push for apprenticeships in Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, 16 to 24-year-olds made up some 89% of participants starting in the academic year 2018-19, and level 3 apprenticeships accounted for some 47% of all participants starting in that academic year. Electrotechnical, engineering and food manufacturing were the most popular frameworks. Males accounted for 71% of all participants, and the proportion of male participants was highest in the level 2 and 3 apprenticeship group at 91%. More than three fifths—62%—of those who left level 2 apprenticeships in 2018-19, up to April 2019, achieved a level 2 framework. More than three fifths—61%—of those who left level 3 apprenticeships achieved a level 3 framework.
I understand that others wish to speak, so I will finish up now. I am convinced that apprenticeships work, but we must make them accessible and attractive to providers. Complicated frameworks and buy-ins are not the way to do it. Sufficient time has passed to make such a judgment, and we must review the funding mechanism. Although this is a devolved matter—the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland—the ball must start rolling on the review in this place for the sake of those who are labelled as underachieving males, but who in reality need to be given a chance to find their niche and their chance to excel. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to talk it over with the Minister in the Department for the Economy or the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. It is important that we have uniform rules and regulations in a system that takes in all the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), has done so much to promote apprenticeships and to ensure they are a regular subject of debate here in Parliament. There have always been very high quality apprenticeships in this country. Multinational companies in engineering and automotive have long offered apprenticeships that compete and are comparable with the very best in the world, but not all apprenticeships have been very high quality. Within sectors there have always been companies that have seen it as part of their duty, responsibility or mission to invest in the next generation coming through, but there have also always been companies that have not seen that imperative and benefit instead from the training provided by competitors.
The levy must be seen in the context of a package of measures introduced in the 2015 summer Budget and autumn statement, which included the reductions in corporation tax and included the national living wage and this third arm, the apprenticeship levy. With that package, the Government effectively said to companies, “We will give you a very competitive corporation tax regime, which will lower the hurdle for investment. It will mean that businesses can grow, but we need to make sure that people are paid properly and fairly, and we need to ensure that everybody invests in the next generation of talent coming through.”
There have been some difficulties with the levy, some of which have been referred to. One is the speed of approval of certain standards, which has got better over time but needs to carry on getting better. Fundamentally, there has been a great quality uplift in apprenticeships. Thanks to the levy, the amount of cash in apprenticeships has doubled over the decade in cash terms. We have seen a move to longer, higher level apprenticeships, and the move from so-called frameworks to standards. That is all a bit jargonistic, but it basically means that there is a more exacting standard for the apprenticeship, with a greater degree of employer approval. Effectively, business has voted for a higher standard of apprenticeship, which creates some tension against a numerical target.
I want to talk briefly about each of the three main objections to the apprenticeship levy: first, it is just a tax; secondly, it is too inflexible; and thirdly, “I can’t manage to use the whole amount.” On the first point, the apprenticeship levy is a non-optional deduction levied by Government, so it does bear some tax-like features, but it is not exactly the same as a tax. Of course, money is extracted from business as part of the overall Exchequer requirement.
Something that I discovered when I worked at the Treasury was that for every tax, there is a really good argument against it. Corporation tax? Too many companies avoid it. Business rates are a fixed cost, as we all know, and that can be difficult for certain companies. National insurance is a tax on employment. Sales tax, or VAT, may apply at an early stage of development. Even excise duty, which is based on volume, inevitably involves problems with whatever system is set up and whatever threshold is set.
It is right that we rebalance the approach over time and right that we look again at business rates and introducing a digital sales tax, because there are concerns about some companies being able to avoid corporation tax, and, conversely, there is the strain on some of our shops on the high street and elsewhere,. Fundamentally, in that suite of taxes and ways of getting money out of business, the levy solves the free rider problem when it comes to investment in skills and, relatively speaking, rewards the companies that make a greater investment. I suggest that, as part of a suite of approaches, it has an important role to play.
The second big argument is that the levy is too inflexible. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned, there is always a question of re-tagging: of training that would happen anyway, or re-accrediting skills that exist already, and it is always a strain. The apprenticeship levy already covers quite a lot. Let us compare what the apprenticeship levy in the UK covers compared with the German apprenticeship system, which is commonly regarded as the gold standard in apprenticeships. The minimum specification for our apprenticeships is lower in terms of duration; the age range that it covers is considerably wider than is common practice in Germany and some other countries; and, as has been alluded to, it covers apprenticeships at numerous different levels.
We can argue legitimately that there are more things that it should be possible to use levy money for, such as pre-apprenticeship programmes, and so on, but the mathematical reality is that if we were to do that, other things being equal, we would need a higher levy or we would need to take something else out of eligibility for levy spend.
Finally, there is the objection, “I cannot spend it all.” It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that some companies do spend it all, or almost all of it. It is also true, and relevant, that sectors vary. In the engineering sector, for example, there is typically a very high apprenticeship spend. In retail and hospitality, it is typically lower. Again, we need to recognise the mathematical reality, which is that the levy is designed so that levy payers cover the apprenticeships in their own companies but also cover the cost of apprenticeships for non-levy payers. To change the system, it would be necessary to extend the scope of the levy or raise its level.
I think it is right at this point to review and reform the levy. It is legitimate to look at such things as coverage of MBAs, although it turns out that it is hard to define where the line should be drawn on post-level 6 qualifications. I think we could look more at tailoring the specifications of difference to different age groups and sectors, and I think there is an argument around pre-apprenticeships and that particular social justice agenda. The overall principle, however, is good. It has increased the amount of money and investment available for apprenticeships and skills and protected it, and it solves the free rider problem. I would say that, along with T-levels, higher level technical qualifications and our school reforms, apprenticeships are key to reforming productivity, and they deserve our support.
I shall do my best, Ms Nokes.
I want to draw Members’ attention to a new apprenticeship training centre in my constituency at the Culham science centre, to illustrate some of the points that have been raised and to make the point that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The apprenticeship centre is in a new purpose-built building that has been paid for by the Government. It is a partnership between the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Manufacturing Technology Centre as the training provider. It offers very good apprenticeships in engineering for many high-tech industries—high-tech individual businesses in the Thames valley.
The reason that the levy comes into it is that it pays for the entire running of the centre. It also, particularly, goes to try to achieve what I think the levy was initially designed to achieve, which is social mobility. A key part of the levy has been the attempt to allow individuals to achieve the best, and to be the best that they can be. I was therefore disappointed when the Social Mobility Commission warned that we were pretty close to a two-tier system that was emerging, based on background. That is not the case in the centre in my constituency, which takes a lot of people from varied backgrounds.
It appears that since its introduction, the levy has shifted provision away from the lower-level apprenticeships that can serve as a ladder of opportunity for young people, and towards the rebadging of existing training for already highly skilled, highly paid employees. That has been described as the gaming of the system. At the same time, people from deprived communities are being squeezed out of higher-level apprenticeships. In 2015-16, before the introduction of the levy, the most deprived 20% of the population accounted for 21.9% of apprenticeship starts at level 4 or higher. By 2018-19 that figure had dropped to 16.4%. We need people who have the confidence to navigate the system and the ability to lead, so apprenticeships lead on to good jobs with progression opportunities. I think that the science centre at Culham provides that.
We have talked about a number of issues, in relation to flexibility and such things, but I will leave it at that with my remarks on social mobility. I was taught, “If you have a good point, make it and sit down,” and that is precisely what I am going to do.
It is a pleasure to speak today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this hugely important debate. Given our manifesto commitment to investigate how the levy can be improved, I know that Ministers will have listened to his excellent speech carefully. I am certainly pleased to follow in my hon. Friend’s wake. I share his concern for SMEs and challenger firms looking to provide apprenticeships. I also wish to stress the challenges faced by further and higher education providers in delivering their vital role.
In particular, I want to set out the work of Staffordshire University, which is based in my constituency and with which I had a meeting last week to discuss National Apprenticeship Week. I look forward to further meetings with the university in the near future, especially after the lessons of this stimulating debate. There are 750 apprentices studying at Staffordshire University, and more than 450 of them are based with an employer. The apprenticeship programme is a major local asset, with more than 150 employers engaging with the university on it. Of course, apprenticeships are not just about numbers; they must also be about quality. The standards at Staffordshire University are high and meaningful. Engagement with best practice providers will be the key to improving and reforming the levy, and I hope the Department will be as keen as I am to meet with Staffordshire University for further discussions.
I am told that an estimated 300 potential apprenticeships have been lost because of drawbacks in the current system, with the non-levy allocation making it particularly challenging to work optimally. Only three applications are allowed per SME, and I would like improving that to be a key focus of the policy process. The promise was that employers would be put at the centre of the system. That needs to include smaller employers with apprenticeship needs.
It also means making sure that all employers understand how the system works. I understand that opportunities are currently being missed because the digital application service is not sufficiently well known or embedded in business practice. I would be interested to hear, for example, how the Department is engaging with local chambers of commerce on that. That is particularly important because I am told by Staffordshire University that the rule changes of the past few weeks are making a positive difference, as non-levy payers can now use the digital system. I hope that there are measures in place to ensure that no business misses an opportunity that could benefit the economy as a whole.
Staffordshire University is certainly playing its part, offering courses, advice and support around enterprise, continuing professional development certification and skills for those not yet ready to take on apprentices. That is extremely important. I know from having set up my own business that it is always daunting—exciting but daunting—to try something new, and taking on a first apprentice will be a key step in a business’s development. The most daunting word is always “compliance”, and I hope Ministers agree that support must be on offer so that businesses are not put off by concerns about compliance.
At Staffordshire University, there will soon be a £40 million new university building called Catalyst. It will focus on digital skills, include an incubation centre and act as a base for apprenticeships, with the aim of having 6,500 apprentices in place by 2030. I cannot stress enough how important that will be to the continuing efforts to level up skills levels in Stoke-on-Trent and retain talent within the city. While apprenticeships must be about quality, not quantity, we need to look at how to address the gender imbalance in apprenticeships, which is something we should not ignore.
In conclusion, apprenticeships are vital to levelling up skills, but the levy must work to deliver the right quality of programme, with the right portable qualifications and the optimal level of awareness among employers of all sizes.
It is a pleasure to speak in this afternoon’s debate, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing it. It is a strange one for a Scottish MP to be speaking in, because it is one of those that crosses the boundary between reserved and devolved matters—that point was clearly made by the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). There are challenges for us in Scotland as well. In Scotland, our businesses must pay the apprenticeship levy, but they are not tied to the same restrictions in terms of how apprenticeships are delivered.
A strong economy with growing, competitive and innovative businesses is essential to supporting jobs and our quality of life. To achieve that, we must prioritise education, from early years into employment. There is a real need for young people to train for work, be that through further education, higher education or apprenticeships. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) set out clearly the importance of that education process, whatever it may be. The best situation is one where all the options have equal status. The hon. Member for Gloucester talked about the importance and value of apprenticeships, with which all of us here this afternoon would agree. Unfortunately, in many circles, apprenticeships are still considered second best.
The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) talked about the possibility of a further education UCAS option, which deserves further investigation. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) talked about the great work done in Staffordshire University with apprenticeship programmes. Although many still prioritise the number of young people accessing university, other life choices are not given the place they deserve. We should not be talking about the route that our young people take, but about their positive destinations. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about social mobility, which sums it up nicely. How do we make our young people mobile? Not everyone takes the same route.
It is important that we recognise what apprenticeships should and should not be. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about some responsible employers and the excellent programmes they provide for the apprentices in their care, but that is not always the case. Apprenticeships should not be used by employers to attract funding without producing positive outcomes. They should not be used to plug temporary employment gaps. They should be used when the apprenticeship can lead to a full-time position, and apprenticeships should always be matched to skill shortages.
Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, we have seen a drop in the number of apprenticeships in England. The hon. Member for Gloucester talked about the levy as a tax. One third of businesses reportedly view the apprenticeship levy primarily as a tax, without training benefits. The British Retail Consortium has said that the levy is “failing retailers”. It appears that it is a clumsy tool that is not doing everything it should be.
Despite that, we in Scotland are making excellent progress to ensure that young people have the skills that they need to exploit current and future opportunities. We have had discussions with key stakeholders and have established a national retraining partnership, with the aim of helping workers and businesses prepare for future changes in their markets by enabling the workforce to upskill and retrain where necessary. The commitment to skills is ambitious, building on a number of initiatives already in place to boost employment and create positive pathways for young people.
Of course, the UK Government are stepping on a devolved responsibility here. We pay the levy, but the training is devolved. The Scottish Government have worked with employers to mitigate this unwelcome tax. They have extended the £10 million flexible workforce development fund to continue to support investment in skills and training. Employers have been encouraged to link with colleges to learn more about the opportunities available to them. All that work is paying dividends. The Scottish Government have exceeded their apprenticeship target every year for the last eight years. Skills Development Scotland statistics also show that the Scottish Government’s commitment to increasing apprenticeships to 30,000 by 2020 is on course to be met.
The right hon. Member for Harlow talked about degree apprenticeships. The apprenticeships currently on offer in Scotland include, this year, around 900 graduate opportunities, up from only 278 in the previous year. Massive steps have been made in that area. Some 93% of Scotland’s young people now go on to positive destinations—that is the highest of anywhere in the UK. We will continue to enhance the apprenticeship opportunities available to provide the right balance of skills to meet the needs of employers, including prioritising higher skilled apprenticeships and STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—occupations.
As an example, an Edinburgh school is teaching construction skills. The infrastructure company Balfour Beatty is co-funding that project with the University of Edinburgh. It aims to inspire the next generation of specialists in engineering and the built environment. Pupils at Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar take subjects including maths, science and technology, while learning about the latest practices demanded in construction. The pupils acquire real-world, practical experience and employability skills as part of the course, which brings industry professionals into the classroom to support teachers.
Young people have to know that there is no wrong path, and #NoWrongPath trends every year roundabout exam results time, to show young people that there are many routes into employment and on to a positive destination. We all need to ask ourselves whether we would be happy for our own children to take each of the different routes into employment. If the answer is no, we have to question why we are here.
It is a genuine pleasure to sum up on behalf of the Opposition, and I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing the debate. He gave a thoughtful and considered overview of concerns about apprenticeships. I was particularly interested in his points about the concerns of small and medium-sized enterprises and that businesses paid the levy before many of the standards had been developed and they were able to use their money efficiently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) made a clear and convincing argument about why policing needs to be funded effectively in Wales. I hope the Minister will address those specific concerns about the apprenticeship levy in in Wales.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is back as Chair of the Select Committee on Education. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done. His protégés are here in this Chamber. He is passionate about apprenticeships, and the Education Committee has been committed to using them as a tool for social mobility. He made many interesting points. I hope the Committee will delve into the concerns about the apprenticeship levy and investigate them further.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an important point about the diversity of skills and equality of access to apprenticeship opportunities. He also made an interesting point about SMEs. Northern Ireland does not have many large industries, so how can companies there benefit most effectively from the levy? Will the Minister comment on regional differences and how they impact on the levy’s effectiveness?
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) was marking his own homework by commenting on the apprenticeship levy, but he made some excellent points. I agree that the levy should not be seen as a tax. Using the levy as a way of dealing with the free rider problem is an excellent incentive. I also agree that we need to examine the flexibility. Given that it has been running for three years, it is time for a general review of the apprenticeship levy. I echo his calls for review and reform.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke passionately about social mobility, which many Members have addressed, and about the importance of engineering apprenticeships and how the levy has been used in a more imaginative way in his constituency. I wish all the apprentices well on their route forward. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) paid credit to the fantastic Staffordshire University, which sounds like it deserves a visit from our Front Benchers.
If they are done well, apprenticeships can provide employees with the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to survive in today’s workplace. They create new pathways for employment and can be a lightning rod for social mobility, but data from the Office of National Statistics show that our country currently has a huge productivity gap—productivity is 30% higher in France and 35% higher in Germany. The widening gap cannot be ignored as we stand as an independent nation and try to obtain the easy post-Brexit deals promised by the Government.
Given that the Government’s own skills adviser, Alison Wolf, who is hugely respected across the sector, stated to the Education Committee in June 2016 that she “suspected” the decision to make the levy applicable only to large businesses with £3 billion of staff costs was
“one of the things that was decided the night before”,
it is fair to say that the Government’s rushed implementation of the apprenticeship levy has resulted in unforeseen consequences and perverse incentives.
Although I agree that the 2017 reforms have started a national conversation on apprenticeships, and I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) that we should look at prestige and whether we would want our children to follow that pathway—I would definitely encourage my girls to go forward with a degree apprenticeship model—we have to recognise that the overall number of apprentices has dropped since the levy was introduced. Some 509,000 apprentices started a programme in 2015-16, and only 393,000 started in 2018-19—a drop of 23%.
The levy has been overspent and the funds have been rationed for smaller employers. The fall in the number of SME apprenticeships is about 171,000—down an estimated 49% since the levy was introduced. Many colleges ran out of funds for new starts in SMEs, and by the end of 2019 they were not able to meet the demands, particularly in construction and engineering, which are the industries that the apprenticeship levy was meant to support. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers estimates that there are about 30,000 to 40,000 unfilled apprenticeships in SMEs due to the lack of funding.
A recent newspaper report states that the Secretary of State has said that this issue could be solved by moving to the Digital Apprenticeship Service. However, it makes no difference what system is used if there is not enough money in it to start with. The hon. Member for Gloucester commented on passing on part of the levy funds, but SMEs and large businesses have found it overly bureaucratic, complicated and difficult to find a partner to match up with. If the Minister wants to pursue that avenue, we need to consider simplifying the process and making it run a lot more smoothly. The change in the number of apprentices—and the level at which they start, which I will come on to—has been disastrous for some sectors, particularly the care sector. Many care homes are SMEs, and the sector is low margin and low wage. They have been hit really hard by the difficulties in finding apprentices to work there.
Young people have been affected more than anyone else. The number of those starting on level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships, which are predominantly provided by SMEs, has fallen by about 20%. That will not help social mobility. We are not giving our young people the access required to climb the ladder of opportunity. They cannot even get on the first rung.
I am also concerned—this has been echoed by other Members— about the apprenticisation of existing training courses. Chief executive officers have reduced or replaced other training so that they can use the levy. The right hon. Member for Harlow alluded to today’s report in the TES that since 2017 more than £104 million of apprenticeship levy money has been spent on putting senior managers through masters degrees and apprenticeship programmes. David Hughes of the Association of Colleges said:
“This is draining a fixed pot of money dedicated to apprenticeships.”
I support degree apprenticeships and masters apprenticeships, and I support retraining the workforce, but there always needs to be a balance. At the moment it appears that the system is designed to help existing employees who already have higher-level qualifications—sometimes degree and management qualifications—at the expense of 16 to 18-year-olds who are just beginning their careers and need to start at the lower levels. Does the Minister agree with Amanda Spielman of Ofsted, who says there need to be more reforms to the levy to ensure that it is used effectively? I would not want to limit businesses’ freedom and flexibility to use the levy in a way they see fit, but it seems that its design creates perverse incentives for it to be used it at the top end of the levels rather than at the bottom.
As we face our post-Brexit future, we need to look at level 2 starts. I have found some quite scary figures. If we continue on our current trajectory, by 2024 there will be more than 4 million too few people to take up the high-skilled jobs available. There will be 2 million too many with intermediate skills, and more than 6 million too many who are low skilled. Rather than waiting another year or so for the apprenticeship levy review, we need to do it immediately in order to avoid ending up with a problem by 2024, when so many people will be unable to access quality work.
I will make a few comments about social mobility. Before the introduction of the levy, the most deprived 20% of the population accounted for more than 21% of apprenticeship starts at level 4 and above. By 2018 the figure had dropped to 16.4%. With the current levy design, people from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to be able to access higher-level apprenticeships. I wonder whether that is because we have pulled away level 2 and 3 access points, which would previously have enabled them to move up to level 4.
I will now give a list of recommendations, which I am sure the Minister will jot down enthusiastically. We should consider providing guaranteed funding for 16 to 18 year-olds who want to do apprenticeships, be they levy funded or non-levy funded, and they should be treated in the same way as 16 to 18 year-olds who attend college and continue into sixth form. Their apprenticeship should be funded, and I would like to know how we are going to resolve that.
The Treasury should increase the overall spending in schools to match inflation. SMEs should be involved in the standard designs and funded under the current levy system, and the Government should commit to a ring-fenced and guaranteed non-levy budget of at least £1.5 billion, and to separate segregated funding approaches between levy and non-levy employers. Apprenticeships need to be more flexible so that they are able to adapt. We need to consider a three-year cycle of standards reform, and that should involve businesses as well.
I have huge respect for the Minister, with whom I served on the Education Committee, but I believe the Government could show their commitment to FE and skills by appointing a separate FE and skills Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate, and I warmly welcome his ongoing interest and engagement with the Government’s work on high-quality apprenticeships. It is vital that we advocate for businesses and apprentices alike up and down the country. I am delighted to see so many Members present, and I recognise the work they have already done on this issue. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that we have made huge progress on building a world-class apprenticeship system that creates opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, wherever they are in the country. It is great news that there have been 11,000 more apprenticeships in his constituency alone since 2010.
As Members will know, last week was National Apprenticeship Week, our annual celebration of everything that apprenticeships have to offer employers, individuals and society. Many Members present will have heard some inspiring stories. The highlight for me was presenting the awards at Wiltshire College apprenticeship evening, where I met many extremely enthusiastic apprentices of different ages and at different stages of their career. Many Members will agree that the message of optimism in our outreach work, and the determination to challenge the outdated perception that university is the only desirable option for the ambitious and motivated, are quite rightly at the top of our agenda.
Many may have also heard the frustrations. Although we have made a great deal of progress, we cannot be complacent. We know that the levy remains a source of concern for some employers, and many Members spoke about the complexities and inflexibilities of the present system. I want to assure them—in particular, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy)—that we are keeping the apprentice system and levy under constant review to understand how it works for employers of all sizes, and most importantly how it can deliver for our economy and for social mobility.
On the timing for creating standards, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester raised, we introduced a faster, better programme, which has made significant improvements. In fact, the institute has exceeded its own targets. I appreciate that there is further work to do, but we are making progress.
It is vital to recognise that the levy is at the centre of our ambitious apprenticeship reform. Fewer than 2% of employers pay the levy, but 56% of starts—almost 225,000—were supported by the funds in the employers’ levy accounts between 2018 and 2010. The apprenticeship levy is helping businesses large and small to access the high-quality training that they need. More funding is available for apprenticeships than ever before. We will make more than £2.5 billion available for investment this year—double what we spent in 2010. That point was noted by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), whose insight from leading the Department was of great use today. His excellent speech highlighted the benefits of the apprenticeship system and how it works in practice.
Like the shadow Minister, the Minister is a graduate of the Education Committee—it is a true ladder of opportunity. She spoke about reform of the levy, but are the Government open to the idea of extending it, or are they just looking at reforms to the current system? Could she also say something about whether she has any figures for the budget for apprenticeships over the next few years?
My right hon. Friend gives me more credit than my position is due. I am afraid that I do not set the budget, but I assure him that we are keeping everything under review. As he knows only too well, the apprenticeship levy is worked on in conjunction with the Treasury. We will be considering the impact that it has on businesses, on social mobility and on opening up apprenticeships in the long run, so that the system is not only sustainable but opens door after door for young and older people in our communities.
Hon. Members mentioned SMEs, and I assure them that we are putting those on the same footing as big business. The apprenticeship service includes an award-winning digital service to support employers to manage their funds and choose the training they need from a register of approved providers. We are rolling out the benefits of that service to smaller employers too, moving away from the previous procured contract system to give SMEs more choice than ever over the opportunities that they create. Putting employers that do not pay the levy on the same footing as big businesses will allow them to choose the training providers that suit their individual needs. As that transition takes place, we are supporting SMEs by making funding available for more than 15,000 additional apprenticeship starts this financial year. I hope that addresses some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon).
I note the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, which I formerly served on. He talked about the issue of gaming, and mentioned second degrees. We have to be really careful, because there are a number of sectors in which we have to recruit more people because we have skills gaps, including the NHS and the police, so we actually want people to do a second degree to get into those sectors. I hear the concerns about that and the MBA debate. I want him and other Members to know that I am personally looking at that to ensure that we get it right.
We are confident that our work to improve the working of the levy will respond to the rigidity of the system, which hon. Members mentioned, and open up more opportunities for individuals and businesses. I assure hon. Members that we will continue the progress with this so we support employers in the sector. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, starts have fallen since our ambitious reform programme began. We will continue to carefully monitor falls in apprenticeship starts at level 2 and by younger people, as our reforms bed in and the balance of the programme continues to shift. Apprenticeships at level 2 can provide significant returns to individuals and may be the starting point for further progression—or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) neatly said, act as the ladder of opportunity. However, it is also vital that young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can realise the benefits of apprenticeships at higher levels, so we will continue to look at this.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I want to stress the importance of quality, because apprenticeship standards are central to driving forward our reforms. Employers often told us that the quality of the training was inconsistent and inappropriate. Standards today ensure that apprentices train for a minimum of a year, with at least 20% off-the-job training, and receive a rigorous assessment at the end. All apprentices will be starting on these high-quality standards by the start of the 2020-21 academic year. We listened to employers’ concerns around their engagement in developing the apprenticeships. We have established the independent Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which was mentioned several times. It is working with employers of all sizes to ensure the standards deliver for them.
When we reach National Apprenticeship Week 2021 and look back on the achievements of the coming year, I am confident that we will still be proud of the progress we are making. By this time next year, all apprentices will be starting on high-quality standards, developed by employers to deliver the skills they need.
The Minister talks about the funding for the apprenticeship levy and the scheme, and some reforms, but I ask her to look carefully at the issue with the Welsh police forces, because it is causing real concern and has been going on for quite some time. If she cannot address it today, will she respond over the next few days?
I am conscious of the fact that I need to give my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester time to sum up. I will certainly meet any Members from the devolved nations to address the issues in their areas or meet my counterparts to discuss them.
By next year, we will have continued our engagement with employers, and will have brought thousands of small and medium-sized employers on to the apprenticeship service. I also want to ensure that we are doing more for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I am personally passionate about that issue, and I will be driving it forward.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and for the fact that he has raised the issue of apprenticeships again and is ensuring that it is at the top of our agenda. I am glad that a number of Members share my passion for ensuring that apprenticeships are a true vehicle for social mobility.
This has been a valuable debate about the best way to structure the provision of apprenticeships and their financing. There was widespread agreement about their value as the ladder of opportunity and social mobility, and there were different ideas about how best to use and reform the apprenticeship levy.
However, given that a quarter of apprenticeship starts have been lost over the past three years, and that the FSB says that urgent action is needed—my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) highlighted the challenges for SMEs—I hope the DFE will reflect on the need for further reform. Although I recognise the Minister’s commitment to apprenticeships and to making the levy work better, further announcements of reform are needed soon, as promised by the Prime Minister. Leaving things as they are will not be enough to provide the skills needed by global Britain or for an ambitious programme of levelling up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effectiveness of the apprenticeship levy.
Hinckley National Rail Freight Interchange
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposal for the Hinckley national rail freight interchange in South Leicestershire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and I welcome the Minister to his place. I will say at the outset that the Minister and I spoke about this last night, and I am very grateful for his comments and his time. I know that he has quite a few words to say today, so I may curtail my speech. I also thank colleagues for joining me in this debate, which, although it is on an issue unique to South Leicestershire, is representative of something that other hon. Members may encounter in their constituencies.
The proposal for the Hinkley national rail freight interchange is for the construction of a purpose-built logistics hub to the south of the village of Elmesthorpe in my constituency. The hub would be operational 24/7 and built with access to the existing two-way railway track between Birmingham and Leicester to allow for freight train entry, along with local road access for the entry of a quite substantial number of heavy goods vehicles.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I welcome him to this Westminster Hall debate. I appreciate that he cannot speak this afternoon because he has yet to make his maiden speech. The rail freight interchange will have as much of an impact on his constituency of Bosworth as it will on my constituency of South Leicestershire. The 24/7 impact on the current infrastructure—let alone the very modest additional infrastructure that has been proposed—will be detrimental to his constituents as well as to mine.
I will put the location of the proposal into context. The planned site for the Hinkley rail hub would, in its totality, encompass a 440-acre area; for comparison, that is almost a quarter of the size of Gatwick airport. We are talking about a very large area that is currently beautiful rolling South Leicestershire countryside. The site will neighbour the historic and picturesque county villages of Elmesthorpe, Stoney Stanton, Sapcote, Sharnford, Aston Flamville, Potters Marston, Croft, Huncote, Thurlaston and Wigston Parva, which are collectively and colloquially referred to as the Fosse villages.
I appreciate that people in the Chamber—with the exception of those in the Public Gallery—will not be familiar with the Fosse villages, much to their detriment. The settlements, many of which date back to medieval times, vary in size and, because of their location, share a collective bond in this area of Leicestershire. My constituents in the Fosse villages contend with overburdened infrastructure at the very best of times.
I entirely agree. Government policy is to reduce HGV traffic by moving freight off our principal road arteries and on to rail, but the concern about this specific proposal is that developers often propose a purported rail freight head development when all they want is a very large logistics park. We must be ultra-cautious that this particular development is not just a front for yet another large-scale logistics park.
Taking freight off the roads is a great idea. A problem that worries me for my constituency, however, is that if the rail freight hub went ahead, there would be more congestion on our already congested roads, particularly the A5. If money were spent on improving the A5, that would perhaps allow proposals like this to go forward in future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I mentioned a moment ago, at times the existing infrastructure is already at capacity. For three or four years we have been discussing dualling the A5 all the way to the M1, and that has not yet happened—there are safety issues with the A5. My constituents—and, no doubt, my hon. Friend’s constituents—are concerned that the proposal will add to a road system that is frankly not equipped to take such an extremely large amount of proposed HGV traffic.
As I have said, my constituents in the Fosse villages contend with overburdened infrastructure at the best of times. Furthermore, the proximity of the site to the existing logistics hubs in Leicestershire is paramount. Magna Park is one of Europe’s largest logistics parks and is proposed to double in size. It is near the market town of Lutterworth, only a few miles south of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), while the proposed rail hub would be only a few miles north. To give hon. Members an idea of the sheer size of Magna Park, its footprint is directly comparable to, and perhaps larger than, that of Lutterworth. The existing logistics park is enormous—particularly if it doubles in size—so another large logistics park, developed under the guise of a rail freight head terminal, would be problematic and grossly unfair to people who like the quality of life in that part of Leicestershire.
I appreciate the strategic importance of sites, such as Magna Park and the proposed interchange, situated in the so-called golden triangle—the intersection of the M1, M69 and M6 motorways—meaning that about 80% of the British population can be reached within five hours. However, some deeply concerning factors must be considered. The environmental impact of the proposal has been at the fore of many of my constituents’ concerns, and the plans are to concrete over the existing site, which is beautiful rolling countryside of lush green fields stretching as far as the eye can see.
Anyone standing in those glorious South Leicestershire fields today would quite easily spot the nearby local nature reserve of Burbage common, most of which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth. If I may speak for my hon. Friend, the common is a 200-acre mix of semi-natural woodlands and unspoiled grassland that is used daily not just by his constituents, but by mine, for walking, horse-riding, exploring and orienteering. Quite frankly, I am more than a little jealous that the common sits in his constituency, but as he knows, we might have a boundary review, and I know what I will be asking for.
My hon. Friend may not be surprised to hear that I would be reluctant to see Burbage common moved. Has he ever been to Acorns coffee shop and seen how well used it is by walkers, ramblers and dog walkers? People enjoy having a coffee and using that time to relax after walking around the beautiful Burbage common.
Sadly, I have not yet visited that particular locality, but my constituents do visit. I look forward to being taken there by my hon. Friend to celebrate his maiden speech, once he has made it.
Burbage common is a site of unspoiled and unrivalled natural beauty. Significantly, it is also home to Burbage wood, which is a site of special scientific interest, with rare wild flowers, more than 20 species of butterfly, more than 100 different species of fungi and more than 25 different mammals. The Hinkley rail hub site would be situated directly next to Burbage common and would therefore have an indescribably detrimental impact on that unspoiled local nature reserve and the various wildlife and plants that currently thrive there.
On the supposed employment benefits of the proposed development, the developer has stated that in excess of 8,000 jobs will be created. I am a proud Conservative and always favour free enterprise and the creation of employment, but I have very serious concerns about the filling of those supposed vacancies.
I am not aware of specific plans for counteracting that. Constituents are certainly expressing concerns about those things, and rightly so.
Earlier, I mentioned nearby Magna Park, which purportedly employs more than 10,000 people. My constituency has a welcome unemployment rate of less than 1%, so who will those employment opportunities be for? They will not be for my constituents, and I doubt they will be for neighbouring MPs’ constituents either. In reality, if the proposal were to go ahead and so many employment opportunities were to be created, we would find people commuting from up to an hour away, from as far afield as Milton Keynes, and taking rat runs through the Fosse villages to get to the proposed railway hub terminal. That would put even more pressure on the already problematic infrastructure of the Fosse villages.
At this point, I will bring in the views of Blaby District Council, one of the two excellent Conservative-led local authorities in my constituency. The rail hub is a nationally significant infrastructure project, so Blaby District Council will act as a statutory consultee on the application. The final planning decision will lie with the responsible Secretary of State.
Blaby District Council has informed me that, although the plans are in their pre-submission stage at present, its elected members have made it clear that they cannot support the development in question. They share concerns similar to those that I have expressed today. They are concerned about the impact of heavy goods vehicles travelling through rural villages, the environmental impacts such as light and noise pollution, and the huge increase in traffic, with ecology and the protection of local biodiversity high on the political agenda.
Local district councillor colleagues would certainly be concerned if an unhealthily high number of HGVs used existing roads. Clearly, the existing roads would not be sufficient to deal with the thousands of employees on the rat runs and the HGV traffic, much of which would no doubt use the smaller B-class roads rather than the A-class roads even though it is obliged to use A-class roads.
Blaby District Council has advised that many factors will need to be addressed in order for the proposal to avoid a formal objection. The site has no status in the council’s local plan, and therefore it has not been envisaged or planned for. The council is concerned about where the required employment would be sourced from and what provisions would be made to accommodate those employees. Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council is the other statutory consultee on the application and, although it is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, I understand that it shares similar concerns.
I will now discuss my constituents’ views of the proposals. Considering the historic collective bonds in the Fosse villages that go back many years, it comes as little surprise that the vast majority of my constituents are opposed to the plans. Scarcely a day goes by when my inbox or my constituency office is not informed of a resident’s concern about the rail hub proposal. In order properly to gauge the strength of feeling among residents on the matter, last year I issued a survey to all residents in the Fosse villages. I received almost 2,000 responses in less than four weeks—a huge return for a survey of that nature.
Almost 80% of Fosse village respondents said that they were against the development, with impacts on local infrastructure and the environment being the predominant concerns. Furthermore, more than 83% responded that they thought it would be detrimental to their village’s identity.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will be pleased to ask my team to share the data with him. Perhaps we can consider what further surveys we might wish to do jointly, given the joint impact on our constituents.
I fully appreciate and understand the serious concerns of many of my constituents about this proposal. I am pleased to say that some of the brilliant district councillors for the Fosse villages have joined us in the Public Gallery this afternoon. Those councillors have worked tirelessly on behalf of their local residents—their electorate—to oppose the plans. They have attended every public meeting and every engagement event. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of Councillors Maggie Wright, Sheila Scott, Iain Hewson, David Freer and Deanne Woods, to name but a few.
The reasonings against the proposal are varied in their multitude, but they are all of equal importance. With little or no legislation in place governing the provision and placement of such logistic hubs, I fear that rural areas such as South Leicestershire and Burbage common, which already carry their fair share and do their part, are being somewhat overburdened. Will the Minister, the Department and the Secretary of State—I know that the Minister will discuss the matter with him—kindly look into it and consider my constituents’ concerns, to ensure that the plans for the Hinckley rail hub and similar such proposals are given the scrutiny they require and deserve? Will they commit to ensuring that the views of the people of South Leicestershire, Hinckley and Bosworth are properly taken into account before any decision is made?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) for securing a debate that is clearly important to many people in his constituency and beyond its borders. We have had an informative discussion.
Before describing our policy on the development of strategic rail freight interchanges, I am glad to be able to provide some context for this debate. As a Government, we absolutely recognise the important benefits that rail freight offers to the United Kingdom, including substantial benefits for the environment, as one of the most carbon-efficient ways to move goods over long distances. The sector also delivers economic and social benefits through cost savings to industry, and by supporting employment and reducing congestion, with rail freight resulting in 7.2 million fewer lorry journeys each year. Industry estimates that rail freight provides £1.7 billion of benefits to the United Kingdom economy.
The Government are committed to the growth of the rail freight sector and recognise the role of rail freight in helping Government to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Between 2014 and 2019, Government invested £235 million in improving capacity and capability for rail freight. Recently, we also increased by 28%, to £20 million, the budget for a freight grant scheme to support the carriage of freight by rail and water on routes where road haulage has an advantage.
To be helpful, I will also set out the purpose of strategic rail freight interchanges. Such interchanges are large multi-purpose rail freight interchange and distribution centres linked to both the rail and the trunk road systems. They enable freight to be transferred efficiently between transport modes. Many rail freight movements are unable to undertake a full end-to-end journey for relevant goods.
The development of a network of strategic rail freight interchanges is a key element in reducing the cost to users of moving more freight by rail and in reducing the number of freight movements on our road. The interchanges also facilitate important trade links, improve international connectivity and enhance port growth. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire acknowledged, it is Government policy to support the development of an expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges. We consider the interchanges to be of national significance.
My hon. Friend has a specific interest in the proposal for the Hinckley national rail freight interchange in South Leicestershire. From this debate and others, I know that he is a passionate advocate for his community. He is absolutely right to bring this debate to the Chamber, and he has made his thoughts and concerns heard at a ministerial level. Absolutely, we are having those discussions with the Secretary of State. Importantly, this debate has been a good opportunity for us to understand the depth of feeling in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Let me reassure him that he has absolutely achieved the objective of ensuring that his voice is heard at that level, and residents across South Leicestershire are having their voices heard, too.
I join my hon. Friend in placing on the record my gratitude to Councillor Maggie Wright, representing Normanton ward, Councillor Iain Hewson, representing Stanton and Flamville ward, and other councillors. I know they all have strongly held views on this issue and that residents will be grateful for the diligent and professional way in which they have approached the matter, working with their Member of Parliament to bring this case to the House today.
I understand that the Hinckley SRFI proposals are at the pre-application stage. As part of the process, the developer has held two rounds of informal consultation on its proposals, which has included a number of public exhibitions. When the applicant submits the development consent order application to the Planning Inspectorate, my hon. Friend’s constituents, as interested parties, will be able to make representations in writing on the scheme. During the examination process, interested parties are invited to provide more details of their views in writing or they can speak at hearings. I know that my hon. Friend will use those mechanisms to again raise his concerns about the impact on the local environment, but I am very happy to ensure that a record of our debate today is also included in the process.
I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that as the proposed strategic rail freight interchange in question is currently in the planning process, I am not able to comment, as the Minister responsible for local government, on the specific merits of the proposals at this stage. That is because the Government may be asked to opine on the development at a later stage. Under the Planning Act 2008, the Secretary of State for Transport has a quasi-judicial role in issuing decisions on applications for development consent orders for strategic rail freight interchanges.
It may be helpful, though, if I set out the rationale for strategic rail freight interchanges being considered nationally significant infrastructure projects, and the process for considering development consent order planning applications for strategic rail freight interchanges. The nationally significant infrastructure projects regime was established by the 2008 Act and is a bespoke consent regime for nationally significant projects in the fields of energy, transport, water supply, waste water and waste. The regime’s aim is to simplify and speed up planning consent for such projects by reducing the number of separate applications and permits that are required and enabling faster decision making. That helps the benefits of nationally significant infrastructure projects to be realised more quickly.
The Act sets out thresholds that determine which projects must submit applications for consent under the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime. For strategic rail freight interchanges, that means that a development larger than 60 hectares and capable of receiving at least four trains a day is considered nationally significant for the purposes of the regime. Establishing thresholds of that kind provides certainty for our country’s most complex infrastructure schemes. The statutory timescales under the regime give applicants and communities predictability, which is essential to provide the confidence needed to bring forward nationally significant infrastructure projects that the country needs. That of course includes strategic rail freight interchanges.
The nationally significant infrastructure projects regime also allows Government, through national policy statements, to set the policies for how schemes are to be considered. The national networks national policy statement, approved by Parliament in 2015, sets out the need for, and Government’s policies to deliver, development of nationally significant infrastructure projects on the national road and rail networks in England. It provides planning guidance for promoters of nationally significant infrastructure projects on the road and rail networks. It also provides the basis for the examination by the Planning Inspectorate and decisions by the Secretary of State for Transport. The Secretary of State uses it as the primary basis for making decisions on development consent applications for strategic rail freight interchanges and other national network significant infrastructure projects in England.
The national policy statement provides a clear framework for strategic rail freight interchange developers, local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate. Planning guidance set out in the national policy statement for national networks states that
“a network of SRFIs is needed…to serve regional, sub-regional and cross-regional markets.”
Furthermore, it states that there is a “compelling need” for an expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges. It does not, however, specify where those interchanges should be located. Instead, it provides a framework for private sector developers to bring forward proposals through the planning system if they are deemed to be operationally and commercially viable.
This is one of our core problems—the lack of Government guidance on where these logistics parks or nationally significant infrastructure developments should be located. I would be grateful if the Minister could ask the Secretary of State or the other responsible Minister to write to me about the lack of a Government framework policy on the location of large logistics parks.
I am very happy to have that conversation and ensure that my hon. Friend receives the information and assurance that he has asked for.
The development consent order planning application is tightly bound by statutory timescales that Parliament has set. The application and examination in respect of a proposed development is undertaken by the Planning Inspectorate, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport. The inspectorate will decide whether the application meets the required standards before proceeding to an examination. I can assure my hon. Friend that the views of communities affected by interchanges are fully taken into account as part of the planning process.
In deciding whether the application can progress to examination, the inspectorate will consider whether the developer has fulfilled its statutory duty to consult local communities and local authorities affected by the scheme. Indeed, community engagement is fundamental to the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime’s operation. Developers are required to consult extensively before an application is submitted and considered; and where the consultation has not been carried out in line with the statutory requirements, the Planning Inspectorate can refuse to accept the application. Local authorities and communities also have the right to be involved during the examination of a project: they can set out their views in written representations, which can then be taken into account in decision making.
Local authorities also have a particular role to play in the development consent order application process. In addition to submitting written representations, relevant local authorities can submit a local impact report, which sets out details of the potential impacts of the proposed scheme on the authority’s area and how it envisages that those impacts could be mitigated. The examining authority and the Secretary of State must have regard to that under the 2008 Act. The Planning Inspectorate has six months to carry out the examination of the proposed development, which may include a public inquiry, where the views of the affected communities can be expressed.
A report of the findings and conclusions in respect of the proposed development, including a recommendation, is then issued by the Planning Inspectorate to the Secretary of State within three months. The Secretary of State then has three months to issue a decision on the proposal. If for any reason a decision cannot be issued in that time, a written ministerial statement setting out a new deadline will need to be laid in Parliament.
I assure my hon. Friend that in considering any proposed development, the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State weigh its adverse impacts against the benefits. That includes the facilitation of economic development, including job creation, housing and environmental improvement, any long-term or wider benefit and any longer-term and cumulative adverse impacts, as well as any measure to avoid, reduce or compensate for those impacts.
I will not, because I am about to conclude.
The rail freight sector is vital to the prosperity of the United Kingdom economy, delivers important social benefits and is key to meeting net zero targets. An expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges is key to harnessing the benefits of rail freight, and the Government support the development of that network. We of course do not specify where the locations should be. We believe that it is for private sector developers to bring forward proposals that are viable and have regard to the guidance of the policy statement.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire for initiating the debate. I want to reassure him again—he can be assured—that his community’s voice will be heard in the course of the process. I thank him for the discussions that we have had and for today’s debate. I want now to leave him a short time to sum up the debate.
Retail Workers: Protection
I beg to move,
That this House has considered protection of retail workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. The simple reason for calling this debate is that I want to raise the issue of attacks on and threats to retail workers. Although the issue has been given more attention in the House in recent years, we need this opportunity to talk about the violence and threats faced by thousands of constituents in their day-to-day lives and to press the Government to take action.
The retail industry is the single largest private employer in the UK, with 3 million employees and sales of more than £3.8 billion. About one in 10 workers works in the industry. The services they provide up and down the country are invaluable to our communities, but those workers are increasingly under threat from the rising epidemic of violence and abuse from some members of the public. By the end of today, up to 115 retail workers will have been attacked, according to the British Retail Consortium. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—the union representing retail workers—estimates that the figure is even higher; after surveying its members, it believes that around 280 shop workers are assaulted daily. Research by the Association of Convenience Stores suggests that violence has significantly increased in recent years.
I agree, and I will come to that. The consistent threat faced by retail workers is despite the fact that retailers spent nearly £1 billion on crime prevention last year alone. The real issue is the human aspect. Staff are being put in danger by simply doing their job. All the organisations and individuals I have spoken to highlight the dramatic impact of assaults and threats at work.
This is an important issue, which is why so many Members are here. A massive part of protecting retailers comes in the knowledge that a police force is close at hand, ready and able to respond quickly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a visible community policing presence on the high street, as a deterrent to retail crime? One way of achieving protection is CCTV on the high street and in shops, but we need a police presence too.
This is such an important debate. We face this problem in Huddersfield. Does my hon. Friend agree that being a member of a good trade union such as USDAW is a great protection for workers in this sector? Organisations such as the Co-op—I do not mean the Labour and Co-operative party, of which I am a member—protect workers much better than many major high street retailers.
Some large retailers discourage trade union membership in their own employee handbooks. Is that not something that we should highlight? We should name and shame the companies that discourage trade union membership in their handbooks; it is a vital protection for workers in this country.
I agree, and I will come on to the progressive work that some of the hon. Gentleman’s Scottish comrades are doing elsewhere.
Working every day in a situation where they were attacked or threatened, and facing a constant stream of strangers, is more than enough to cause retail workers panic attacks and anxiety after an assault. Retail workers, especially those working at night—as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds)—or tasked with selling alcohol, simply do not have the option of avoiding the anti-social behaviour of others. Dr Emmeline Taylor, in collaboration with the Co-operative Group, traced the psychological impact of the epidemic of violence. She highlighted the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in employees after their assaults. In the most severe cases, they were too traumatised to return to work—assaults literally cost them their livelihood.
In preparation for this debate, the House of Commons digital engagement team last week put out a survey online. Some of the responses received were absolutely shocking: stories of employees being racially abused, watching colleagues being stabbed and punched, and even being held at gunpoint. Andrea from Sheffield told us:
“we are threatened...daily...with…needles, flick knives...colleagues have been headbutted and punched. Shoplifters feel it is their right to assault us”.
The psychological impact described by Dr Taylor is all too clear in many responses. One worker from Bristol said that he developed severe PTSD and panic attacks after he was assaulted at work—another victim of these callous criminals, who affected his livelihood, and who affect that of major retailers.
Looking at the responses, it is obvious that some retailers can do more to support their staff, as many do not feel protected or defended by employers. It is also clear that staff want legally set and enforced standards of behaviour from the public. One respondent, Fiona, stated:
“Customers see retail workers as ‘fair game’, things they wouldn't say to a stranger in the street, they are quite happy to say it to us...I believe for our protection, it should be made clear that verbal or physical abuse would result in prosecution”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wanted to raise the point he just made, because the authorities are giving the wrong signal. The setting of the figure of £200, which has almost become an acceptable figure for shoplifting, is signalling that the police do not need to intervene at that level. Provided the shoplifter keeps it under £200, they will get away with it—the worst that will happen is they will get a fine by post, a bit like a parking offence.
I concur wholeheartedly. Anyone who is assaulted deserves to be protected by the law, but it is clear that retail workers face a particular threat. What is more, despite ample evidence, some cases are not being prosecuted, as rightly pointed out by USDAW, even when there is clear video footage of an assault. A lack of sentencing leads to a lack of reporting, which leads to even fewer prosecutions. USDAW found that 17% of attacks are never even reported to the police.
There is another reason why we need urgently to review how we handle assaults on retail employees. We put a statutory responsibility on retail workers to uphold the law and to protect the public from dangerous items getting into the wrong hands.
Does my hon. Friend believe that we in this place have a special responsibility towards shop workers? We are the ones saying, “Please don’t sell some people alcohol. Please don’t sell children cigarettes. Please don’t sell offensive weapons and acids.” By making all those restrictions, we put shop workers in a difficult conflict situation. Does he think that gives us an extra responsibility?
I agree. I thank my hon. Friend for the ten-minute rule Bill he introduced recently, which addresses this very issue. USDAW has found that 25% of incidents of people assaulting or threatening retail workers are triggered by staff challenging shoplifting, 22% involve age-related sales, and 21% involve the sale of alcohol.
I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue. Unfortunately, I witnessed an armed robbery in Belfast in which a young girl who was left on her own to look after a shop was attacked and robbed. There is a responsibility on shop owners, too, to ensure that staff are not left vulnerable and on their own without any cover whatever.
I agree. Certainly, lone working should not occur in such situations. We need responsible employers to ensure that that does not happen.
Staff who fear for their safety and do not believe they will be protected are less likely to challenge those who seek to get their hands on something they should not. We ask retail workers to do an important civic role in policing the sale of restricted items. It is a role we often forget they have to do. Surely, it is right that we protect them while they do it.
The current sentencing guidelines for all types of assault take into account as an aggravating factor the fact that the victim was
“providing a service to the public”.
However, that is one of 19 aggravating factors, which are measured against 11 mitigating factors. The experience of retail workers is that the impact of an assault on their lives is not fully taken into account during sentencing. They feel they do not receive appropriate justice. A separate offence of assaulting someone serving the public would be simpler to determine. I have seen multiple cases that show that the Government need to do more to encourage prosecutions and appropriate sentences that do not leave victims feeling abandoned. Creating a specific offence would also send a message that violence and threats against retail workers are not acceptable.
Having been a retail worker for six years, I have come across some of the experiences my hon. Friend has shared. He referred to research by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. In June last year it conducted one of its surveys of thousands of retail workers, which highlighted that 62% of retail workers have been victims of verbal or physical abuse. Does he agree that abuse has no place in any workplace, and that retail workers must be respected with proper protection by the law?
I do, and I thank my hon. Friend for his powerful contribution.
I know that the Minister will point to the call for evidence that closed in June last year as a sign that the Government are listening to retail workers about this issue. I am pleased that that call for evidence took place, following hard work by my colleague David Hanson, the former Member for Delyn. I am sure that people across the House will recognise his campaigning on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. I congratulate him on securing this important debate—the attendance is excellent. I represent a constituency with a large shopping centre at its heart. We are reliant on our shop workers for so much of our economy’s success. Will he join me in congratulating the British Retail Consortium on its campaigning on this issue?
In my constituency, 24% of jobs are in retail, either at the massive Metrocentre or in small shops. Clearly, my constituents—including Co-op staff Dan, Calum, Kate and Caroline, who wrote to me—are really worried about this issue. My hon. Friend noted that the call for evidence ended on 28 June last year. Is it not about time we had some action, rather than just gathering more evidence?
Action is the key word—definitely. Some quick maths tells us that, in the 228 days since the call for evidence, 91,200 more workers have been assaulted. Will the Minister be clear and tell us when we will get the Government’s response? The Government claim that they are keen to apply tougher sentencing to criminal offences. There are plenty of upcoming opportunities to create the tougher, clearer sentences that retail workers, as well as the British Retail Consortium and the Co-op Group, are asking for. A serious violence Bill and an employment Bill were announced in the Queen’s Speech. As I mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) introduced a Bill on this issue less than two years ago.
A Bill to protect retail workers by creating a new statutory offence of assaulting or abusing them has received cross-party support in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that English and Welsh retail workers are just as deserving of protection as their Scottish counterparts? If he does, will he commit to including measures in an upcoming Bill to protect people doing their jobs? I am sure there would be plenty of cross-party support for that. Additionally, will he ensure that he attends meetings of the national retail crime steering group, a vehicle he has cited as an opportunity for people to provide feedback, as a matter of course? Finally, will he assure us that he will take steps with his Department to prioritise this issue by including it in the strategic policing requirement?
We are in a unique situation: from the shop floor to senior executives, those working in the retail industry tell us with one voice that retail workers who interact with customers are being put in harm’s way. We need greater cultural change, and an end to the attitude among some that people who serve us in shops are fair game. They are spat on, racially and sexually abused, kicked and punched. They are threatened with knives, guns and dirty needles. Nobody should be treated in that way—especially not in their workplace. Those who would do retail workers harm need to hear a clear message that that is not acceptable, and that we value retail workers and the retail industry. I call on the Government to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on securing the debate.
My hon. Friend covered most of the important points, so, given the time, I will cut to the chase. However, it is important for me to put on the record that my constituency, which is in the borough of Hackney, has a high percentage of small businesses. More than 95% of them employ fewer than six people, and a large number of them are retail premises. A lot of them are small, family-run businesses. We pride ourselves on our independent shops, but I also want to focus on employees of larger organisations. As a number of Members highlighted, with more than 50 types of products restricted by law, many small retail premises deal with the frontline interaction between enforcement of the law and people who may not want the law to be enforced.
I have some simple asks of the Government. First, as was highlighted, it is now more than 200 days since the Government closed their call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff. It is estimated that there have been 200,000 incidents of violence towards shop workers in that time. Around 12,500 of those incidents—I am a Labour and Co-operative MP—involved Co-operative colleagues. That is just unacceptable. If that were happening in any other sector, we would be having a hoo-hah in the main Chamber rather than a small, albeit important, debate in Westminster Hall. It is not acceptable that people have to face such abuse when they go to work.
That is not all in the hands of the Government, but I want to touch on what the Government could do. First, they could publish their response to the call for evidence. Even an interim response would help those of us who have an interest in this issue, including the bodies that my hon. Friend named, to get to grips with what can be done practically. We would rather get it right than have the Government wait ages and produce a blueprint that they think is right but that cannot be changed. We must engage from all our different perspectives. We have a shared agenda—I hope—to ensure that the people on the frontline are protected.
Secondly, it should be a legal requirement that shop workers who are employees and lone workers get proper support. If there is an argument for having lone workers—there may be challenges for employers if we suddenly say, “You must always have more than one person there”—proper devices should be available to them. Petrol stations, for example, have well worn routes for this, and bookies also have a process, although it is not always perfect. In many shops, people are very vulnerable: they are often right out there, loading the shelves and very much in the frontline. I do not think lone working is acceptable in most cases, but where it happens there must be proper support, which could be enshrined in law.
Thirdly, there need to be security guards. Big chains and employers should ensure that they have proper security and people trained to deal with conflict. Fourthly, we need more prosecutions. The number of prosecutions is just woeful.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for securing the debate. Last week, just outside my constituency, a lone worker was attacked when gunmen entered Bingham’s shop just outside Katesbridge. Does she agree that there needs to be tougher sentencing and more involvement from the police in setting up provisions for lone workers in shops in rural areas?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who is a great champion of working people, the safety of working people and the right of working people to go to work without fearing violence.
Five years ago, I stood on a platform at the USDAW conference with a convenience store manager who told this story. One night, a group of under-age young men arrived and tried to buy drink, and they were told to leave the store. A security guard was abused. The manager went to help the security guard, and the young men left. The following night, they came back again. This time, there was a black security guard, and, shamefully, they racially abused him. The manager intervened in support of the security guard, and he was then so violently assaulted that he died three times. He was eventually saved by the ambulance crew. He, a fine man in his forties, told his story in the most heartbreaking way. He spoke of how he used to love to go mountain biking, and to play football with his son on a Saturday. He said, “Never again will I be able to do that.” It is utterly shameful that shop workers should, in the most extreme cases, be treated to that kind of assault, changing their lives forever.
It is right that today’s debate has been initiated, not least because although Government have made some progress, they need to go much further, to be perfectly frank, to protect shop workers from that kind of assault. We have all seen it, including in our own constituencies. I have seen the problems at Tesco at Six Ways at one end of the high street and the Co-operative store at the other end. They all tell stories of staff members who, in one way or another, have suffered abuse.
We are seeing a rising tide of violence against shop workers. Recently in my area, in a Co-operative store survey, one manager said:
“I’ve been punched in the face, threatened with a dirty needle and spat at more times than I can remember.”
“They held me hostage. The safe was open, but they wanted more. They broke my nose and eye socket. I have nightmares to this day.”
A third said:
“I’ve witnessed many horrific incidents. The worst was when a masked criminal fired a sawn-off shotgun…on another occasion a colleague was struck with a medieval mace, and she lost her sight in one eye”.
Utterly shameful. USDAW has been outstanding in the leadership it has given to the campaign for the safety of shop workers. I also pay tribute to the work of both the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, who have taken this issue seriously.
Having said that, crucially, what action is demanded in the next stages? Of course, it starts with the retailers, because they do not always get it right—that is for certain—on issues ranging from the problems associated with lone working to basic safety measures such as CCTV. Action is also demanded of the police and Government. There is no doubt that the police must give greater priority to retail crime—in fairness to the police, they have lost 20,000 officers, so the problems are immense and growing—including response times. Time and again, the story is told that the police were called and they took too long to get there. I stress again that having lost 20,000 police officers, by definition they have a problem, but retail crime needs to go up the police service’s list of priorities. That means featuring in police and crime commissioner crime plans and, crucially, being part of the strategic policing requirement.
Finally, I turn to sentencing. Building on the progress that has been made, and as powerfully argued by my hon. Friend, we absolutely must have tougher, simpler sentences that send the unmistakable message: “If you assault a good man or a good woman for no other reason than that they are serving behind a counter in a store and you want to buy drink—it does not matter what the reason is—there are never circumstances in which that is justified.” An unmistakable message needs to be sent: “Behave that way in future and you will pay a price with your liberty.”
I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for securing the debate. I am delighted to participate. I should declare that some 30-plus years ago I worked in betting shops, and I know all too well the threats, abuse and intimidation that workers in betting shops—and all shops—face on an all-too-regular basis. That gives me a particular insight into, and appreciation for, the kinds of days often faced by my constituents who work in shops. The same goes for shop workers across Scotland and, of course, right across the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is correct, and we in Scotland are looking at creating a specific offence to do with assaulting, abusing, obstructing or hindering retail workers, who simply turn up daily to do their job. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who work in shops and who wished to express concerns about safety in their workplaces. It is interesting to note, by way of an example, that more than 12,000 staff who work in Co-op stores have been subjected to verbal abuse, 1,300 have been subjected to physical abuse or threats and 800 have been attacked with weapons including knives, syringes and hammers. That is a snapshot of one group of workers in one retail chain. In that context, we can better understand and appreciate the concerns raised by the Association of Convenience Stores about the 200,000 incidents of violence towards shop workers since the call for evidence to the Home Office closed in June 2019.
As we have heard, apart from the threats of violence that shop workers face all too routinely, there is a psychological and emotional impact that cannot be easily ignored or dismissed. I look forward to the UK Government publishing the findings of their call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff, and I am frustrated, as I know many people are, about the repeated delays. I understand that the findings are to be published shortly to inform consideration of what more can be done to protect those who work in our shops. All workers in all sectors must be protected from harm as far as is possible, and it is no different for shop workers. Of all workers, they are perhaps the most vulnerable to the kind of intimidation we have heard about.
Those who turn up to their jobs have the fundamental right to be as safe as they possibly can be. I hope the Government will work with shop staff, the retail industry and trade unions to achieve that outcome.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for securing this important debate. Before I begin, I will declare an interest: I worked for five years for the trade union USDAW, which has done fantastic work alongside the British Retail Consortium in raising awareness of and tackling violence against shop staff. In the context of the TUC’s HeartUnions Week, I want to put that good work on record. I particularly highlight the work of the research and economics department, who are so often the unsung heroes behind the scenes of the union’s campaigning work on this issue.
Shop workers in my constituency, many of whom are on zero-hours contracts with poor terms and conditions, are expected to enforce the law on age-related sales. That is one of the key trigger points for violence. Having worked in the retail sector myself, I know from experience only too well how things as benign as not having someone’s preferred sandwich in stock, or asking whether they would like a carrier bag, can result in a volley of abuse being unleashed. Sadly, management may treat staff even more poorly than the customers do.
Retail is the largest employment sector in our country. If the Government are serious about levelling up, alongside a desperately needed industrial strategy in retail, they should do more to end the scourge of violence against retail staff; that should never be part of the job. That includes working constructively with trade unions in the retail sector to create a working environment that is free from violence and the fear of violence; reforming the criminal injuries compensation scheme to ensure that low-paid retail staff on insecure contracts who have been assaulted are eligible for the maximum possible compensation, including covering any loss of earnings; and reforming sentencing legislation to make assaulting retail staff in the course of their work a specific offence. I hope this important debate will kick-start that work.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Gary. I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for continuing the good work of our former colleague, David Hanson, in keeping this issue in front of the House.
I have taken part of a number of debates to which the Minister has responded. I genuinely believe he is serious about wanting to tackle the epidemic of violence facing shop workers in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale referenced the figures from USDAW, which is a great campaigning union. It found that there were some 288 incidents of violence against shop workers every day in 2018. I understand that the figures for last year show a further steep rise in the incidence of violence. That only underlines the importance of this debate and the need for the Government to respond appropriately to the rising tide of evidence that action is needed.
I want to focus specifically on the work of Dr Emmeline Taylor, a leading criminologist who was asked by the Co-op Group to explore the context and the reasons behind the growing level of violence faced by its employees. She came up with seven clear recommendations, which I want to put on the record. Will the Minister be good enough to address—if not today, in the future—each of the recommendations?
Other hon. Members have already talked about the need for a specific, standalone offence to give additional protection to retail workers, so I will concentrate on the other six recommendations. The first is a review of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which introduced the £200 threshold that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) mentioned as being a significant problem in creating expectations that people could get away with shoplifting. It would be good to hear whether the Minister accepts that that is a problem, and that a review is under way.
I agree with the hon. Member’s comments about the £200 threshold. I have raised the matter with my own police force in Humberside. Those officers tell me that they do not treat it as an absolute, and they will treat each case as a matter of priority. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is vital that that message goes out to police forces up and down the country. It is not absolute, and some cases deserve much more attention than others.
It is interesting that the hon. Member says that. I welcome his comments and the conversations he has had. The lack of prosecutions suggests that the issue is still not being taken seriously enough by the Crown Prosecution Service or by the understaffed police forces in our country. I hope that the Minister will be able to demonstrate that that will change.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the £200 threshold is that it puts a monetary value on something when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) demonstrated, the personal consequences of such offences are much greater than the monetary value?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact that post-traumatic stress disorder is being suffered by a number of shop workers who have been on the receiving end of intimidation or actual violence is a powerful demonstration of his point.
Dr Emmeline Taylor recommended a publicity campaign to promote zero-tolerance of violence towards shop workers. That seems eminently sensible and it would be comparatively easy for the Government to encourage that and make it happen. It would be good to hear whether the Minister will support such change. Dr Taylor recommends changing expectations, such that evidence of age should be provided more often to purchase age-restricted items such as alcohol, knives, aerosol paint and tobacco. Again, that seems eminently sensible.
Dr Taylor also recommends measuring hate-motivated offences in shops. Hate-motivated crime was one of the drivers that she identified as being behind the increase in violence against shop workers. Another recommendation was for drug testing on arrest for shop theft and violence against shop workers. She identified the rise in drug use—particularly of heroin, among other substances—as a significant problem, set against the sharp decline in the availability of services to help people deal with addiction. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the rise in police numbers will be matched by a rise in access to drug and alcohol treatment services, and whether he specifically supports drug testing on arrest for shop theft and violence.
The last recommendation was about streamlining the reporting of incidents to the police and an effort to improve the accuracy of data, so that we can properly understand and, over time, tackle the sheer scale of violence against shop workers, which, as we can all clearly report anecdotally, is on the rise. Without accurate data, that will be more difficult to handle. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and others on keeping the campaign very much alive in the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to take part in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on securing it and on highlighting the increase in assaults and threats faced by retail workers across the United Kingdom.
We have had some fantastic contributions. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) highlighted just how well versed retail staff and workers have to be in particular laws, including on sales of alcohol, tobacco and offensive weapons, and other age-restricted items such as books and DVDs. We ask them to enforce those important laws to ensure that we keep our streets safe. We should be ensuring that these workers are afforded that same safety as they go about their business. They play an important role.
We have heard from some Members about drastic injuries sustained by workers going about their day-to-day employment. I hope that steadies the resolve of the Minister and the Government, to ensure that we put as much protection as possible in place for those workers.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the lack of resources for local police and community policing. They are important points, because the lack of policing in our local communities and town centres is having a deep and detrimental impact on the safety of our shop workers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) spoke, of course, about the importance of union representation for shop workers. We have heard about the great work of USDAW and other unions. It is an excellent point because, as he says, some of the largest retailers actively discourage people from signing up to unions. I can speak with authority on that matter, as a former employee or partner of the John Lewis Partnership, one of our most iconic retailers, which actively discourages its members from signing up and being unionised. It is a very important role. This is an issue close to my heart, having built a career for myself within the retail industry before my foray into local politics. In fact, I was specifically dealing with problematic customers and difficult situations, both internally and externally, in matters of fraud and theft.
The protection of shop workers is critical to the success of our high streets. My own local city of Glasgow has a renowned shopping district, known as the style mile, which is the lifeblood of the city and its economy. The same is true of many towns and villages right across the United Kingdom. My own constituency has two large shopping precincts in Coatbridge and Bellshill.
Customer service or customer-facing roles are often the last we think of when considering the dangers faced by people at work. We rightly condemn anyone who perpetrates any crime against our protective services—police, fire, ambulance and so on—who face assaults, attacks or even just obstructions while they are simply going about the roles that they are paid to do, and I think we should take the same approach to all people in their working environment.
There were an estimated 10,000 reported incidents of violence against people working in small local shops in the past 12 months, 41% of which resulted in injury to a worker. That figure is far too high. One person sustaining an injury while simply carrying out their employment is one too many, but I am sure all hon. Members will agree that it is staggering that 41% have been afflicted with an injury. Some 83% of workers in the industry have at some point suffered verbal and threatening abuse for simply doing their job.
The top triggers for said abuse are enforcing the laws and facing difficult situations. I go back to my own bread and butter: people who are in the middle of committing a crime, or who have just committed it, have a fight or flee response, and nine times out of 10, when people are consumed by drug or alcohol addictions, their first reaction is to fight to ensure that they are not locked up.
What is needed from the Government is an urgent response to the Home Office’s call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff. Since that call for evidence closed, we have seen little to no action. We need robust action now from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the police commissioners, to tackle these violent crimes and their perpetrators and to protect the retail workers who are on the frontline every single day.
I also call on the Government to review the out-of-court disposal system. Shoplifting is often considered a victimless crime, but we know that that is simply not the case, especially having heard what so many hon. Members have said today. I ask for the introduction of tougher penalties for any attacks on shop workers. We can look at that in the sentencing Bill and in the sentencing guidelines for assaults.
Finally, I want to say to any young person who may be watching that retail work is a fantastic opportunity for people to learn a whole array of different business attributes. It is a really important role and a really important sector, and we should be actively encouraging people to choose it as a career path. By and large, it is a very safe environment for people to work and go about in, and of course there are some fantastic employers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. This is an incredibly important debate, and it has been one of remarkable consensus on the scale of the problem. I hope the Minister will have some good news in a few minutes’ time in response to the call for evidence, because 115 retail workers have been attacked every day since it closed, according to the British Retail Consortium—a total of 24,000 retail workers. The Association of Convenience Stores estimates that 300,000 retail workers have been either attacked or threatened in that time. In responding to the debate here on 5 November, the Policing Minister described the levels of crime as “obviously unacceptable”.
It is time for me to pay tribute to my friend and former colleague David Hanson, who led that November debate and who championed the cause of retail workers alongside my trade union, USDAW, and many business organisations. I am proud to be an USDAW member and a member of the Co-op as well, because in the context of this debate, their advocacy on behalf of retail staff—both USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign and the Co-op’s report, “‘It’s not part of the job’: Violence and verbal abuse towards shop workers”—has been phenomenal. Today, 228 days after the close of the call for evidence, I repeat David’s call for a response that delivers a crackdown on this pernicious blight on our retail sector and the appalling catalogue of attacks on shop workers, which, sadly, we have heard described in graphic detail by a number of hon. Members during this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) , and I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. I thank the business community and trade unions alike for their contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) all spoke brilliantly, and I thank all hon. Members who intervened as well.
That brings me to my questions for the Minister. Police numbers have declined by 21,000 since this Government came to office. The Government have now promised an increase; indeed, the last Prime Minister started action to increase the recruitment of police officers, but she found that police officers are leaving the service nearly as fast as they can be recruited. The Policing Minister will be acutely aware of how difficult a promise that is to keep, but he must keep it, and in a timely fashion.
We require shop workers to uphold legislation passed by Parliament, so the least we can do is ensure that we protect those same workers. Legislation on solvents, knives, alcohol and tobacco must all be enforced by staff, and all can be the subject of tensions and verbal and physical attacks. The least we can do is ensure that the police have the resources to prevent assaults. Having more police is an essential prerequisite for the prevention of retail crime. Industry is taking steps—£1 billion-worth of steps—and employers absolutely have a responsibility, which they should be held accountable for meeting, to look after their workers. However, the public authorities should act as well, and that is why I repeat that call for the police officers on our streets to support retail workers.
Retail staff should also be able to rely on the justice system. That means prosecutions for violence, abuse, theft and shoplifting, and support for businesses and their staff. Failure to prosecute lets down the victims, so the Government need to ensure that the criminal justice system is equipped to act. The alternative is repeat offences and ongoing intimidation, threats and violence. A caution is not the answer. Consequences must be meaningful, not meaningless; that is why the Association of Convenience Stores calls for a review of the out-of-court disposal system, which needs attention and a response from the Minister. The association’s concern is that it is not disrupting offending and, indeed, is allowing repeat offending against retail workers.
That brings me to the call for tougher sentences and an answer to the question asked by David Hanson and by my hon. Friends. Will the Government legislate to protect shop workers, including, but not exclusively, when enforcing legislation such as age restrictions on sales of corrosives and knives? We have protections in place for emergency workers, and rightly so. Is it not time we did the same for retail workers? Will the Government create a specific offence of assault on a retail worker? Will they review the £200 shoplifting limit, below which no action is taken on thefts? Will they look at the role of organised crime gangs in attacks on shops—an added threat to staff and communities that also needs attention?
As Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium put it:
“No one should ever go to work in fear for simply carrying out their job. Retail workers are at the core of our communities across the country and these horrific crimes impact these skilled, passionate and determined individuals that make the industry what it is.”
This is an incredibly important industry, and I hope that the long-awaited industrial strategy for retail includes an element of protection for retail workers. I hope the Minister comments on that.
My friend David’s last words in Hansard were that
“this issue will not go away and will be dealt with by Parliament.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2019; Vol. 667, c. 252WH.]
I hope he is right, and that the Minister will give some hope that the Government will give retail workers the support and protection they need and deserve.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I make no complaint that this subject has been brought up twice in three months. It is obviously extremely important and affects all our constituents in many ways.
Frankly, I have experienced this issue myself. When I was a young man, as a relatively penniless student, I worked behind a bar in a pub for about six months. I well remember the tension when denying another drink to those who had perhaps drunk a little too much. I am a big fellow, and if I felt threatened, there is no question but that people who do not quite have my physical stature might have felt deeply anxious and threatened. Fortunately, I never faced violence, but I am aware that lots do. As an MP representing a constituency with a small town in it, I am aware of the violence prevalent on the high street, and particularly in retail premises.
In the debate back in November, on the last day of the last Parliament, I took Members through the initial findings of the call for evidence. To be honest, although my speech was going to rehearse that again, it sounds as if people are a little more interested in a sense of action and movement, so with the forbearance of Members I will skip to that part. Having sat as a Back Bencher through a lot of ministerial speeches, I have found that there is quite a lot of flannel in a lot of them, and this is an area in which we need to see action more swiftly.
First, we will publish the response to the call for evidence next month; it will come shortly, in the next few weeks. I hope that that will be the start of action, not the end. I refer everybody to the speech I gave back in November, which indicated some alarming developments in violence towards retail workers and, sadly, the sense that that community of workers is starting to feel that it is just an acceptable part of their existence, which, from our point of view, is completely unacceptable. There is much more that we can do.
Secondly, as I am sure Members know, we co-chair the national retail crime steering group with the British Retail Consortium, through which we can do a number of things. One key theme coming through from the call for evidence is about really understanding the data and what is going on and disseminating that to the organisations that need to be doing something about it, both private and public. I will set up an intelligence-sharing group, made up of some members of the steering group, to work through what the data tells us and some of the practical solutions that we need, and then to report back to the wider group, which can help to implement this on a national scale.
Another thing that came through was about messaging effectively—to customers and staff—about the unacceptability of violence in a retail environment. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), we should take a zero-tolerance approach towards this sort of violence, so a second group will try to develop some of that effective messaging, which we then hope to promote among retailers, learning from some of the good practice we have seen in sectors elsewhere and trying to bring the worst up to the standard of the best.
Thirdly, there is a big job for policing in terms of violence generally across our streets, but in retail in particular. As a couple of Members mentioned, we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers by the end of the next 36 months. We will have to replace all the ones who retired as well, so the overall target will be to recruit between 40,000 and 50,000 over the next three years. It is a huge task, but it has nevertheless started well, and the first batch of recruits are already out and in training, on top of some of the recruits put in place last year off the budget settlement that policing got then.
Critically, we said that those first 6,000 police officers, who we are relatively confident we will get in the first 12 months, have been designated to be territorial police officers, so they will be out in our communities and on the streets, able to respond to incidents that take place in a retail environment. That is an investment of something like £750 million, and it is the first instalment of a three-year programme that we hope and believe will significantly increase the police presence in our high streets and shops. We have also given the Crown Prosecution Service an extra £85 million to enhance its ability to prosecute.
I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) raised the issue of making sure that our police and crime commissioners and chief constables are aware of the issues around the £200 limit. I will write to them all to point out that the £200 limit is optional. It is no brake on their ability to prosecute or arrest somebody, which is effectively for their judgment. I will also include in that letter a requirement for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to examine their data too, to understand what is happening and to respond to concerns in their own communities about this kind of crime in the priorities that they set in their police and crime plans. Hon. Members will be aware that police and crime commissioner elections are coming up in May. This is such an important issue that I think all candidates should be apprised of it. We should put it on their agenda, so I will write to them as well.
That is the start of what I hope will be a huge collective effort to combat violence in retail and generally across the country.
I am not at the moment. I will consider the seven points raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West to see what more can be done, whether that is a specific sentence or whether we need the Sentencing Council to look at assault and think about aggravating factors that might be taken into account.
I definitely recognise that asking shop staff to arbitrate or to enforce legislation puts them in a particular position of vulnerability that may induce violence. There is a case there that needs to be addressed, and I am certainly happy to talk to the Lord Chancellor about his views on sentencing. We obviously have a general offence of assault, which can be used, and aggravating factors in particular circumstances should also be taken into account in sentencing, but we will certainly have a look.
I definitely think that part of our response and the work that we need to do following the publication of the call for evidence will be to look at not only Scotland but other countries around the world. This phenomenon will be common to most countries, certainly in Europe and elsewhere, and it will be interesting to see practices from across the world, to see if there is anything we can do to improve. We should not believe that if it is not made here, it is not any good. In my time in policing in the past, I found that learning what other countries do is often helpful, so we will definitely look for that evidence.
This extremely serious phenomenon contributes in many ways to the lack of health of our high streets and the unwillingness of our constituents to use their high streets, set against the internet retail and shopping phenomenon, which is already cutting away at the foundations of the health of the high street. If we can make high streets peaceful and attractive places where people want to go, we will put the heart back into our communities. Hon. Members have my commitment that we will do our best to make that so.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including the Front-Bench spokespeople, and I thank the Minister for his quite detailed response. This is an important phenomenon, and the action it requires is what works, including in other countries, whether Scotland or elsewhere. We need legislation to protect retail workers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered protection of retail workers.