Wednesday 4 March 2020
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Huawei and 5G
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the security implications of including Huawei in 5G.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am pleased to see so that many right hon. and hon. Members want to speak, so I will be as brief as possible.
The Government’s decision to go ahead with Huawei in the 5G network in the UK—it is clear from the evidence—has angered our allies and perplexed many of us who see this as an avoidable risk. In the rush—I believe it is a rush—to go ahead with the 5G system for the UK using Huawei’s products extensively, the UK Government have brushed aside the concerns of all our most important allies and the people we generally rely on. There is an overwhelming body of evidence indicating that Huawei is an untrusted vendor, which should not be given any further opportunity of access to our most vital communication networks.
The decision of the UK Government leaves us, at the moment, utterly friendless among our allies. After all, Huawei is effectively a state-owned corporation in the People’s Republic of China under the Communist party. Huawei Technologies is 99%-owned by Huawei Investment & Holding, which in turn is completely owned by Huawei Investment & Holding’s trade union committee. According to Chinese law, trade union committees are classified as public or mass organisations, which do not have shareholders, as they are recognised under Chinese law as legal persons or entities in their own right. An example of a public organisation would be the Communist Youth League.
The relationship between Huawei and the state is the same as the Communist Youth League to the state. Therefore, is it not baffling that the Government continue to argue that Huawei is a private company, given that, by the western definition, that cannot be said in any meaningful sense?
I was on a radio programme a couple of weeks ago with a director of Huawei in this country, who happens to be a former permanent secretary. I was surprised to hear him describe Huawei as being rather like John Lewis, in that it was owned by its employees, and that we had all got this wrong. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an absurd characterisation of Huawei?
It is either absurd or I will have to review my purchase from John Lewis. My socks might even be bugged! My right hon. Friend is exactly right. I want to make this point, which often goes missing in this debate. Huawei is also seen as a national security threat. It continues to deal extensively with Iran without full public knowledge of how; it built a mobile network for North Korea; and it is providing security surveillance and censoring systems to authoritarian regimes, not least the Chinese Government.
It has long been documented that Huawei has a long and intimate history with the Chinese security services, and there are issues around the security systems that have been provided for them, which are now being used, I think, to supress the Uyghur people. I have real concerns about that.
I want to bring to the right hon. Gentleman’s attention a recently published report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Uyghurs for sale”, which reports a horrific programme of exporting Uyghurs from Xinjiang to other parts of China. According to the report, Huawei is one of the companies that has benefited as a consequence.
That is shocking. If true, it is an absolute indictment. The British Government and other western Governments must speak up more about this and say that what is going on there is simply intolerable. If that were any other Government, it would be shocking. It is time that we call it what it is.
If all that is not enough to make one concerned—it should be—I hope that the UK Government, my Government, have noticed the following:
“A superseding indictment was returned yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. (Huawei), the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, and two U.S. subsidiaries with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act”.
That is a very serious charge, which was made a matter of weeks ago, yet the UK Government announced that although they recognise Huawei as an untrusted provider, we would not stop network providers using Huawei equipment in the new 5G system. Instead of banning them, as our allies have done, we would place limits on the locations and the extent to which Huawei products may be deployed in our 5G network, to reduce Huawei’s involvement over time to the figure of 35%.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that by conceding that there is a problem and that it must be limited to 35%, the Government are admitting that the only safe option is to go to 0%? We have infuriated the Americans and our other allies in the Five Eyes. We know the Foreign Secretary had a bad time in Australia. Should we not have a concerted programme now with the Five Eyes allies to get to 0% over a short period of time?
I completely agree. I think the figure of 35% has been plucked from thin air. I will come on to the reasons why it does not work. Imagine that in 1939 we had been developing our radar systems and decided to have one of the Nazi companies in Germany directly involved. Oh, but we reduced their involvement to 35%, so they only controlled 35%. I wonder how ridiculous that would have seemed.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I am not an expert in this field, but as the technology catches up, the Government intend to reinject our technology into 5G. I assume that once the Chinese are in there, we will never get them out.
That is the point. Each time, we are told that they will reduce, but, in fact, we get more and more addicted to them and are unable to change.
When the Government announced the figure of 35%, they made the point that the plan to exclude Huawei products from the core of the 5G infrastructure meant that we would solve the problem by restricting them only to the edge, as it was described. This position critically rests on the assumption that the core cannot be compromised from the edge. Most cyber experts whom I have spoken to know that this is an unsafe assumption, because they know that the whole 5G network can be attacked starting from the compromised edge, given the nature of change to the technological capability of the edge.
The edge components can be compromised. Indeed, there is some evidence that such attacks have already taken place on a limited scale elsewhere. For example, a hostile adversary might disable our 5G network by simply shutting down our antennas and/or routers at the edge by remotely activating the malware already buried inside many of those processors. Those embedded in the edge will have kill switches, which are currently nigh on impossible to detect and, therefore, to mitigate.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. One facet of living in a free country is that we are free to make our own mistakes. This is the first big mistake that we have made. As a former Armed Forces Minister, I want to reinforce everything he has said. Given what I learned when I was in office, the idea that we can keep them securely on the edge is complete and utter nonsense.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and he will see that in the course of my remarks I will point out that we—alone, it appears—are taking an enormous gamble.
The second reason the Government prayed in aid of their decision on 5G was the fact that it offered three main benefits: faster data transmission rates, shorter delays and increased network capacity. While faster data transmission rates can improve user experience—there is no doubt about that—for most people, 5G will not significantly impact their experience. Tasks such as viewing a movie will not be perceptibly different from 4G. In any case, the data speeds offered by 5G—100 megabits per second to 1000 megabits per second—are in the range offered by more conventional superfast fibre broadband. In many cases, the desired performance can and should be achieved by other means. Completing the roll-out of superfast fibre broadband, which my Government have constantly promised to complete to the level it should be at, is the No. 1 priority. Further, that will affect the ability of 5G to operate.
This comes down to a rather taxing conundrum. On the one hand, we have the intense concern of our Five Eyes partners about potentially allowing China into our security and societal networks; on the other hand, there is the economic opportunity cost of excluding Huawei from 5G. In the final analysis, does my right hon. Friend agree that security and democracy trump economics in all circumstances?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a really first-class speech. Of course, the argument about 5G or 4G is rather esoteric in parts of my constituency, because far too many of my constituents have zero G; I will just put that on the record. However, when we buy the box of tricks from the Chinese, if I can call it that, is there not also an issue, in that we are losing something here? That is because in this country we must maintain our skills in all of this stuff, and I believe that in going down this route we are going down a very dangerous road indeed in that regard.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I will come back to that point in a short while.
Although the Government claim that 5G will increase network capacity, there are concerns about the proliferation of the connected internet of things—the IOT devices—and a dramatic increase in self-driving cars with next-generation telematics. That is the key point.
There may be response-time critical benefits—in fact, there certainly are—in future with 5G, such as how self-driving cars share safety-critical information with one another. However, these applications overwhelmingly lie in the future and importantly will rely on a wider set of technological changes and significant changes in social attitudes; we must bear that in mind. This pressure that we can do things tomorrow, or within a few years, will somehow be another one of those gains that are used to leverage the idea that we have to make this development.
My right hon. Friend makes the very important point that if 5G is the technology of the future, it will drive many things that people use on a daily basis. Does he agree that we should not accept critical infrastructure for this country to be built by companies that we have no trust in and about which there are serious security concerns, and that if we do not have the capacity to build that 5G system now, we should build coalitions of companies that can work together and be credible alternative providers of this important technology?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and prompts the question: who has been asleep on their watch? That goes right back to the time when the Labour party was in government and was not even told by civil servants that they had made the decision to approve the involvement of 5G. Saying that is not to blame Ministers; it was the fault originally of civil servants.
Even if the Government disagree about the urgent need for such developments or disagree with my argument about this issue, surely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, security is a greater priority. Government policy must consider the wisdom of proceeding to deploy vast numbers of IOT sensors in our environment, offices and homes, unless and until current legitimate security concerns about this issue have been laid to rest.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this extremely important debate. First, may I say that it is quite clear in this Chamber that there is bipartisan support for his position, as indeed there is in the United States among Republicans and Democrats on this issue, and as indeed there is in Australia with the Australian Liberal Government and the Australian Labour party on this issue? Therefore, one must ask: why are the Government pursuing this course? I ask that because the right hon. Gentleman is slightly in danger of accepting the argument that somehow Huawei is light years ahead of other companies in this field. It is probably a few months ahead, given the nature of this industry, which is always changing rapidly, and companies such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung are clearly developing, too. What those companies really need are orders, which are what Huawei has had from the Chinese Government, to pull through their development.
I am grateful, as ever, to the right hon. Gentleman, who is in danger of making my speech before I do, because I am coming on to those points. He will find that we not do not just have cross-party support; we are absolutely linked in our concern about Huawei.
I will come back to this point later, but I am afraid that a lot of this issue is about the way in which the establishment at the moment in the UK has somehow found itself locked into this Huawei process, and we need to break it free; it is like getting somebody free of an addiction to heroin. We need to put it into rehabilitation, which is the point of my speech at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman is making the case that security is paramount. Does he agree that there is also a commercial argument, in that the Government are going to reward Huawei, which has bought its way into the system? Its first tenders in the 3G and 4G networks were at a quarter of the costs of its commercial competitors in Europe and North America. We should not reward people who are basically trying to bankrupt our industry.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This relates to my earlier comment about the linkage with the Government. I will come back to Huawei’s ability to draw on support finance—which we might call Government support.
I am aware that you want me to make progress, Mr Paisely, so I shall. I will also ask others to restrain themselves slightly, although I will not refuse interventions. That will not win me points from you, Mr Paisley, but I will not defy my colleagues.
Perhaps most bizarrely, I think that the rush by the Government is being driven by the fear that we will be left behind by others. It is worth tackling that point. I find it difficult to comprehend their position, given that a growing number of leading western nations, many of them our competitors in many fields, intend not to use Huawei—in fact, they will depart completely from Huawei, even if that means a delay—or any other untrusted vendors. Surely, therefore, it is inevitable that the worldwide roll-out of 5G must slow down. Given that so many nations are saying no to Huawei, this should be an opportunity for us to prioritise national security over the breakneck speed with which the deployment of 5G is being pressed on us.
I, too, praise my right hon. Friend for making a very strong speech. Does he agree that the two successful roll-outs of 5G so far have been carried out in South Korea and Japan—by Samsung and Fujitsu respectively—and neither of them seems to have included Huawei?
Yes, I agree. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, I have read a note from Samsung declaring that it is completely feasible to do this work without any involvement from Huawei. Indeed, Samsung made very clear its belief that Huawei is a direct threat to our national security because its system is not a trusted one.
Far from Huawei having some insurmountable technological lead, it seems, when one starts to investigate, that the quality of its work is no better than anybody else’s, and in some cases somewhat worse. I recall even Dr Ian Levy, the technical director of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, saying about a year ago that Huawei’s security was “very, very shoddy”. He also said that
“it’s engineering like it’s back in the year 2000”.
We need to take stock of this nonsense propaganda that Huawei is light years ahead as an organisation. Yes, it has a lot of people in research and development, but the reality is that its development has been about money.
The Government say that telecommunications companies are all reliant on Huawei. It was said earlier in the debate that telcos are absolutely reliant on Huawei, so delay would leave them significantly out of pocket. According to that line of argument, however, I would argue that reducing Huawei’s involvement to even 35% would leave telcos out of pocket, so we are already halfway there, as it were. It seems daft to try to make that argument.
Of course, the reliance on Huawei comes as a result of it having constantly bid well below other market competitors for UK and other business. After all, there is a long history of the China Development Bank providing low-cost financing for Huawei customers, and that approach is updated every few years. A recent report estimates that, when one takes in tax breaks, grants and low-cost land acquisitions, the subsidy comes to more than $75 billion. No western company in this sector will be able to compete on those grounds.
Despite all that, it is not common knowledge that at least one very significant UK service provider has contacted me to say that it has already made clear that it will not use Huawei in its 5G network. O2 suggests that the idea that these systems cannot be created without Huawei—my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) mentioned this earlier—is complete and utter nonsense.
The NCSC’s guidance does not even mention services. I understand that Huawei is now taking over the managed services for another operator, Three, which opens up yet another huge area to gather information from. If someone has a map of a radio network, they will also have a map of everything connected to that radio network. They will know what each piece is, what it does and how to attack it.
Yet our dependence on Huawei goes even deeper—much deeper than many people realise. I have just noticed that Huawei is present in the emergency services network, which is often referred to as the blue lamp or blue light service. The service is part of our critical national infrastructure, but the issue did not come out in the statements. I am astonished that that would be allowed. We can imagine how dangerous any form of disruption would be to that service. It beggars belief. Then I discovered that MI5 uses a systems provider that is heavily dependent on Huawei equipment. These decisions are barking mad.
The point I am making is that the systems and everything else that is being used are making things very vulnerable. The right hon. Gentleman makes my point exactly.
I am worried about the Government mobile system, which I understand the Government are working on. As usual for the civil service, it has some ghastly acronym. It is called gomo for short, which rather describes the process that we have been going through so far with Huawei. The Government have decreed that it will be one supplier only. It stands to reason that unless the Government block untrusted providers from the system, we will likely be handing over control of yet another vital and sensitive system to the organisation under discussion. That is a big question for the Government. Will they ensure that when that contract is let, the supplier will not have any input from untrusted providers such as Huawei? The Minister needs to answer that question.
I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend’s brilliant speech. As far as I can see, so far he has knocked down the Government’s arguments on technical grounds, diplomatic grounds, security grounds, practical grounds, commercial grounds and public safety grounds. After listening to his speech, there are no grounds on which to accept Huawei involvement in our national infrastructure. Can it be, therefore, that the Government’s only argument for accepting Huawei’s involvement is fear of China’s economic and geostrategic power? Giving in to that may be expedient, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be geostrategically wrong to kowtow to the Chinese Government?
I am so grateful. This is my second intervention, and then I will sit down and shut up. On the list that my right hon. Friend just gave, one thing he did not mention was trade. As the UK leaves the EU, we desperately seek our friends and allies to make a good trade deal. As I understand it, the US is now thinking not to sign up to a trade deal if 5G is linked to any part of it.
There is no question that the US Administration are very exercised by the UK’s decision to go ahead with 5G and Huawei. In fact, I cannot think of any other time when we have been so separated from most of our allies that we respect. The thing I cannot get is that even Vietnam, for God’s sake—a communist country next door to China—will not have Huawei in their systems.
Indeed. We are all neighbours in the global environment, as the dreadful coronavirus shows us.
The problem is compounded—this is not really spoken of in these debates, and the Government never make any mention of this—is a deeper and further problem. It exposes the degree to which western Governments, including our Government, to a degree—I am talking about successive Governments; this is not a shot at my Government, as the issue goes back further than that—have taken their eye off the ball. Much of the available equipment, including electronic sub-assemblies, is of unknown security provenance. At present, beyond existing contracted functions, we have little to no idea what else lies in our installed systems. UK Governments and others—I particularly want to focus on my Government—have done little to tackle the problem. Understanding what is inside the chips and processors is critical. Any malware needs to be detected. Surely, after all these years, we could have worked to ensure as much as possible that products deployed into secure or critical national infrastructure are auditable, so that we understand what is in them. What better way to do that than by collaboration with our Five Eyes allies, to ensure that we drive security much deeper? Nothing has happened, however.
We are in a mess, and the only way to get out of it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) said, is to ensure that Huawei’s involvement is reduced from the Government’s present position of 35% down to 0%. I recognise that may take a little time, but that should be the purpose of the Government over the next two years.
Successive British Governments—this is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made—have tried to get close to China in the hope that we can take advantage of their markets. I recognise that that is not unreasonable, but in so doing, we seem to be playing a dangerous game. After all, this totalitarian regime is not an ally of ours, and we get confused about that at times, even if the Foreign Office is reluctant to admit that China poses a threat to us, for fear of upsetting the Chinese Government. That threat is not just in its cyber-attacks on our systems, but also in the way in which it does not obey the international rules-based order in trade. That point has been made today. By the way, no other country does a level of business proportionate to its population as much as Australia does with China. Australia is not frightened of saying no to the procedure, and I do not see anybody trying to beat it up on trade. Sometimes I wonder if we do not project the sense of power or force that we should.
As the UK leaves the EU, we should avoid kowtowing, as my right hon. Friend so rightly said—that wonderful Chinese act of placing one’s forehead on the ground in front of one’s respected superior—to China or anyone else. The British Government should commit to reducing and eradicating our dependence on Huawei, in line with our allies. That is really important. After all, defence of the realm is surely our first priority, and that goes for cyber-space as well. If defence of the realm is our first priority, what the Government are proposing today is not defence of the realm, but semi-defence of the realm, and that simply will not do.
We have had a 26 minute-speech or thereabouts and 15 interventions, some very substantial, which have maybe taken the ardour out of some people already. I have 11 speakers to get in, including the Front-Bench spokespersons for the Government and the Opposition parties. I will therefore be time-limiting Members to four minutes, to allow all the speakers on my official list to speak. However, if they take interventions, that could be reduced or may knock a speaker out.
I associate myself with much of what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has said. Much of Britain’s security future is not invested in weapons or armies, but in communications. The decision to allow Huawei into Britain’s communications puts our infrastructure at risk. Giving Huawei 35% of the 5G network and allowing it into our infrastructure sends a message globally that in terms of telecoms security, anything goes in the UK.
The 5G network is coming and it will be beneficial. The question is how to bring the network forward. Innovations that allow us to speak to friends across the world, that give us limitless information and that will ensure that mobile wi-fi speeds rival those of broadband are necessary for our economic viability, but those possibilities create new threats, such as the placing of spy cameras in every home and microphones in every workplace.
The Americans and the Dutch recognise the threat. The former chief of MI6 recognises the threat. In December 2018, the then Defence Secretary—now the Secretary of State for Education—expressed grave and deep concerns about Huawei providing technology to upgrade Britain’s services to 5G. He accused Beijing of sometimes acting in a malign way. Why can the rest of the Government not recognise the threat? Do we allow a foreign company potential access to every laptop, phone and self-driving car in this country and pay them for the privilege? Do we allow one of the main suppliers of the great firewall to have free rein over our internet back end here? Do we allow a company, closely aligned to a state that has more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims locked up without trial, access to our network infra- structure? I think not.
There have been some attempts to separate the horrors of the Chinese state and Huawei the company, but we have seen time and again that Huawei is intimately intertwined with Chinese policy towards the Uyghur. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:
“Huawei works directly with the Chinese Government’s Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang on a range of projects.”
We know that Huawei is collaborating with the Chinese Government to build mass surveillance to target the Uyghur people. Why are we rolling out the red carpet to Huawei? It has shown little concern about human rights violations. Its company policy asks:
“Is it legal within the countries in which we operate?”
That is its criterion. It says it is for others to make a judgment on whether that is right or wrong. Is that the kind of company we want at the heart of our infrastructure?
On workers’ rights, we know that Huawei mistreats not only the Uyghurs, but its own workers. It operates a “wolf” work culture of long hours and brutal workplace norms. Hours are so long that new employees are given mattresses to collapse on. The wolf culture encourages employees to break and bend rules. It means that the company uses the police against its own workers, with some being imprisoned for months and months.
Huawei will not hesitate to break the trust that the Government have placed in them if it thinks it will benefit the company. The Government can choose to release the wolf into our country, but they cannot be surprised if they then get bitten. Ironically, the company claims to be owned by the same workers that it mistreats, but its ownership structures, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, are hugely opaque. The operating company is 100% owned by a holding company, which is in turn approximately 1% owned by Huawei’s founder and 99% owned by an entity called a “trade union committee”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the debate. In the four minutes that I have I shall go through some of the important points that have not been covered. Huawei is a high-risk vendor and should not be in our critical national infrastructure. That is the first significant mistake that this Government have made. How bad and how serious it becomes will be obvious in time. I want to cover not only national security, which my right hon. Friend has eloquently spoken about, but data privacy, our values, our alliances, and, critically, other issues around the competence of Huawei, and fair trade and economics.
I still do not understand why the Government continue to claim that Huawei is a private firm. The point has been made already that it is 99% owned by Chinese trade unions, so will the Minister explain why he and previous Ministers—certainly previous Ministers—have argued that Huawei is a private firm when to all intents and purposes it is part and parcel of the Chinese state? The Government claim that Huawei can be safely limited to the periphery of a network. Most experts and many security agencies say not. I quote Mike Burgess, head of Australia’s version of GCHQ:
“The distinction between core and edge collapses in 5G networks. That means that a potential threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network.”
Will the Minister comment on that? One of Mike Burgess’s senior directors, Simeon Gilding, tried to design a system that could have a high-risk vendor in Australia’s five G network. He failed and said it was not possible. He said that the British
“think they can manage the risk but we don’t think that is plausible given Huawei would be subject to direction from hostile intelligence services.”
Again, will the Minister comment on that? Are there espionage issues with Huawei? They are multiple. Chinese national intelligence law states that citizens have to co-operate. Furthermore, it states that the information that Huawei gets from the UK is the property of the Chinese state. Again, will the Minister comment?
China has a dreadful reputation for cyber-attacks. Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers have been charged with the 2017 cyber-security security attack on Equifax, which included data on millions of Britons. Why does the Minister think the Chinese want to collect so much information on so many millions of people in the west? That applies not only to Britons, but the 21.5 million files they stole on US federal employees in 2015. Can the Huawei Cell offer reassurances? Not really. It states that the Cell
“can only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei's involvement...can be sufficiently mitigated”.
It complained that no material progress was being made by Huawei on the concerns of 2018, and it continued to identify security issues. Are there other security issues? Yes, for sure there are. I quote Finite State, a respected US company:
“Huawei devices quantitatively pose a high risk to their users.. In virtually all categories we studied, we found Huawei devices to be less secure.”
Bloomberg reported that Vodafone in several countries found illicit backdoors on Huawei technology. In March 2019, Microsoft uncovered Huawei MateBook systems running a system whereby unauthorised people could create super-user privileges. There are significant industrial espionage issues with Huawei. Will the Minister comment on those?
We know about Huawei’s involvement in China’s human rights abuses. It works closely with the state in Xinjiang province. Indeed, it boasts about it. In this country, it is a private company. In China, it is part and parcel of the state apparatus. I would love a comment from the Minister. Huawei claims it is a market leader. According to Chris Balding, an academic who studies Huawei, it is not. It is ranked fourth to sixth globally. It has a $100 billion credit line from the China Development Bank, which means that, apart from any other questionable business practices it has—we have been told of quite a few—it can undercut by 30% to 50% any other vendor. By allowing Huawei in the system, we effectively allow data privacy issues, damage to our alliances, and damage to free trade. We do western companies out of business so that we will have to become reliant in due course on China’s 5G as part of a significant power play in our critical national infrastructure.
That is quite all right.
We can tell this debate is important because of the variety of personalities sitting here. We have several former Cabinet Ministers, a former Deputy Prime Minister, and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Chairman and the former Chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee were here earlier. If the Tory party had a politburo, this would be it. It is clearly a sign that the Government have trouble ahead, and so they should. I do not need to echo many of the objections already made by Members here this morning. I am sure they will continue as the debate goes on, not only here in this room today, but in other parts of the House.
I want the House to consider the issue in a much broader sense. Who writes the rules on this part of international engagement when it comes to things such as the use of chemical or nuclear weapons, or traditional kinetic warfare? We have all kinds of international rules and treaties on the international order, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned, but we have very little written down internationally with our partners when it comes to the cyber world. As far as I can see, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, by dint of China buying its way into the market, China is writing the rules. The decision has been made by the UK Government from a position of enormous weakness. I take no pleasure in that. I want the Government to get this right, but they are getting it wrong—badly wrong.
The Government are getting it wrong not only because of all the issues around privacy and the broader issues of security, and not only because of the actor involved and its appalling human rights record, but they are in danger of being present but not involved, to coin a phrase, when it comes to setting rules that our citizens rely on so that we can live peacefully, freely and with prosperity. If this is global Britain, I am concerned. Global Britain is not my project, but I wish it well. It is important that it is got right. From where I stand, this looks like gullible Britain, and I think that is a great shame.
During the 2014 independence referendum the parliamentary private secretary to the Minister, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who is sitting here, would have argued that an independent Scotland would be thrown out of Five Eyes and unable to get access to it. It strikes me that the United Kingdom is doing its best to get chucked out of Five Eyes at this very minute, and I do not want that to happen.
I hope that the Minister will respond to many of the concerns that have been raised, but we all need to lift our eyes a bit. We need greater international co-operation on attribution. Given that we do not have—here comes the dreaded phrase—a coalition of the willing in order to set some rules, we will continue to be played by not just China but Iran, Russia, North Korea, non-state actors and surrogate actors. My goodness, what a mess that will make.
If we are serious about global Britain—my party has something to say on that—let us have that discussion, but we cannot talk about Huawei and 5G in isolation, because there is a much bigger picture and something more dangerous at stake.
I start by declaring an interest: I used to work for BT’s cyber-security team before I was elected. I have spent 10 years working in the cyber-security industry, and I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The security of our telecoms network is vital as we move towards an ever more connected society and economy. It does not, however, rest on the presence or absence of equipment from any single supplier. Strong cyber-security for any system, including our telecoms networks, is determined by: the security architecture principles that have been followed in its design; how the system is managed in-life, including the security controls and monitoring around it; the contingency planning that has taken place, which enables any risks that materialise to be dealt with effectively; and the testing of that contingency planning.
I will address each of those briefly, but the key thing I wish to emphasise is that there is no risk-free option. Regardless of the equipment used, our telecoms networks, Government bodies, businesses and critical national infrastructure operators will always be targets for nation states, aggressors, criminals and hackers. The key thing is to manage the risk and reduce it to an acceptable level. That is what, in my view, the telecoms security requirements achieve.
I am sorry to interrupt; I know that time is short. Is my hon. Friend saying that there is no implication for 5G security, never mind the geopolitics and politics, of having a high-risk, untrusted vendor from a potentially adversarial state in the system? Is it not like giving the burglar the keys to our house, while pretending that we have a safe that is safe?
For a start, there are no trusted vendors. Most companies operate a zero-trust policy when it comes to all cyber-security vendors. Secondly, the key point is how we manage that risk. I will go on to answer the question in a bit more detail, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.
The TSRs establish a baseline for security in telecoms, and put it on a statutory footing. They prohibit the use of high-risk vendors in sensitive functions of the network, and cap the use of such vendors at 35% across the network as a whole. As a result of their implementation, we will have some of the most secure networks in the world. The TSRs provide a clear and exhaustive list of sensitive functions related to the control, orchestration and virtualisation of our networks where high-risk vendors cannot be used. They will not be used in the intelligence or control planes of the network, and therefore will not interact with customer traffic in a detailed manner. Any impact of failure will also have a limited, localised geographical reach.
Many understandable concerns have been raised that moving to 5G networks will somehow merge those sensitive functions, often referred to as core functions, with less sensitive parts of the network in which equipment from high-risk vendors will be used. Moving to 5G network technologies could enable us to move sensitive functions out to the edge of the network, but “could” does not mean “should”. Were we to do so, using a high-risk vendor would be the least of our problems.
The further restrictions of only one high-risk vendor in the network and the hard cap of 35% further enhance the security standards. Security architecture principles are not a desperate measure to enable us to use a high-risk vendor; they are part of every network deployment everywhere, whether it is a telecoms network at national level or a business network at company level. More sensitive information and functions with higher risk are treated differently from those with lower risk. A blanket approach of doing away with all higher-risk vendors or technologies would mean that we could not use emerging technologies that offer so much benefit when deployed appropriately.
Today’s motion specifically references Huawei. The UK has globally leading insight into Huawei’s operations, processes and products through the Government-chaired Huawei cyber-security evaluation centre. Whoever the vendor is, any responsible telecoms provider will fully test all hardware and software before deploying it into their networks.
Is that not the problem? So much of our kit is not being tested, which is why we need a fuller security audit. Also, the Cell is becoming increasingly concerned about Huawei, saying that Huawei is not delivering the improvements that the Cell needs. The Cell highlights those concerns in its reports.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. There are engineering problems in Huawei, and the Government and many UK customers have been very clear that they want Huawei to solve them. The news that I must give him is that if he started looking at the code of any supplier, he would see security issues. In security engineering, I am afraid that people make mistakes when it comes to software.
Equipment and performance is monitored in-life by telcos, and threat hunting is carried out across the whole network. Technologies are increasingly powered by artificial intelligence. AI look for anomalies of behaviour both inside the network, in terms of patterns of incoming traffic, and suspicious outbound traffic. Attempts to sabotage equipment or exfiltrate data at scale will be detected.
The National Cyber Security Centre, my former employer BT and many other telcos have all been very clear that they have not previously detected attempts at malicious activity by Huawei. If they had, they would hardly be doing business with them for their 5G networks. However, we cannot rely on the past to determine the future. That is why the cap on the amount of equipment provided by one supplier is so important, as it stops an over-reliance on one supplier in the network. Other arrangements, such as the escrow of source code, enable providers to isolate equipment in their networks and take over full operation of it, should that be deemed necessary due to mounting international tensions.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for introducing it, for setting the scene so well, and for speaking for the majority of us in this House and in the Chamber today, and the majority of those outside as well.
I am no tech expert—far from it—yet I have had concerns from the outset about the safety of allowing Huawei into the 5G network. When I find myself at a loss regarding the nuances of an issue, I always turn to those who understand it much better. For that purpose, I have looked at the relations of other nations with Huawei, and the facts cannot be ignored. My concerns have led me to question the Minister, today and on previous occasions.
Security and democracy must have priority. Defence of the realm, as the right hon. Member referred to, for this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be protected. Our first duty must always be to our citizens and constituents. They have told me that they share the deep concerns that so far all Members bar one have expressed in the Chamber today.
My fears and concerns have not been assuaged since the question I asked the then Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), in April last year. I said:
“Huawei has been banned from the core of 5G, but it is to be allowed to operate at the edge. The edge includes masts and antennas, which are also very sensitive. Canada and New Zealand have expressed concern, and Australia and the United States of America have said there is no relevant distinction between the core and the edge of 5G networks. What discussions has the Minister had with those four countries, and has their determination had any influence on our decision?”—[Official Report, 25 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 892.]
The then Minister’s response was that discussions with our Five Eyes partners were ongoing, yet we appear to have dismissed that, while still allowing that there is a safety implication of Chinese interference and reliance on that technology. Again, I find myself uneasy and desirous that, even at this stage, we rethink this massive step. That is the feeling of the majority in the Chamber.
China is guilty of some of the worst, barbarous, evil, surgical human rights abuses against its own citizens. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and others have referred to the Uyghur Muslims, but it is not just them; there are also the Christians, the Falun Gong, and many other people. China has tried to re-educate them through forced labour and surveillance of what they are doing, and has used Huawei 5G to do so. Huawei has also been deeply involved in organ harvesting—commercial harvesting of organs from people who just happen to have a different faith.
The Financial Post has given this summary:
“The United Kingdom has now broken ranks with many of its closest allies”—
allies in whom we have great trust—
“including fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing club. The British government classified Chinese company as a ‘high-risk vendor’ and banned it from the core network that manages access and authentication, but nevertheless permitted it to compete for up to 35 percent market share in the country’s access network—that is, its antennae and similar equipment.”
I am only one of 650 Members of this House, and I absolutely believe in the tenets of democracy, but I will not stay silent. I do not believe that what the Government are doing is in the best security interests of this nation, and if steps can be taken to pare it back, those steps must be taken. We have been known as security giants, and I do not like the idea that we are now standing on the shoulders of Chinese giants. We have stood alone, and can do so again, but it is always best that we stand with our allies. The Chinese may hopefully be strong trading partners post Brexit, but by no stretch of the imagination can they ever be considered our allies; their human rights abuses cannot be ignored. This issue is concerning, and we must not leave it here.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, for calling me to speak in this important debate. Many of the security questions have been covered, so while I do not resile from them I will not cover them again. We have not yet addressed what will be an important issue going forward, which is the simple fact that just as we write laws in this place to shape the culture of society, we shape the culture of our systems by writing code. The code that is being written today in places like Shenzhen is going to shape the culture of our communication systems and the way in which they act together.
This may sound like it is simply a question of noughts and ones—a mathematical process that is devoid of culture—but that is simply not true. Even supposedly neutral systems like accountancy rely on concepts of ownership, individuality, privacy, collectivity or state interference that are culturally specific. That is as true of accountancy today as it was when it was first created, several hundred years ago on these islands. The code that is now being written will have the same implications, so the real decision for us is not just “What are we looking at today in our 5G network, and how much influence will it have on the systems that we seek to operate now and in the immediate future?” but “What cultural norms are we embedding into our society that will shape the concepts of liberty and individuality”—concepts that I thought we held dear?
If we are arguing, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have done so successfully, that these islands have the right to determine their own future and take back control of their destiny, it seems odd to decide that having just done so, we are going to hand it over to Beijing. I fail to understand why government from Beijing is better than government from Brussels, or why cultural norms set in a collectivised state are better than those that arise among democracies with which, at least, we share values. When I hear colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States, Australia or New Zealand speaking clearly about the security implications for all of us, I also think about the foreign policy implications. Whatever we think about our security preparations, if our allies do not trust us, that undermines the alliance. If our allies do not believe that we can keep their data safe, that undermines the sharing of data, and if they do not think we are going to be reliable, that calls the alliance into question. China is already having some success in its geopolitical world, because the game it is playing—the game of dividing its opponents—is meeting with some success. I am very sad that our Government are allowing themselves to be the pawn in that game.
I understand that the Government must take risks in certain areas, and that the decisions they must take are difficult. The Government have to decide whether, if Nokia and Ericsson were the only companies in this space, the collapse of one of those companies would lead to a monopoly, and they therefore see a requirement for a third. However, instead of risking a monopoly, they are taking risks with security, which is a mistake.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. I will use my four minutes to discuss where I agree with the consensus that has emerged in this debate, and where I respectfully disagree.
I agree that 5G is hugely important, for the reasons that have already been given. Two things follow from that: first, security is absolutely paramount in the 5G network, but secondly, subject to our security requirements we should have the best equipment possible. This debate cannot ignore the fact that a great many people in the telecoms industry believe that Huawei equipment is not simply cheaper than its competitors, but better. It therefore seems to me that if our security requirements can be met, it is not logical to entirely exclude Huawei equipment.
This debate has quite sensibly focused on the question of security, but when we are considering the security of the network, it does not seem sensible to focus entirely on Huawei: we have to think about the security of the entire network. These are complex and interdependent networks that must be secure from threats, wherever those threats come from. That is why the telecoms supply chain review that began while I was in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the right way to approach this issue, and the general principles that it has set out are sound. I am not going to run through all of those principles, although my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) has mentioned some of the telecoms security requirements we should have. However, it is worth saying that diversity, in terms of the number of suppliers in the system, is in itself a security advantage that we should not dispense with unless we need to.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the diversity argument is one of many flawed arguments, because Huawei is undermining diversity? Through Huawei and ZTE, the Chinese state is trying to build up other states’ dependency on it to provide advanced communications, so by getting Huawei in, we are undermining diversity in the market.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is sensible to make sure we do not undermine diversity through our own actions. However, as a matter of principle, taking suppliers out of the system does not assist diversity. The points he has made are substantially about security, and I agree that this debate must focus on that question. Whether we use market caps or bring along other suppliers in the market, diversity is a legitimate security objective, just as it is a legitimate economic objective. However, I am afraid that we do not have the luxury of inventing a domestic contributor to this market in a short space of time, so we have to deal with the market as it is.
There is a good reason why we focus on the security of the system as a whole and not on one supplier. If we are worried about China, as it is perfectly right for us to be, it is worth keeping in mind the fact that many of the competitor suppliers referred to in this debate use Chinese components in their equipment, or assemble their equipment in China. It is therefore important to recognise China’s potential to intervene.
My hon. Friend really should not get me started on HS2; we do not have time.
We should not just be worried about Huawei or about China, but about the security of the entire telecoms infrastructure. However, if we are going to talk about Huawei, let us not forget first of all that Huawei is already in the system. Sometimes these debates are conducted as though it were going to come in for the first time, but it is here already, managed differently to other suppliers. Secondly and most importantly, let us not disregard the advice of our highly respected intelligence agencies, which have said that the inclusion of Huawei’s equipment is consistent with our security requirements. I have had the privilege of working with those agencies, as I know many other Members present have. They are world class, and it is important that we do not disregard what they say.
The Government have found themselves between a rock and a hard place, facing a decision between spiralling costs and high security. We have serious concerns about establishing such a fundamental part of our digital infrastructure with Chinese-owned technology. Any and all our concerns and doubts about the impact it could have on the security and autonomy of our data must be answered beyond reproach before such a risk is taken with our vital national infrastructure. To ensure that, the Government should conduct a full independent review and assessment in collaboration with allies in the Five Eyes.
Ensuring our grasp on the information and capabilities reliant on 5G technology is pivotal in exploiting the benefits and power that it undoubtedly offers, as well as in protecting ourselves from it. We have heard a lot about the threat of back doors in Huawei hardware and software that would allow it to be controlled remotely from outside the UK. Of course that is a legitimate concern, but the bigger issue is the more systematic security failings in the software that could be remotely exploited.
The 2019 report of the board that supervises the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre said that Huawei lacks “basic engineering competence” and brings a
“significantly increased risk to UK operators”.
The board could give “only limited assurance” about the ability for risks to be managed.
Another risk is that equipment providers usually have automated authorised remote access to their hardware to provide support to carry out a managed services contract, with the equipment requiring regular software security updates and bug fixes. There is a lot of outsourcing in the sector, including to Huawei, with further potential for security breaches.
I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, but given that our intelligence agencies have designed the Government’s approach, that the National Security Council has signed off on it and that all Ministers going to its briefings have agreed with it, should we not put more faith in the risk mitigation measures that the Government have announced?
I will not; I will make progress.
The UK has spent, and continues to spend, billions of pounds on the development, maintenance and renewal of 20th-century defence systems, such as Trident, that are simply not fit to face the security challenges of the modern era. The biggest threats we now face—terrorism, climate change and, of course, cyber-security—will not be deterred by multibillion-pound nuclear weapons in the firth of Clyde.
In the meantime, our telecoms infrastructure security has been left weak and exposed by decades of under-investment. Countering the threat would require serious investment in, and protection of, our native companies, which would involve a hard look at China’s enthusiasm for the acquisition of small engineering firms. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) asked who has been asleep at the watch, but we all know which Government and which party has been in charge for the last decade. With China aiming to monopolise the market, it is not too late for the Government and the country to wake up.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this incredibly important debate. We are on opposite sides of the House, but we share a deep commitment to British security and technological capability, which is clearly also shared by the many hon. Members present.
The UK has a proud technological history, from the earliest days of the industrial revolution to the invention of the first fibre-optic cable and, of course, the world wide web. Why, then, at the outset of the fourth industrial revolution, are we in a Huawei hole of our own making? As an enabling technology, 5G represents much more than faster mobile internet speeds. As the web enables applications that its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee could never have dreamed of, 5G provides the platform for the technologies that will define the 21st century.
As I may have mentioned before, I am a chartered electrical engineer and a tech evangelist. I want the United Kingdom to harness all the benefits that 5G networks can bring, but if the foundations are poorly laid, or not laid at all, the potential for national harm is significant. After I graduated from Imperial College London, my first job was for a world leader in the then-emerging telecommunications sector. I spent eight years with Nortel designing networking equipment all over the world and working with many of the other equipment vendors at the time, such as Alcatel, Siemens, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. If someone had said to me that, a couple of decades later, we would be incapable of building a European telecoms network without a Chinese supplier, I would have been dumbfounded.
As we have heard, Huawei is bound by China’s national intelligence law to support, co-operate and collaborate with national intelligence work. That raises many concerns for the security of our 5G network. I will not repeat those raised by many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). The fact that Huawei is designated by our National Cyber Security Centre as high risk says it all. It is high risk, so why are we taking a risk with our national security? My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the human rights and employment rights abuses with which Huawei is linked.
I have 10 questions for the Minister. How has the industry got itself into a position where our critical national infrastructure is so dependent on one high-risk vendor? The UK telecoms supply chain review, as summarised by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) and the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), was seven months ago. The then Government committed to reduce our reliance on high-risk vendors over the next five to 10 years. Can the Minister say how that is happening? We have heard nothing since. The Government also said then that they would legislate at the earliest available opportunity. Again, we have heard nothing since.
With network design, cyber-security specialists will always advise people to assume breach, but the Government’s approach seems to have designed into it breach by a foreign power at a time of unprecedented geopolitical tension. I have many more questions as there is much that we do not know. What percentage of the UK’s currently deployed full fibre and mobile networks involves a designated high-risk vendor? From what proportion of our networks are they to be excluded under the terms of the NCSC advice?
If I understand the Government’s position, 5G and full fibre are critical national infrastructure, but only parts of them need to be secure. That is a difficult but, as the hon. Member for Rushcliffe suggested, tenable technological position, but we need to see the measures that will mitigate the risks and manage them out of our network.
On the international ramifications of the Government’s decision, as we have heard, the UK is the only member of the global intelligence-sharing network Five Eyes to have chosen to accept Huawei, with the exception of Canada, which is yet to make a decision but is being advised to block it. All the other members, the US, Australia and New Zealand, have blocked Huawei’s involvement, citing security concerns. Can the Minister tell us why our allies are taking such a different approach? Does he have a proper and detailed understanding of the impact on our international relationships, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) highlighted?
Labour wants to work with the Government on this clear issue of national security. The Government say that the economic cost of barring Huawei would be too great and Mobile UK has estimated that a delay would cost £7 billion. If I compare that with the £8.3 billion committed by the Government to Brexit preparations, however, it strikes me as a clear case of political priorities—and what priorities they are, when we are at a profound national security crossroads.
I hold the National Cyber Security Centre in the highest regard—I thank its representatives for meeting me yesterday—but I ask the Minister to address a concern. The supply chain review report spoke of statutory guidance, but so far we have only had blogs. It is good to be responsive and we know that President Trump’s tweets have some force of law in America. Is the same true of these blogs? Will Ofcom be enforcing them?
The supply chain review report also promised telecoms security requirements, which would set a new bar for security and be enforced by Ofcom. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe seemed to imply that those requirements are available, but I have not seen them. Will the Minister tell me whether they are available, how they are to be enforced and with what resources, for both Ofcom and the Huawei cyber-security observance centre?
Finally, consolidation and competition from the Chinese subsidised sector means that many of the vendors and operators in the telecoms sector have finances that do not look exactly sustainable or stable. What is the Minister doing to assess the financial security of the sector?
As the Government shilly-shallies over national security, we will be tabling amendments to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill currently going through Parliament that will seek to reduce our dependence on high-risk vendors. I hope I will have the support of the Minister and other Members in this Chamber.
Labour also has proposals on the telecommunications industrial strategy, which has been highlighted by many Members, to ensure that we can take a leap forward in this critical technological area, including support for new standards and a new catapult, to bring together existing centres of excellence to ensure that we can once more be at the forefront of technological innovation. The good news is that, in technology, you are never so far behind that you cannot leapfrog existing technology. The bad news is that it takes investment in strategic vision—a quality that this Government sorely lack. Huawei is a test of both.
I return to my first question. Why are we in this position and what steps are the Government taking to ensure that it does not happen again, and to eliminate our dependence on high-risk vendors? The Government should start to proactively identify future technological needs and invest strategically to ensure that they can be met by a wider range of platform providers.
The Government claim to care about political sovereignty—about taking back control from foreign powers. It is high time that we started caring about technological sovereignty too.
Before I call the Minister, I inform him that he has considerable time in which to make his contribution and he can take a number of short interventions, if he so chooses. Any time that he leaves at the end, I will give to Sir Iain Duncan Smith for a wind-up speech.
This has been an important and timely debate. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has provided the Government with an opportunity to clarify some of their position.
As he knows, the Government’s first priority is to protect our citizens and their interests. That means that the security of our telecoms and critical national infrastructure is of paramount importance. That is why we undertook the telecoms supply chain review—to allow us to make hard-headed, evidence-based decisions.
The UK is a global leader in cyber-security. Our world-class security agencies have set out their security analysis of the telecoms sector in a level of public detail unmatched anywhere in the world.
It is because of the need to manage the risks to national security that we have made the decisions that we have on high-risk vendors, concluding that there needs to be strong restrictions on their presence in the network. It is because we need to improve the security of the network overall that we need a new security framework for telecoms.
Over time, our intention is to reduce our reliance on high-risk vendors, as market diversification takes place. We want to get to a position where we do not have to use a high-risk vendor in our telecoms network at all.
Our aim is not to be reliant on high-risk vendors at all. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend would like me to set out a timetable for that, but I cannot do that today.
There are major market problems we need to address and they are common to all western nations. We have to remain hard-headed and evidence-based. We want to ensure that, as new technologies develop, we have a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of suppliers that we can rely on. The decisions we have made in this area are the right ones because they are based on hard evidence.
We are not getting at the Minister, who we hold in high regard, but at the decision that he is, unfortunately, having to defend. He is now talking about the economics. The problem is that because Huawei is so bankrolled by the Chinese state, it can simply undercut other providers. Even if Fujitsu and Samsung—not to mention UK companies—want to come into the market, so that there is a diverse, multiplayer, western market in 5G, it is very difficult to get to that because Huawei will always undercut, and telcos are heavily indebted and therefore will do Huawei’s bidding. That is a structural problem.
I fear making no progress at all if I keep giving way.
Put simply, in the view of the most expert telecommunications specialists in the world, as others have said in the debate, a limited amount of carefully controlled hardware from China does not compromise our national security. This Government will continue to do all it can to put the experts who hold that view, both private and public sector, at the disposal of this House. I am grateful to all those hon. Members who have taken up the opportunities for such briefings and I wish they were greater in number. The Government are confident that we are putting the nation’s interests first.
I say to the Minister that a mixture of good and bad is not diversity. That is the first thing. He says that he puts the security of the nation first. In pursuit of that, the Government have claimed that there is no back door to Huawei hardware. The Americans assert differently. The Germans agree with them. Other countries agree with them. He served on the Bill Committee for the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. I remind him of sections 252 and 253, which give us the right to have a back door. How can we have a back door, when the hardware installer, the hardware supplier and the hardware administrator does not?
My right hon. Friend highlights the need for oversight, which I will come on to talk about in a minute.
Telecoms networks are complex. They rely on global supply chains, where some limited measure of vulnerability is inevitable. The critical security question that we have to ask ourselves is how we mitigate such vulnerabilities and stop them damaging the British people and our economy.
The Minister keeps talking about the security of the nation, but we know that many UK companies working in the areas of photonics and quantum are concerned about national security. They want to scale up but cannot get funding from his Government, and they therefore look to countries such as China in order to expand—another area where this Government are failing.
The hon. Member raises a point that I would be happy to cover in another debate, but the Government and I share some of her concerns.
It is because of our security and intelligence agencies that we have a comprehensive understanding of the threats and risks of 5G, and I would like to remind right hon. and hon. Members—not that I need to—that our agencies are the envy of the world. They work every day to safeguard our national security and put the UK’s interests at the heart of everything we do. The National Cyber Security Centre has provided expert technical and security advice on 5G. They are experts in the technical changes that will take place in the network and in the risks we currently face from the presence of high-risk vendors’ equipment in our networks and those of many of our allies. They are experts in security, including the national security threats that we face today. Our unique shared understanding of security threats and risks, together with that of the technical characteristics of the network, means that the NCSC is in the best possible position to advise on the cyber-security of the UK’s telecoms national infrastructure.
The Minister has so nearly got the Government to the right position. He has admitted that Huawei is a high risk and that it is the Government’s intention to get to no high-risk vendors. He has admitted that he listens to our allies, who are overwhelmingly against Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network. Australia, France and the United States have all said that they have taken advice. We know that Korea has gone for an alternative supplier. Why can the Minister not follow the logic of what he is saying and tell us, “Yes, we are going to get out of Huawei over a fixed period of time and work closely with our Five Eyes allies.”? He is so nearly saying the right thing, but he has a ghastly brief because the Government have got themselves into a mess. They have inherited a mess from their predecessors. Why can he not be honest and say, “We want to get to zero, and that is the safe place to go to.”?
I hope my right hon. Friend takes significant comfort from what I have said: we want to get to a position where we are not reliant at all on high-risk vendors.
We have confidence in the independent technical assessment from our security experts and, importantly, the telecommunications industry has confidence in those assessments, too. That is why we have been in a position to publish as much of our security assessment as we have done. As a result, we have the most detailed study of what is needed to protect 5G networks anywhere in the world. We are not naive about Huawei or its relationship with the Chinese state. Since Huawei has entered the UK network, it has been carefully managed. Through the cyber-security evaluation centre and the oversight board, we have the greatest access to, and insight on, Huawei equipment anywhere in the world.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again.
Does he understand that many of us take issue with what he has just said? First, figures from the security world who have publicly spoken up, such as Richard Dearlove, are hostile to what the Minister says. There is a sense that the Government have given our security agencies a fait accompli, because almost all our allies’ cyber-security agencies take a diametrically opposed view to the one that he presents. Secondly, will he acknowledge that the Banbury Cell now has very serious concerns about Huawei?
As I said, we are introducing the new regime because of some of the concerns that my hon. Friend addresses. I reiterate the Government’s offer to put at the disposal of any Member of the House as many experts from the public and private sectors that we can, so that colleagues can be in touch with the latest thinking on this issue.
We understand the threat from China and are robust with it when our interests are challenged. We will continue to publicly call out malicious cyber-activity, and the decision to categorise Huawei as a high-risk vendor took into consideration the potential links between Chinese companies and the Chinese state, including the fact that Chinese companies are subject to China’s national intelligence law. The UK has also been vocal in drawing attention to the systematic human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China. The Government have set out our expectations of businesses in the UK national action plan on business and human rights.
The telecoms supply chain review, which was laid before the House in July 2019, underlined the range and nature of the risks, highlighting the risks of dependence on one vendor, faults or vulnerabilities in network equivalence equipment, the back-door threat, and vendors’ administrative access. We need to be alive to the totality of the risks that the telecoms network faces today and will face in the future. High-risk vendors are part of that security risk assessment, but they are not the sole factor.
I want to address some of the myths about how the network will develop. It is true that technical characteristics of 5G create a greater surface area for potential attacks, but it will still be possible to distinguish different parts of the network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) said, what matters are the critical functions within the network. We need to ensure that critical functions, wherever they are, have appropriate security.
I will come to the issue of the network’s core and edge, which will answer some of the questions that Members want to ask.
Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, set out in a recent blog post that the notion that there is no distinction between the core and the edge cannot be true. He says that, with 5G networks,
“you need lots of smaller basestations as well as big ones, and the small ones will be on lampposts, bus shelters and other places that aren’t secure from physical interference by bad guys. So, if your network design means that you need to run really sensitive functions processing really sensitive data (i.e. core functions) on an edge access device on top of a bus stop, your choice of vendor is the least of your worries and you probably shouldn’t be designing critical national infrastructure. The international standards that define what a 5G network actually is allow you to do all sorts of things, and some of those things could lead to security or operational risks that can’t be mitigated. That doesn’t mean you have to do them.”
We in this country will not do such things.
Does the Minister recognise that it was not Tim Berners-Lee, but Rod Stewart, who foresaw the amazing power of the internet? It is not just the technical experts, but the imagination of people who will build on their technical skills, that will determine where the risks really lie.
My hon. Friend knows that we have some of the most imaginative experts working for us in our agencies, which is why we are establishing one of the strongest regimes for telecoms security in the world—a regime that will raise standards across the UK’s telecoms operators and the vendors that supply them. At the heart of the new regime, the NCSC’s new telecoms security requirements guidance will provide clarity to industry on what is expected of network security, and it will raise the height of the security by including the supply chain management. The Government will legislate at the earliest opportunity to introduce the new comprehensive telecoms security regime and new statutory telecoms security requirements, which are to be overseen by both Ofcom and the Government.
I will not take any more interventions.
We expect that the new regime will include new obligations on telecoms operators to comply with telecoms security requirements, and we are considering whether Ofcom requires further power to ensure that, as we have said before, high-risk vendors will be excluded from security-critical network functions, limited to a minority presence of up to 35% in other network functions, and be subjected to tight restrictions.
Those controls are not without cost. BT has already identified a £500 million cost to it alone, and we did not take these decisions lightly. We will legislate at the earliest opportunity, and that legislation will be important in enabling the Government to manage the risks to the network and enforce conclusions on high-risk vendors. However, it also needs to be flexible enough to allow us to continue to manage the risks as they evolve; as I have described, we will manage them over time. I want to reassure Members that the Government share the ambition that our long-term goal is to reduce our reliance on high-risk vendors, and a timetable must be contingent on diversification in the market.
Successive western Governments have failed to ensure that there is effective competition in the market, and we are faced with a very narrow choice of suppliers for these technologies. Through a strategy of market diversification, we will seek to attract global vendors and to ensure there are new entrants into the supply chain, and we will promote the adoption of open, interoperable standards. We are already in talks with Samsung, and our 5G test beds and trials programmes do not use high-risk vendors. We need to work quickly with like-minded countries to develop a diversification strategy.
The debate on 5G security is global, and our Five Eyes network and other partner relationships are incredibly important. We will continue to work closely with them, and we know they understand the decision that we have taken. I conclude by saying simply that national security will always be at the top of our priorities and we will work to move towards no involvement of high-risk vendors.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Sports Coaches (Positions of Trust)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered positions of trust and sports coaches.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. In November 2016, former Crewe Alexandra player Andy Woodward waived his anonymity to become the first player to publicly reveal that he was sexually abused as a child by former coach Barry Bennell. Woodward’s bravery led to others coming forward to speak about their experiences of shocking abuse.
Within a few days, the Football Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had set up a hotline dedicated to helping footballers who had experienced historical sexual abuse. In the first week, the hotline received nearly 900 calls. Football was in the middle of a major safeguarding scandal, but the problem was not limited to football. Athletes from different sports spoke out about their experiences of historical sexual abuse at the hands of coercive coaches or managers who were intent on getting what they wanted by using—or rather, abusing—their position of trust.
I was Sports Minister at that time, and I remember feeling an element of pride in how sport reacted to those horrific stories. The FA did what it had to do for football and the same was done for other sports. Within a relatively short time, sport as a whole, while recognising that many of the incidents in the press were historical and took place before much of our child protection legislation was in place, instigated internal changes to safeguarding practices to ensure that procedures were in place to maximise protection against abuse in sport.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I took part in a 2018 debate on safeguarding children in sport when she was Sports Minister, and I was very thankful for all that she said in reply to the questions that were raised, as well as for the role that she played. I am here again to support her. Does she agree that in this place we have talked for far too long about this issue? We now need to act to ensure that the trust of no more children is abused through this loophole.
I remember the debate that the hon. Gentleman mentions and to which I responded. I entirely agree that there has been far too much talk, which is why I secured this debate.
I will return to what sport was doing in 2016 and early 2017 to maximise protections against abuse in sport. As well as football, other sports—with support from Sport England and the NSPCC child protection in sport unit—also made positive changes in a relatively short time to the way that they keep their participants safe. They rightly took responsibility and took it seriously.
They asked for just one thing from the Government, which was to extend the positions of trust legislation to include sports coaches. That was a perfectly reasonable request—one with which the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport agreed—but the Government have failed to deliver on that ask and, as a result, we have potentially put other youngsters at risk from abusive coaches.
Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is illegal for certain professions, such as teachers, to engage in sexual activity with a 16 or 17-year-old, as they are considered a person in a position of trust. The Act proscribes a limited number of roles but does not extend into a range of non-statutory settings that may be subject to far less scrutiny than those covered by the Act.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I declare an interest as both a teacher and a gymnastics coach. The relationships that coaches of gymnastics and other sports develop with athletes can, without a shadow of a doubt, be far deeper than those of other teachers, because of the amount of time spent in their company, particularly with elite athletes. We have to get this absolutely right to protect children.
As somebody who coached in football for a very long time, I understand where the hon. Lady is coming from. I completely agree that the relationships that coaches build with the people in their care as they develop in their sports journey are incredibly important. I vividly remember an email that I received from somebody after the abuse stories came to light. They were also a teacher, but they had not realised that the positions of trust legislation, under which they operated every day in their professional life as a teacher, did not extend to times when they independently stood at the side of a football pitch as a coach.
Our colleague, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), has done some excellent work on this matter. The report from the all-party parliamentary group on safeguarding in faith settings should be required reading for anyone who cares about the issue.
We should perhaps reflect briefly on why we have that particular section of legislation in the 2003 Act. People who work in schools, as carers or as youth workers, will have gone through the required disclosure and barring service checks. Although some might fall through the cracks, ultimately, people who pose a known risk to children or vulnerable adults will not, if the system works properly, be allowed to work in that sector. The legislation adds an extra layer of safeguarding to prevent those in positions of trust from forming relationships with children who, although they are over the age of consent, are not considered legal adults and could be abused given the nature of the power balance.
I have spent a significant amount of my life coaching, so I can tell the Minister that I concur with sports and the NSPCC that in sport especially, but not exclusively, the elite pathway is a vulnerable area. In my view, the Ministry of Justice should have acted positively and straightaway to close as soon as possible the loophole in the 2003 Act.
Some say that because a coach has to have a DBS check, the positions of trust legislation is not necessary. Assistant coaches, however, who are supervised by coaches, do not need to undergo DBS checks and could fall through the cracks. Does the hon. Lady agree that the positions of trust legislation needs to be extended to cover those areas as well?
I completely agree; DBS checks should not be the be-all and end-all. The legislation adds an extra level of safeguarding.
When I was dealing with the issue as Sports Minister, it was claimed that if the legislation was extended to sports coaches, it would also need to be extended to music teachers, private tutors or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has called for, driving instructors. My response, as the daughter of a social worker who spent her life dealing with child sexual abuse, is, “Yes it absolutely should be.” I fail to fully understand why it should not.
My hon. Friend is making exactly the right case. I have experience of a situation in which a driving instructor had clearly groomed one of my constituents, as well as another case, which is well known to the NSPCC, in which somebody was groomed for a very long time by a sports coach who continues to offer his services.
In truth, we know from recent exposures that the problem is not limited to the UK—it happens around the world—and it is time this country set an example by changing the law. Does my hon. Friend agree that, with a new Justice Minister—my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)—that would be a great step forward?
I agree, and I hope that the Minister is listening and will take positive action. My hon. Friend has done amazing work to highlight the issues with driving instructors and should be congratulated on that. Concerns about the scope of the proscribed list is a poor reason to avoid taking a policy position and changing the positions of trust provisions.
Anyone in a position to influence the direction of another person’s journey through life—meaning that a power balance rests with them—should not be able to abuse that position via a sexual relationship. Someone’s place in the team or time on the pitch, or the competitions in which they are entered, should not be vulnerable to another person’s physical or emotional demands.
The legislation can be easily amended, either by adding to the list or removing it altogether. The Ministry asked for evidence of why change was required and, although evidence was provided, nothing has happened. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that a freedom of information request had found that between 2014 and 2018, there were 653 cases in which adults who could be regarded as being in a position of trust had had a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17-year-old. Of the 495 cases in which the adult’s role was recorded, the majority were in sport, and the data showed that such incidents had increased.
Sport is doing what it can to prevent dangerous people from working with children and young adults. It has enhanced its safeguarding procedures, as part of the implementation of my sports governance code, and many use enhanced DBS checks. While the loophole exists, however, that in the eyes of the law it is deemed okay to have sex with someone over the age of 16 in your trust in sport, coercive and abusive behaviour will continue and the lives of many more youngsters will be ruined.
When I was a Minister, with the then Home Office and Justice Ministers, we agreed that that change was essential, so the inexplicable delay in implementing that ministerial direction is shameful. I understand that the MOJ is exploring non-legislative solutions but, frankly, that can never solve what is fundamentally a legal problem. It would be a shocking downgrading of the Department’s responsibilities. Guidance is not the law, in that sense.
I appreciate that the Minister was not in the hot seat when officials were finding reasons why not to do that previously, but he is now. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, now is the time for no more dither, no more delay. We have a duty to act. This legislative loophole needs a legislative solution, and it needs to be done now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing this important debate and for her distinguished service as a Minister. Her speech was absolutely in the spirit of that distinguished service.
As my hon. Friend indicated, I have been in post for only a few short weeks, but it is already crystal clear to me that this is an extremely important issue which requires a clear, considered and decisive response. The Government have been reviewing the law in this area. I have said that we should urgently consider all options, including legislative change, and must be in a position to announce next steps by the end of May.
Turning to some basic principles, protecting children and young people from the scourge of sexual abuse and exploitation is a top priority for this Government. Ensuring that the law is effective in providing that protection is not just our priority, but our duty. As most stakeholders acknowledge, however, this area is not without complexity—that is not a reason not to tackle it, but we need to advert to it. I will set out some of the issues and explain why charting the way ahead requires careful thought.
It is worth taking a moment to summarise the state of the existing law. In a short debate, that can only be a brief overview. As we know, sexual activity with a child under 16 is of course always a serious criminal offence, regardless of consent, and non-consensual activity is a crime regardless of the age of the victim or the relationship between the victim and perpetrator.
Alongside those two offences, to turn to positions of trust, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 created a number of offences that specifically target any sexual activity between a 16 or 17-year-old young person and people who hold a defined “position of trust” in respect of that young person, even if such activity is consensual, as my hon. Friend indicated.
Those offences were designed to build on the general child sex offences in the 2003 Act, and are defined to target situations in which the young person has considerable dependency on the adult involved, often combined with an element of vulnerability of the young person. The offences are directed at those who are employed to look after young people under the age of 18, such as those providing care for a young person in a residential care home, a hospital or an educational institution. That particularly adverts to the fact that the state has a role in the child’s development or care.
As my hon. Friend made crystal clear, those offences do not cover all positions in which a person might have contact with, or a supervisory role of, a young person aged under 18. That was a deliberate decision by the Government of the day. In preparation for this debate, I looked up some of the relevant debates. The issue of scope was raised in the other place by Baroness Blatch, a Conservative, on 13 February 2003. She noted that she was “disappointed” that provision had not been made in the Bill to encompass those being supervised as scouts or in youth centres. Interestingly, when responding to her that same day, Lord Falconer said:
“I understand the noble Baroness’s argument, but a line has to be drawn somewhere and we think that is the right place”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 February 2003; Vol. 644, c. 878.]
My sense is that that judgment may well be wrong but, in fairness to the noble lord, it is not a straightforward one to make. What is at stake here is a need to balance the legal right, as prescribed by Parliament, for young persons aged 16 and over to consent to sexual activity, with the proper desire to protect vulnerable young people from manipulation.
Another complicating feature is the evolving case law in the area. In certain situations, the criminal division of the Court of Appeal has already been clear that supposed consent may be vitiated or even negated, thereby creating a criminal offence in any event. To put that in plain English and to give an example, in the case of McNally, deception by a defendant as to her sex—she falsely claimed she was a man—was held to vitiate the victim’s consent to intercourse.
That is important because, as the Crown Prosecution Service now indicates in its charging decisions, in certain circumstances that ruling could apply where perpetrators were in a position of power in which they could abuse their trust over a victim. If we look at the CPS charging decision—in other words, when making a decision about whether there truly was consent in a relationship—one of the matters that has to be considered is:
“Where the suspect was in a position of power where they could abuse their trust, especially because of their position or status—e.g. a family member, teacher, religious leader, employer, gang member, carer, doctor”.
The point is that it is no longer necessarily automatically good enough for the defendant to say, “Look, she consented”, if in fact that will was suborned in some way. That might well be a very proper reason why the CPS could conclude that there had been no consent.
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically pertinent point. That is a non-exhaustive list, which is an important consideration to bear in mind. The proper points that he made are not lost completely on some charging prosecutors, and that is an important part of the context.
An interesting balance has to be struck. On the one hand, this place properly might want to prescribe where that happens, allowing no discretion for the CPS, but on the other hand, there may be a relevant public policy interest in saying to prosecutors that in other cases there is wider discretion. I have already made the point that in 2003 Parliament decided to draw a distinction that appears to focus on circumstances in which the state has a particular role in caring for the individual. That is something to be considered.
In 2019 the Government, recognising the concerns powerfully and properly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, began a review of the law on such abuses of positions of trust. Notwithstanding the narrow focus of this debate—on sports coaches—concerns about scope range far wider, as indicated by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). That is why the review also took account of the IICSA report—independent inquiry into child sexual abuse—on the Anglican Church, which focused on the diocese of Chichester and the response to allegations against Peter Ball, a former bishop who in 2015 pleaded guilty to a series of sex offences. Recommendation 3 of that report stated:
“The government should amend Section 21 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 so as to include clergy within the definition of a position of trust. This would criminalise under s16–s20 sexual activity between clergy and a person aged 16–18, over whom they exercise pastoral authority, involving the abuse of a position of trust.”
Other settings might conceivably be relevant, such as youth clubs and scouts—as Baroness Blatch pointed out in 2003—and drama groups, choirs, Army cadets and learner drivers, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester has done such a good job of drawing to the attention of the House.
Ministry of Justice officials have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders across youth and criminal justice sectors, including, in the area of faith and religion, the Anglican dioceses of Chichester and Lincoln, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Gardens of Peace, the Hindu Council UK, Marriage Care, the Sikh Council UK and St Philip’s Centre. In the sporting sector, the review team has heard from British Canoeing, British Fencing, British Gymnastics, the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the Royal Yachting Association, the Rugby Football League, the Rugby Football Union, Sport England and Swim England—I could go on.
A huge number of people have been consulted on this important issue. Officials have gone beyond those two areas to speak to youth organisations, including the National Citizen Service, the National Youth Agency, the Scouts and Volunteer Police Cadets. Those discussions were candid and wide ranging, and views were shared throughout the process. On behalf of the MOJ, I am extremely grateful to those who have given of their time for that important process.
A number of themes and suggestions emerged during the review, and it is right to note that many were non-legislative in nature. They included the better provision of education, the consideration of the effectiveness of the DBS system in practice, raising awareness and understanding of what grooming and genuine consent really look like, and the measures needed to protect young people from this type of abusive behaviour. Many measures can be taken alongside any potential changes to criminal law, which I am not ruling out at all—we will look at them very carefully. It is important to note that they deserve careful consideration.
As a former national coach for Squash Wales—I notice that squash was not on the Minister’s list—part of my role was to hold coaching courses and increase the number of coaches. There are clear guidelines in squash that coaches cannot form any sort of relationship with a person under their care. I do not think that is good enough. If I could say to those coaches that it is against the law to form a relationship, it is clear cut and definitive. That should be the ruling.
That is precisely the matter that we have to grapple with. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for expressing her point.
Returning, for completeness, to the exhaustive process of review, most stakeholders that the MOJ heard from felt that a change in the law was required. Most also agreed that any change or reform of the existing laws raised difficult and complicated issues. Some expressed concern that drafting the law too narrowly, or perhaps simply listing roles or jobs considered as a position of trust, risked creating loopholes or definitions that could be easily exploited or circumvented by abusers. Equally, others raised the point that any broad or wide-sweeping new definition could raise the age of consent by stealth.
If we do not get this right, it is not difficult to think of hard cases that would risk undermining confidence in the criminal justice system. One could imagine, as was imagined specifically by Lord Falconer in the 2003 debate, a consensual relationship between a 19-year-old coach and a 17-year-old footballer where no abuse of power or trust had taken place, and with no suggestion of any sort of bargain whereby sexual activity was traded for, say, team selection. In such circumstances, there might be proper public concern about criminalising that coach. Let us be clear: he or she would be at risk of conviction, punishment and disgrace, alongside a conviction that would remain on the police national computer for life. He or she may well be subject to stringent notification requirements. His or her life would be, to a large extent, ruined.
With that in mind, the Government are considering all options, including legislative change, and they are doing so with pace and care. As noted already, I have asked that that work be prioritised, and I will be in a position to announce next steps before the end of May.
This debate has offered a valuable contribution to the evaluation of these important issues. They are important because safeguarding young people in all situations, not just those limited to sport, is essential.
Before the Minister concludes, will he give two guarantees? First, will he meet the NSPCC, which is asking not for guidance but for the legislative loophole to be closed? It is the country’s largest child protection charity and it ought to be listened to with respect for the campaign that it has run for a long time. Secondly, will he listen to some audio of former athletes who were abused or were in coercive relationships with their coaches? Once he has listened to their stories and the likes of Sport England and the Child Protection in Sport Unit, perhaps he will come to a different conclusion and take a different path.
Yes, of course I will be delighted to meet the NSPCC. Secondly, if my hon. Friend wants to send me footage to listen to, I will gladly listen to it. My door remains entirely open if she would like to take up these matters further with me.
I invite my hon. Friend not to presuppose what road the Ministry or I am on. In the short period that I have been seized of this matter, I have recognised its urgency and pressing nature. I have, I hope, properly adverted to the fact that there are complexities that needs to be ironed out. The singular injustice to any victims would be that, in a legitimate attempt to improve safeguarding, we undermine public confidence in it. That is why we have got to get this right—because, ultimately, safeguarding young people will remain a relentless focus of this Government.
Question put and agreed to.
Asylum Decisions (Support for Refugees)
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for refugees after receiving an asylum decision.
The asylum process is anxiety-inducing and arduous, but for many the intense relief of being granted refugee status by the UK Government is only momentary. For new refugees—people who, let us remember, have escaped conflict and persecution—that is often just the beginning of another nightmare. That is caused by the so-called move-on period—the period after which the support they have been receiving from the Home Office will be terminated—which causes unnecessary problems and barriers to integration. I aim to lay out how those could be solved.
I thank Seb Klier at the Refugee Council and Jon Featonby at the British Red Cross for their regular detailed briefings and for nudging me regularly to table questions and seek debates such as this one. I pay tribute to them individually, and to the many individuals and community organisations in my constituency who do so much to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, to solve some of the problems I will explore, and to remove barriers.
Every week, the Red Cross in Bristol works with at least one new destitute refugee. Let us remember that “refugee” means a person who has received their status. I thank the Red Cross for that, but why is that happening? First, the move-on period is 28 days. In that time, a refugee must leave Home Office accommodation, move from asylum support to benefits or a job, obtain a national insurance number in order to do so, open a bank account, receive a biometric residence permit and find somewhere to live. I am in a good job, but I have to say that I would struggle with that. I think most of us would struggle.
To compound all that, refugees are often already traumatised and sometimes—although not always—struggle with English. Some are very isolated, and some are mentally unwell, either as the result of the initial trauma or, often, because of the complex and prolonged asylum process, during which they have not been able to work and have had little access to English classes. Often, they will have been confined by extreme poverty, living off just £37.75 per week. Then, suddenly, in the words of a refugee supported by Bristol Refugee Rights in my constituency,
“it is compulsory today to do everything that was forbidden yesterday”.
Back in 2014, the Red Cross became increasingly concerned about the number of destitute and new refugees requiring emergency care, partly as a result of that problem. It recommended extending the 28-day move-on period; we have been warned about this for many years. In 2017, I and colleagues in the Chamber launched the “Refugees welcome?” report, which was produced by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees following our inquiry the previous year. Among our many findings was a recommendation that the move-on period should be extended to 56 days. Thankfully, the Government took up some of our recommendations—I am grateful to them for that—but, unfortunately, not that one.
The same year, the Refugee Council published its report “Refugees without refuge”. None of the 54 respondents to its survey had secured accommodation within the 28-day move-on period. In 2018, the British Red Cross published its report “Still an ordeal”. The 26 refugees it surveyed had been left without food and shelter after receiving their status. There is not just an unacceptable high risk of extreme poverty; the move-on period creates inevitable destitution.
Just last month, Women for Refugee Women found that women left destitute are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. That is a further consequence of the move-on period. A third of the women interviewed were forced to stay in unwanted and abusive relationships. I thank Women for Refugee Women for its extraordinary hard work, but I am saddened by its findings.
Refugees, refugee organisations, local authorities, health organisations and us MPs—including Government Members—all know that the move-on period is failing to support refugees. My primary request is for the Minister to ask his colleagues to extend it from 28 to 56 days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the exceptional work she does in Parliament for refugees and asylum seekers. She is right to highlight the need for an extended move-on period, but does she not agree that the circumstances she describes show that we need a cross-Government approach, involving not just the Home Office but the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? They must all come together to meet the needs of this vulnerable group.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She, too, does an enormous amount on refugee policy, as do many colleagues in the Chamber. She is absolutely right that we need a cross-departmental approach. Funnily enough, that was recommended in our report three years ago. Actually, a former Tory MP—I cannot remember his name, but it will come to me—recommended to his Government not only that there should be a cross-departmental approach but that there should be a Minister for refugees to help co-ordinate it.
The Home Office recently took some steps to provide more support for refugees. I welcome that, but their benefit is limited without a longer move-on period. The London School of Economics and the British Red Cross found that extending it to 56 days could save up to £7 million of taxpayers’ money each year. Of course, the consequences of destitution are extra costs to the public purse due to homelessness and impacts on health and employability.
What is the justification for 56 days? First, since refugees mostly are not allowed to work while waiting for an asylum decision, most of them will need, at least initially, to apply for universal credit. There is the first problem: clearly, the inbuilt 35-day minimum wait before the first day of universal credit is incompatible, by seven crucial days, with the current move-on period after someone’s asylum is over and they are granted refugee status. As I said, I have a reasonably good job and I may be able to manage for seven days, but it would be a struggle. People are suddenly put in that position, with no money, perhaps no relatives to turn to—whereas I would have that—and probably no one else to call on. Those seven crucial days can be seven days without food.
In some instances, the delay in receiving benefits may be much longer. Mariam from Women for Refugee Women gave me permission to quote her. She said:
“The asylum support stopped in January, but my benefits didn’t start for nine months. I had no money, I was lucky to have a solicitor who gave me some cash. I also relied on charities for food. Being destitute after getting asylum isn’t something I had expected.”
I know that my colleagues in the Chamber have come across that too. A cash grant—just once, upon receipt of status—would help so much. That is something else I would like the Minister to consider. Charities such as Aid Box Convoy in my constituency do wonderful work finding things such as cookers, clothes, bedding and nappies—we probably all have charities like that in our constituencies—but one small cash grant could make such a difference.
A 56-day move-on period would also align with the time local authorities are given to work with house- holds at risk of homelessness under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. That is another example of the cross-departmental work that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) called for. The Government could also encourage the establishment of a private rented sector scheme for refugees, to recognise not just the general problems that most people might face when suddenly plunged into the private rented sector, but the specific barriers faced by refugees.
Those changes might give new refugees the ability to move on rather than, as one refugee in Bristol described it to me, running from “pillar to post”. The complications of the system are compounded by a lack of Government funding and organisational capacity. Support agencies are often open only part time, and advice agencies are often full. During such a critical time, losing a week waiting to speak to the right person could make all the difference between someone being destitute and not.
That is the situation if there are minimal complications. If there is an error in someone’s biometric residence permit, which is their formal identification—even if there is an incorrect spelling, which happens—their 28 days are not automatically restarted. That is another really simple and, I would argue, cost-free change that the Minister could agree to: if a mistake is made by a Government agency, the refugee should not have to pay the price, and the 28 days should be automatically restarted.
As an example, K is a new refugee in Bristol. She fled both sectarian violence and domestic violence with her 15-year-old child. She was granted status—she is here legally—on 6 September 2019, but she contacted the Red Cross in Bristol shortly afterwards as there was a spelling mistake on her biometric residence permit. She failed to receive her updated permit by 7 October and she was at risk of homelessness. At that point, she met the homelessness prevention team at Bristol City Council, but without identification she was unable to open a bank account. The earliest she could receive an advance universal credit payment, intended to cope with such gaps, was 30 October, 54 days after receiving her refugee status. Hon. Members can see where I am going with this: 56 days would have meant she was not in destitution or at risk of destitution. Between 16 and 30 October, K and her child were destitute and, although they received support from the Red Cross, it could have been so easily avoided.
We must also change the administrative barriers that delay new refugees from moving on. Recently, another constituent and his family were granted further leave to remain. Their 28 days began and they tried to apply for local authority housing. Unfortunately, they were not sent an eviction notice from their asylum accommodation, which must be done in the form of a letter, and without that letter they could not apply for housing. My caseworkers Michelle and Sheila, whom I thank from the bottom of my heart—what they do is extraordinary, and I am sure all hon. Members present speak highly of the work that caseworkers do in our name—did all they could to speed up the process, but even so the family received the letter with just eight days to go. Their ability to live had rested on those bureaucratic nightmares. That does not do us proud. As a country we should be proud, and we have a right to be proud, of our tradition in welcoming refugees. I know Government Ministers agree. We have that right to be proud, so why let those bureaucratic nightmares creep in when they are fixable?
By comparison, resettlement schemes are a measure that the Government and everyone else should be proud of. The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme offers a fantastic model and is on target to successfully resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. I recently met Anne James, the commissioning manager on the Syrian resettlement programme at Bristol City Council, who spoke highly of the scheme and her interaction with Government. I was really impressed by the operation and support of the initiative. For resettled refugees under such schemes, the dedicated caseworker, who supports their needs, is a lifeline. We should look to that process as a best-practice approach.
As the APPG pointed out in its report three years ago—and, to be fair, as the sector pointed out years before—the gulf between our asylum process and the resettlement process makes for a two-tier system. There are asylum seekers who are granted refugee status and are here legally, and there are those who come via the resettlement route whose status is already granted, but the route a refugee takes does not make them more or less deserving of support. Rather than making them feel welcome, the asylum process leaves new refugees fighting to overcome what feel like impossible barriers. Those barriers could be removed, and the resettlement scheme shows us how we could do that.
There are other fantastic models open for adoption by the Home Office and the Government more widely. Colleagues could talk at length about the community sponsorship scheme, the city of sanctuary approach and other community and local initiatives that provide wonderful and welcome examples of how we can do this really well. My constituents want to welcome refugees who have a right to be here, and I am sure the Minister’s do, too. I am sure most of us also want to prevent, as far as possible, situations in which desperate people feel that they have to take dangerous journeys because they have no alternative, having been cramped in a refugee camp among millions of people in countries such as Lebanon, Greece or Turkey. They feel absolutely desperate, so it is no wonder that some make dangerous journeys to countries that they feel might welcome them. We should be proud that we are seen as a welcoming country, but we should make every effort to allow more of those safe and legal routes offered by resettlement.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I have a couple more requests of the Minister. The Government could change by regulation, and very quickly, the right for asylum seekers to work. At the moment, it is limited. After six months of applying for refugee status, some can apply for employment in certain categories, which unless I am very much mistaken still includes that of ballet dancer. To my not very certain knowledge, there are not many people setting out from Syria saying, “I want to be a ballet dancer.” These people have got skills and want to work from the moment they get status, but if they face prolonged delays in the asylum process, that weakens their skills.
Ministers have also talked to me about wanting people to be able to return home when conditions are safe. We could talk about refoulement, preventing further traumatisation and the damage of sending people home when it is not safe, but, if it is safe for people to return to their country of origin, we want them to have kept up their skills, not lost them through prolonged periods of unemployment. Alternatively, the Home Office could meet its own service standard of six months, and do so properly, efficiently, fairly and transparently. That would help. The Government could also establish the scheme I mentioned on private renting. They could provide cash grants and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, there could be co-ordination between Departments.
The moment someone receives their refugee status should be one of celebration. It should be a time when refugees feel able to move on, if possible, from the horrors they have left and the difficulties they have had to face. Instead, all too often, the contradictions of Government policy and the cuts to various services—I have not even mentioned cuts to English language services—leave refugees facing new problems such as homelessness and destitution, and, as Women for Refugee Women has said, vulnerable to harms such as exploitation and abuse. We are and should always remain proud of being a welcoming country to people fleeing conflict, but we have a choice about how we treat people. We can choose to treat them with dignity or to put them at risk of destitution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and look forward to doing so again in future. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate, which gives us an opportunity to speak up for those refugees who have received an asylum decision, because they are experiencing difficulties.
We are not providing enough support to asylum seekers after they receive their decision, and the results can be disastrous. In particular, I will talk about the incompatibility of universal credit and the asylum support system. We know that, in its current form, universal credit is deeply flawed, especially in its ability to cope with applications from more vulnerable individuals. Whenever I have met refugees, whether in communities or detention centres in the UK, or overseas in my former role as shadow Secretary of State for International Development, I have always been struck by their sheer resilience. That should not blind us to the fact that they are among the most vulnerable people in the world. They have not only been uprooted from their lives and families but have often experienced extreme trauma.
My constituent Zeynep fled torture to claim asylum in the UK. After a long-drawn-out process, she was finally granted asylum in October last year. With the help of a charity, she applied for universal credit, but when her asylum support was withdrawn 28 days later, her claim was still pending. She was left with no support and quickly forced to rely on food banks and handouts to survive. The acceptance of her asylum application should have been a moment of celebration; instead, it became the moment she was pushed into absolute poverty.
Zeynep’s is not a case in which individual errors were made, leading to delay. The asylum support and universal credit systems worked exactly as they were supposed to. Universal credit claimants must wait a minimum of five weeks before receiving their first payment, which means there is a deliberate gap between the end of asylum support and that payment. In the best-case scenario, that means enduring weeks without money for basic necessities such as food, rent or heating. That is the best-case scenario. The reality of universal credit is: never expect the best-case scenario.
A Salvation Army study published in 2018 found that only 14.5% of people who applied for universal credit did not have any problems. It found that a key barrier to claiming universal credit was an inability to apply digitally, and a lack of knowledge about how to claim.
People who have recently been granted asylum are particularly likely to experience those difficulties, and therefore have greater difficulty claiming universal credit. For many asylum seekers, having received a positive asylum decision, the first thing they need to do is claim universal credit. They need the essential support of basic funds while they look for work or if they fall ill, as well as for paying rent. If they have had to scrape by on the tiny amount provided through asylum support, they will urgently need more support, but they tell me and many of my colleagues that the system is not fit for purpose.
The current system is failing refugees, just as it fails many other vulnerable groups. The acceptance of an asylum claim is often the end of a long and difficult journey, which we must acknowledge. Being recognised as a refugee, and being given the right to live and work in the UK, should be a moment of celebration, but the risk of poverty and homelessness faced by refugees following such a decision means that, for many, it is a moment of great risk and often hardship. I hope the Minister will agree with me that the current situation is untenable and must change.
We need to listen to those on the frontline, including experts such as the British Red Cross and others, when they tell us that asylum support must be extended to at least 56 days. We need to honour our international obligations not just to allow refugees in, but to ensure that they can survive, and access food and shelter. We are not currently doing that. Will the Minister agree to look again at the support provided to those granted asylum when they claim universal credit, and at removing the barriers they face when making those claims?
When we welcome refugees into this country, pointing them in the direction of a food bank must not be the first thing we do. We are one of the richest countries in the world. We can do better than that, and, for the sake of those who come to our country seeking a better life, we must do better.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing the debate, and on the characteristically powerful way in which she opened it and made the point so effectively. She is right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), that gaining refugee status should be a moment for celebration, but that for too many it is a ticking clock towards homelessness and destitution.
Sheffield was the UK’s first city of sanctuary. We made a very positive statement that we wanted to welcome those fleeing persecution and war, and to give them a good reception in our city. I am proud that that movement has spread all over the country. We have some of the most organised and best co-ordinated support charities and organisations helping refugees and asylum seekers, but even in our position the 28-day move-on period is not sufficient to prevent homelessness and destitution.
In preparation for today’s debate, I spoke to two local charities about the issues that refugees in Sheffield face at the end of the move-on period: City of Sanctuary, which provides general support, and Nomad, a charity that particularly helps those who face homelessness and that tells me it has seen a steady increase in the number of refugees who are forced to become rough sleepers.
As my colleagues have indicated, there is much that could be done. City of Sanctuary has called for the Government’s urgent guide for refugees to be provided in a range of languages, because many of those granted refugee status are likely to face language barriers in accessing services. It is not on that the guide is currently available only in English.
Refugees also face barriers when opening bank accounts, which they need immediately for payment of wages or to gain access to social security. Banks do not provide interpreters, and many newly granted refugees do not have a support network of trusted English speakers who can help. City of Sanctuary also found that online forms and mobile banking apps do not recognise occupancy status, which is often the situation for those who have been living in asylum accommodation. I ask the Minister, will he commit to working with the banks to resolve those issues?
Internet access is also a real issue. These days almost everything, including universal credit applications, has to be done online, but mobile internet access costs money. There are some places where free internet services are available, but newly recognised refugees may well not know about them.
There are other issues too, but many of the problems come down to the short move-on period. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, asylum seekers have not had the right to work before being granted status, so they have not built up savings because they have not had an income to support themselves. There is cross-party concern about changing the right to work. In the last Parliament, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Caroline Spelman, led a debate in this Chamber about seeking to change the rules, so that the right to work was granted. The Minister should advocate for that in debates at the Home Office.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton pointed out, there is a real incompatibility between the length of the move-on period and the five-week wait for universal credit. The Red Cross found that 65% of refugees who were supported to apply for universal credit were left with no financial support; the proportion of those who were not supported would be even higher. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, a simple measure, such as a cash grant at the point of being granted status, could make an enormous difference.
City of Sanctuary in Sheffield told me that even for those classed as a priority need, 28 days is not long enough, in many cases, for local authorities to find suitable accommodation. Refugee families have been required to stay in unsafe and unsuitable places. Nomad told me that because of that, some refugees who are placed in emergency accommodation decide that taking their chance on the street as rough sleepers is a better option. For those not classed as a priority need, the only option is private rented accommodation, which is difficult, if not impossible, to access without a universal credit payment and the means to put down a deposit, so we return to the same issues again.
City of Sanctuary found that some refugees have received penalty notices from the NHS, despite being in receipt of universal credit. I hope the Minister will consider taking that up with his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care. That reflects a general point that the Home Office needs to work more closely with local authorities and with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that newly granted refugees start getting the support they need as soon as possible.
The key point that has come out of today’s debate is the pressing need to extend the move-on period for people granted refugee status from 28 days to 56 days.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David.
I will start by commenting on what has been said so eloquently by my hon. Friends about the idea that universal credit happens within five weeks, or that 28 days would be enough to get accommodation, if it were needed. If someone were to present themselves as homeless to Birmingham City Council, or just as needing housing, not necessarily as a priority need, it would probably take 18 months before they were given anywhere they could actually live. When my brother applied for universal credit, he decided to grow his beard for the time it took before he got a payment; he looked like Rasputin before he got any funding. That puts it into some perspective.
I want to talk specifically about the effect on refugee women, which I am sure will surprise absolutely no one, and to bring to the Minister’s attention the findings of the “Will I ever be safe?” report by Women for Refugee Women. I think it is vital that this element is included in this debate. The women featured in the report are here in the Gallery listening to our debate. The report details the cases of 106 asylum-seeking and refugee women. They left their countries for a variety of reasons, but around half the women said that they had experienced violence at the hands of the state authorities, 42% had been tortured and almost one third had been raped by soldiers, prisoners, guards or the police in their own country. More than one third of the women had been raped in the private sphere, with others fleeing forced marriage, forced prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence. More than one third of the destitute women were forced into unwanted relationships because of their destitution in this period that we are talking about.
When faced with an impossible situation, very often in those cases the women end up back in dangerous and violent relationships, or exploited as part of a pattern of street homelessness. Certainly, something that I have seen time and again while working with victims of human trafficking is how the constant merry-go-round of destitution for that group of women leaves them severely vulnerable to the people who come along and exploit them for sex. One quarter of the women who were spoken to in the report—bear in mind that suffering sexual violence was part of the reason they fled—were raped or sexually abused when sleeping outside or in other people’s homes.
When I used to work with asylum-seeking women, who at that time were largely from Sierra Leone, in Birmingham, it was often described as moving “from one hell to another”, and that also seems to be the case with this destitution gap. We see that one third of women raped in their home country are then raped again here in the UK. My hon. Friend highlighted the case of Mariam and how long it had taken her to gain access to benefits. That sounded much more realistic than the timeframes laid out, and much closer to my understanding, as a constituency Member of Parliament, of how long it takes to actually access benefits. She waited nine months to get her benefits.
I want to tell a tiny bit of Mariam’s story, so that she does not just become a person who had to wait a little while for benefits and so that we can feel who she is. I will read it in her words:
“I’m from Fumayu in Somalia and came to the UK in November 2008 after fleeing the war. I’m from a minority clan called Bajuni… I escaped the war in Somalia twice. The first time was in the early 1990s. Militiamen broke into our family home and raped me. They raped my daughter Amina as well. She was just 15. The men shot her dead after, and they killed my son too.”
She fled originally to Kenya and then eventually here to the UK. She applied for asylum the day after she arrived. She says:
“Because I had no money, the Home Office put me in a hostel where I got two meals a day.”
Mariam was rehoused in Middlesbrough. She was scared, and the interpreter brought in for her asylum interview spoke Swahili, not Kibajuni, which is the language she speaks. She was made to speak in a different language and found it difficult to explain herself. The Home Office refused her asylum claim. She was eventually granted her benefits, but, as has already been said, her asylum support stopped in January and her benefits did not start for nine months. The Home Office put Mariam in a dirty hotel. She had no money, and she was lucky that she had a solicitor who gave her some cash and that she was able to rely for some things on local charities.
That cannot be the system that the Minister hopes to see for a woman multiply raped, whose children have been killed in front of her. I ask him to consider all the things requested by my hon. Friend.
It is a great honour to serve under your guidance, Sir David. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken so far in the debate, and in particular to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who has led the debate so very well, and not only today.
It is important that we focus on that move-on period for migrants, because it is more than just an administrative wrinkle; it is a deep injustice. I am sure the Minister is now fully aware of that. It has a colossal impact on the lives of incredibly vulnerable people, such as those we have already heard about this afternoon. As asylum seekers arrive in Britain, often after long and harrowing journeys just to get here in the first place, they face a battle to gain refugee status, overcoming language barriers and confusing paperwork, and persevering through any delays and mishaps along the way.
Throughout all that, of course, they are denied the opportunity to work. That is not the principal purpose of this debate, but I would love the Minister to take seriously the point that it is not just morally wrong to deny those seeking asylum the right to work, but really foolish. To give people the right to work while they are seeking asylum is to give them the ability to integrate into the community, to improve their language skills, to provide for themselves and their families, and to be in a far better place to contribute fully once their claim is accepted.
At the moment, as the Minister knows, a tiny minority of those with very specialist skills—they pretty much have to be a brain surgeon—have the right to exercise their skills in this country. Why should not people who are seeking asylum have the right to earn, to work and to support themselves?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no evidence that those countries that offer the right to work to asylum seekers suffer from some perceived pull factor? People flee their home country because of danger and persecution; they do not flee their home country because they think they will get a better job when they are coming into a hostile asylum system. There is no evidence at all that those countries that allow a right to work receive flows of asylum seekers on a scale that other countries do not.
Absolutely spot on; I am grateful for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister will take the time just to check with his civil servants that that is absolutely true. There is no pull factor associated with those countries. The majority of civilised countries do exactly what we are asking for and allow people to work while they are seeking asylum. The issue we are talking about is the push factor, not the pull factor. Why do people leave in the first place?
Focusing on the purpose of this debate, we see that a successful verdict is given to many of those who seek asylum. As has already been said, they may have received formal refugee status, but the relief and celebration are cut short as they realise that their newly achieved status is actually a kind of 28-day ultimatum: 28 days until their asylum support is stopped, just 28 days of accommodation and 28 days of a weekly allowance. In a vast number of cases, this is 28 days’ countdown to destitution. Many of those whom we see sleeping on the streets of this city are people for whom that 28-day period has expired.
Imagine, Sir David, being given 28 days to find accommodation in a foreign country to which you have fled to escape war or persecution, not forgetting that you have not been allowed to work until this point, so therefore you also need to find a job during that time—either that, or apply for universal credit. Universal credit’s rules have made it almost inevitable that refugees will be left without support; an automatic 35-day wait to receive their first payment is completely incompatible with the 28 days that refugees have to access it. Then, of course, there will be the complexities of the paperwork and documentation required to gain access to universal credit in the first place.
The safeguards in the universal credit system to ensure that claimants are not left without support are often not accessed by refugees. Either they are unaware that they are eligible, or they do not even have a bank account to receive the support. Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, local authorities are given a 56-day period to work with households at risk of homelessness. For refugees to receive support for only a pitiful 28 days is utterly ludicrous; it is almost designed to take desperate people, who ran to us for sanctuary and safety, and plunge them into bewildered misery as they are forced on charity or, increasingly, on to the streets.
I am pretty sure we all agree that human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. We as a society, as a Government, as a country, have already accepted that people in such situations deserve protection under the refugee convention, yet the current system is a far cry from recognising that in practice.
Refugees are forced to sleep rough, work illegally or face appalling exploitation in order to meet their basic needs while jumping through bureaucratic hoops to access money, accommodation, employment, education and so on. Will the Minister commit to providing refugees in the UK with the respect and dignity they deserve from day one of being recognised as a refugee, and to giving them what they need to build their lives in a new place and flourish in and contribute to our society?
In many ways the solution is simple: extend the move-on period to at least 56 days, which would cover the break in support and give refugees the best chance of establishing a stable and productive life here. Extending the move-on period to 56 days would have a financial benefit of between £4 million and £7 million each year for the taxpayer. Local authorities would save £2.1 million through the decreased use of temporary accommodation and up to £3.2 million through reduced rough sleeping. Alongside that, we must remove the administrative barriers that newly recognised refugees face. They need to be able to open bank accounts and receive the right documentation, and they need support to help them navigate the move-on period, apply for universal credit and obtain secure accommodation.
I recognise that there are complexities around which Department the matter falls under, but that is no excuse. While more and more families find themselves destitute and desperate, unable to meet even their basic needs, we need decisive action to end the tragedy of refugee destitution. Will the Treasury and the Government take steps today to end the departmental deadlock and extend the 28-day waiting period to 56 days? That would reduce benefit claims and increase the productivity of refugees in this country. More importantly, it would enable them to live in safety and dignity. It will save them from further pain and trauma on top of all that they have experienced already. With a simple change in policy, we can prevent destitution and save money. It is blindingly, obviously, the right thing to do. Will the Government do it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to be able to contribute and stand up for the women, children and families whom I have supported recently. Up to December, I was running a refugee support project called Love to Learn in the borough of Wandsworth. I pay tribute to everyone working in the team and also to other local organisations: CARAS, the South London Refugee Association and Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees. I want to talk about community services and widen the debate to consider other ways in which we can support those who have been granted refugee status, but need more support to be able to live here.
First, let us consider housing support for young people leaving care. Asylum seekers might have come here unaccompanied. When they leave care, they often fall into what has been described to me, by someone who came recently from Eritrea, as a dark hole. As was mentioned earlier, a cash grant is needed for the essentials in the accommodation that they might be provided with, from the most basic things such as sheets and a duvet to a cooker. I have had to drive to pick up and take basic goods over to help young people. Not having a bank account is one reason why they could not buy goods. Getting a bank account is really hard. There is also the issue of internet access. I have sat in local cafés with young people because I have a smartphone and am able to access the services that they need. After leaving care, no support at all is given.
The second area of concern is mental health support. According to the Refugee Council, 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental distress, which does not change when they receive their status. Refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than those in the UK population. That is just an acknowledgement of the situation that many people have faced, and the reason why they have had to come here to ask for refuge. Mental health support especially fails young people who leave care and need support. I have heard that the threshold for needing support is not one suicide attempt, but more than one, which is absolutely shocking. People need to know how to access services and support.
Community services provide an important bridge between need and the people who can provide for those needs. For a start, we need to be joined up so that people do not need community support to access services. Also, we should support community projects that enable refugees to claim the things that they are entitled to.
The third area is education support. Many children from a refugee background, including the children of refugees, need additional support to be able to thrive in the education system. Many refugees have faced discrimination, housing issues, language problems, and trauma from the situation that they have faced, which also impedes their children’s ability to thrive. Education, health and care plans are only in English, which could be easily rectified. If they were provided across the country in different languages, such an easy change would make a big difference. There is no translation for children in need. There is a confusing system and refugees do not know how the English system works. They find that they need to fight for their rights, which other parents already understand. Community services such as Love to Learn can provide a bridge, but it would be even better if we did not need it.
The fourth area is English for speakers of other languages, especially ESOL services with a creche, which enables women to attend. Since 2009, Government funding for ESOL courses has been cut by 60%, and the wider adult skills budget, which people go on to—they have their ESOL and need to go on to the next thing—has been cut by 35%. In the Government’s integrated communities action plan, published in February 2019—I have a copy of it here—boosting English language skills is recognised as absolutely key to community integration. The plan states:
“Speaking and understanding English means you are less vulnerable to isolation, improves your work prospects, increases your chance of friendships with people from different backgrounds and allows you to feel more confident when accessing local services.”
So we have an action plan that, from my experience in Wandsworth, is not being funded or delivered. Will the Minister return to the plan and see whether it is being implemented, because it is absolutely fundamental for refugees?
I agree with the Members who spoke earlier about extending the move-on period to 56 days and giving refugees the right to work. I would add that support to community services such as those in my borough of Wandsworth, which already support refugees but could do much more with relatively little funding, is essential. We are fortunate in this country to be able to welcome new neighbours, colleagues and friends to our communities. It says a lot about us as a country that we can do that—we can take pride in it—and provide refuge to people who desperately need it. We must keep doing better, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is important and fundamental to building integrated, happy communities together.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for setting the scene. I always enjoy the debates she secures, because she is so passionate and her voice is always so strong as well. She says the right things and it is a pleasure to be involved in any of her debates. She speaks with knowledge, passion and interest, as have other speakers.
I am concerned about asylum decisions. This is something we need to alter. We want the Minister to give us the response we wish to hear. We look forward to that with trepidation. We all know that whenever we move house, it takes time to get our affairs in order. Most people take out a standardised three-month mail re-route with the post office, on the understanding that things do not always go as smoothly as we would like. The situation for refugees is more difficult.
I have been very vocal in my opposition to the five-week delay in universal credit, which in reality is a two-month gap for many people to get all the information they need for the official documentation. To expect someone to apply for their social security number, which is a necessity for universal credit, and to then complete the process within the 28 days that the asylum payment continues is absurd. It is simply not feasible or fundamentally achievable. Indeed, I would be very interested to hear how many people have successfully managed to navigate the process within 28 days. I frequently deal with the benefits and universal credit system, and in my opinion the number is very few. I do not want to put the Minister on the spot, but it would be good to hear what the numbers are: I suspect they are small, if there are any such people at all. My constituents find it difficult to get their tenancies, sick lines, past earnings, bank statements, identification documents and child support payments in order, and their first language is English—never mind starting all that from scratch in a second language. The difficulties are real. They are enormous for people who must negotiate those things in an unfamiliar language. If we believe that people are in need of asylum, I believe that we accept that it is our responsibility to provide it. That does not mean abandoning them to a system that it is difficult for us, never mind them, to understand. It would seem logical to offer every bit of support we can.
An example of a slightly different situation, but which none the less shows how the system works, involves a lady who was born here and moved to Canada and raised her children there. She came home in her 70s after her husband died, to be with family and friends who would give her support. We had to fight to get any bank to give her a bank account, despite the fact that she was the recipient of a British pension and had a national insurance number. It took us weeks, if not months, to get her a bank account, and I personally vouched for her on the strength of her family connections, as they lived in Newtownards and I knew them. It was a necessity to get the bank account for universal credit payments to be made. That example involved a British citizen who ticked all the boxes. Yet she had real difficulty in getting to the end of her trials and tribulations.
I am thankful to the many charities that do all they can to help families who need help. My office, like, I suspect, other MPs’ offices, is a referral point for the food bank, which has been the difference between a full and empty belly for refugees in my constituency. That is how drastic it is. It is as serious as that when people have to find their way through the system. Crisis has said that in 2016-17, 478 people, or 7% of new clients approaching it for help that year, were having difficulty with transition from the asylum payment. We should remember that those were only the people who contacted that charity. The figure should probably be multiplied by a large number, if people who went to other charities were included. Those were people who were forced to flee their homes and support systems and who landed in the country knowing no one and often not having a good grasp of the language. We simply need to do better for them and we look to the Minister to give us the answers that our constituents, and the refugees, need to hear.
We have been fortunate in my constituency to have five Syrian refugee families who came to our area. I met them as their MP, as is my duty, although I would do so irrespective of whether I was the MP and help in any way I could. I will tell you the truth, Sir David, and give you a real example. I do not mean any disrespect to anyone and am not trying to point the finger at anyone, but it was the local church groups, which got together—and particularly the Link group that brought them together—that helped the Housing Executive to get them some rental accommodation. The church groups, and that one in particular, got clothes for them and their children, and food as well as accommodation. We use the Thriving Life church for the food bank. Local church groups also got the furniture to furnish their homes for them. They had nothing. Those people come with nothing and start from a base that none of us ever starts from. We are fortunate to have had years of work, and family connections, but they had none.
The menfolk—they were the earners when they were in Syria—were accomplished tradesmen. They could have done carpentry or electrical work. Those were their trades. They just needed to start to do that. Another massive problem was language and having someone to interact with them. The church groups, again, did something about that. Another problem was education for the children. Fortunately the children were of an age at which they had some grasp of English, and some were fairly fluent. We got them into local schools. I am sorry if I am rambling on a wee bit, but those things happened not because of Government and the universal credit system, but because local people took the initiative. It was really important.
We need to extend support to allow refugees peace of mind while they go through the quagmire of universal credit or getting a job. Many jobs pay monthly in arrears, which puts them in the same position. They are behind the eight ball—even worse than anyone else, it seems. Charities and church groups are wonderful but we need to send the right message and either resolve the universal credit timing, which I have been pushing for since its inception, or acknowledge the failure in our system and not allow vulnerable people to be the ones who suffer. I support the extension of payment for refugees to 56 days and ask the Minister to consider that. I say to him gently and sincerely that we are here because we all feel the same on behalf of refugees.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and congratulate her on securing the debate and on another brilliant speech, as well as on the brilliant work she does as chair of the APPG on refugees—including the “Refugees Welcome?” report. We are fortunate to have her chairing the group. I pay tribute, in fact, to every Member who has taken part in the debate. Every speech was excellent and showed huge knowledge. I mean no disrespect when I say that almost certainly that is partly because many of the same Members have been making similarly excellent points in excellent speeches for years on end. We now need the Government to listen and to act on some of the advice that is being provided.
I pay tribute also to organisations such as the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, Crisis and the local organisations that Members have mentioned, which work at the coalface supporting the people we have been speaking about, and engaging in advocacy work on behalf of those vulnerable individuals. Without them we would not be able to make the case we are making today.
I think that this is the first chance I have had to welcome the Minister to his new post at the Home Office. I am never quite sure whether to congratulate or commiserate with those who are sent to the Home Office. He has a tough job ahead of him and I wish him all the best in it. If he is ever looking for constructive advice and help, I am happy to meet him at any point.
The debate highlights an absolute tragedy. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was right to say that every grant of refugee status should be something to celebrate. It is another human being who is protected under international law as a person at risk of persecution in their home country. What a tragedy it is that, after we have taken that step and stepped up to our moral and legal obligations, the system works in such a way as to make the refugee homeless and destitute immediately. It is a tragedy and disgrace, and, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) said, we are a rich country and can and must do much better. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, all sorts of statistics show that the situation is not just a few isolated examples of folk falling through the safety net. It is a huge, widespread problem. It does not need to be like this, and many of the key problems could be solved simply by extending the move-on period. That is not a complete solution, but it would take us 90% of the way there.
I am sure that the Government will talk about liaison officers, post-grant appointments, signposting, integration funding and attempts to ensure that national insurance numbers are issued as part of the process of issuing biometric residence cards. That is all welcome and necessary, although even those processes need to be improved on. However, the overwhelming evidence is that it does not come remotely close to fixing the problems that have been highlighted. All the help in the world will not alter the fact that 28 days is insufficient time for moving on. There seems to be a fundamental failure to grasp that the moving-on process is a gargantuan task for many individuals, given what they have been put through. We are dealing, in many cases, with incredibly vulnerable people. By definition they are here because they have fled persecution in a different country, and all sorts of barriers can stem from that, including language, mental health issues—something that the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) referred to—and a fear of interacting with the authorities. Twenty-eight days is simply too short a time. As a result, already scarred lives are even more damaged by our Government’s failure to deal with this in a comprehensive manner.
The impact of that failure does not last only a few days; it can set back integration by months, years and even for life. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) gave powerful examples of that, particularly relating to women. At the stroke of a pen, Ministers could take a significant step toward fixing this by making the move-on period long enough for refugees to be able, with proper support, to navigate the system and establish themselves here.
Hon. Members set out a whole host of problems with the move-on period, which I will refer to briefly. First and foremost, 28 days is not only too short but is totally incompatible with the 35 days required, in theory, to access universal credit, and is inconsistent with the 56-day provision the Government put in their own homelessness legislation. Secondly, we heard about all the challenges in getting the necessary documentation to open bank accounts and to access social security and accommodation. The Government have taken steps in the right direction, but there is still an awful long way to go, and a joined-up approach is very much missing.
There is a lack of knowledge in some institutions—we heard about banks, but also local authorities and jobcentres—about what evidence is needed, and even about how to apply tests such as the habitual residence test. I am not sure whether problems accessing integration loans have been referred to, but there are still huge challenges relating to awareness and insufficient loans, particularly for those who might want to access accommodation in the private rented sector. As several Members said, extending the move-on period could save the Government £7 million because of reductions in rough sleeping and reduced local authority spend on temporary accommodation. It would also save the Scottish Government a small fortune in the amount that they have to pay out through Scottish welfare fund crisis grants.
Fifty-six days is the minimum period recommended by those at the coalface, and the reasoning was set out in detail by the hon. Member for Bristol West. My party is absolutely behind that, and we would also support flexibility for appropriate cases involving longer transitions. Why end asylum support before we know that the first universal credit payment has actually been made? The call we make is based on evidence from those working with people making the transition and on experience with constituents. If the Minister does not support 56 days, how does he justify 28 days? Will he explain why the Home Office thinks 28 days appropriate? I have completely failed to find any explanation as to why that is deemed an appropriate move-on period.
A whole host of other related issues feed into the problem of post-decision support. They could all probably command a debate in their own right, so I will refer to them in passing. Hon. Members have done a good job of explaining why they are so important. First, asylum decision-making times seem to be growing out of control. We also heard about the right to work, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) in particular detailed how significant that is. Clearly, people will be less likely to require support or to fall into destitution if they have already been working by the time they have their decision. It is way past time for lifting the ban on the right to work.
We also need to look at the whole dispersal system, the huge delays in paying asylum support and the paltry levels of support that we give to asylum seekers. We need to recognise that they are hugely disproportionately placed in areas of already high deprivation, and we then pay them a pittance in support—£5.39 per day—none of which aids integration or makes a subsequent transition period smoother. Ultimately, the UK Government’s whole approach to integration needs to be looked at again. It seems almost as if it has been designed around the half of asylum applicants who ultimately will not be recognised as refugees. It is almost as if they are attempting to make the system as miserable as possible, to deter applications. We should design the system around the half of applicants who are refugees and will eventually be recognised as refugees. The aim should be integration from day one, which is the approach at the centre of the Scottish Government’s integration strategy.
As others have said, the Home Office’s approach means a two-tier system in practice, with a different approach to resettled refugees and refugees who come through the UK asylum process. I accept that the approach to resettled refugees cannot just be cut and pasted and applied to those who have come through the process here, but there are all sorts of examples of good practice that could be taken from the resettlement programme and applied to those who have gone through the system. As Members have said, one example is the up-front cash grant of £300 per person for resettled refugees while they wait for universal credit.
In conclusion, as I said at the outset, it is hugely frustrating that these issues have persisted for ages. Charities and parliamentary Committees have been reporting on this for years on end. I have a small worry that things might actually get worse before they get better. The hon. Member for Putney was among those highlighting the importance of funding for community organisations. As I understand it, EU asylum, migration and integration funding, which supports services such as the Scottish Refugee Council’s integration service, is due to end in September. It is important to know what the Government will do to replace that funding. More fundamentally, we need the Minister to agree that the position is completely unacceptable and that urgent action is required. More tweaks will not suffice. Some might be important, but we need the move-on period to be extended, as advocated by every single hon. Member who has spoken so far.
I apologise for running in like a bat out of hell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing the debate and hon. Members who have spoken.
The toxic debate surrounding immigration has meant that there are increasingly fewer people in positions of power to speak up for the most vulnerable in our society, asylum seekers among them. In the clamour to appear tough on immigration, we have lost that once proud British tradition of accepting into this country those in most need—one example we hear often is that of the Kindertransport and our noble Friend Lord Alf Dubs.
Refugees should absolutely be welcome here, but at the moment it seems that we refuse to treat them with dignity and humanity. We must remember that they do not choose where they were born, the political issues that occur in their country or the situations that arise that mean they have to flee. They should not be held to account for that; rather, we should receive them with open arms.
The Government seem to want to stop at nothing to maintain their hostile environment; they have even suggested that, in some cases, they would deny legitimate asylum claims which, of course, would be against the 1951 refugee convention. The Government’s focus on deterrence, rather than on establishing safe and legal routes, is an expression of that, and they should be deeply ashamed of it. As we have heard, it has been left mostly to faith and community organisations to fill the gap that the Government should be filling. They do an absolutely fantastic job, but it is simply not their job, and they do not have the resources to continue doing it.
We have heard many people touch on the right to work, and I am proud that it is the Labour party’s policy, as well as to establish safe and legal routes, to allow asylum seekers the right to work after six months. Commentators wax lyrical about asylum seekers being a drain on resources, but we refuse to let them work. As I said, people do not come here because they want handouts. A lot of them have skills to work and should be given the opportunity to do so. In working, they would reduce that so-called bill that people talk about and give back to the community. They want to work and to integrate into society, but denying them the right to work does not allow that. The Government also said that they want to curb modern slavery, but these restrictions on the right to work really undermine that so-called policy.
On ESOL, we argue that people should speak English, but we maintain that the Government’s policy is shameful and treats those claiming asylum as though they were on immigration bail. These measures prevent young people from accessing education, including ESOL classes. Two years ago, three young men who came here as unaccompanied minors from Eritrea committed suicide. Imagine travelling all that way here, to safety—in terrible conditions and at the mercy of people traffickers—only to feel so unsafe that, once they had arrived in what was meant to be a place of safety, they wanted to commit suicide. That stands to reason, given the way in which they were treated. They felt so insecure about the length of time it was taking the Home Office to come to a decision that they felt that they had no option but to kill themselves. Instead of the Government supporting people better, we seem to be handing over our services to private companies, including Serco and G4S. We give millions and millions of pounds to those private companies, which continue to fail. Even companies that have defrauded the Government are left to provide housing and other resources. Instead of giving that money to local authorities, which I think would do better at providing housing, we see that a lot of complaints have been received about the housing—it is really poor housing. At the end of the day, local authorities are responsible for the integration of asylum seekers, and the money would be better spent by them for the whole community, particularly in a climate in which things are being whipped up and a lot of the time not a lot is going back into quite under-privileged communities.
The mistakes made by the Government in relation to applications continue to be a disgrace and ruin lives. We talk about all the money that is wasted on immigration and asylum, but I argue that we continue to do things such as detain and deport asylum seekers and victims of trafficking and sexual violence—something that the Government said that we would not do—and every single time we detain someone and keep them in a detention centre, that is wasting money. It is giving money again to the same private companies.
As has been demonstrated, the main point of this debate is to ask the Minister to explain why we have the 28-day rule. Why will we not extend the period to 56 days? Twenty-eight seems to be quite an arbitrary number. The Minister has heard again and again about how it eventually leaves people homeless and destitute and ends up creating a greater cost for the Government. What would it actually cost if we were to extend the period of support to 56 days? I wonder whether the Minister could calculate whether that would cost as much as the Home Office tends to pay out for its mistakes in relation to immigration claims.
We have a legal and moral obligation to those who claim asylum, but daily we seem not to meet that, so what I would like to ask the Minister overall is when the Government will stop treating asylum seekers as second-class beings and if and when they will stop treating them as if claiming asylum is a crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in two days, Sir David. No doubt there will be many future occasions as well.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing today’s debate and opening it with such a thoughtful but also passionate speech. She has for a long time been a powerful and persuasive campaigner and advocate on these issues. The Government might not always agree completely with everything that she says, but on many occasions we do, and I am grateful to her for raising these issues in Parliament and for doing that in such a well considered and thoughtful manner. Cases are always much more persuasive when presented in the way that she has demonstrated today, and I am grateful to her for raising this important subject in the way she has.
As the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), said, I am extremely new in this role. I was appointed to the Home Office, in addition to the Ministry of Justice, only two or three weeks ago, so I am getting rapidly up to speed with these issues, and it has been very useful to hear everything that hon. Members have said today. However, I am a Member of Parliament who represents Croydon, and many hon. Members will know that one of the Home Office’s major centres for handling asylum applications is Lunar House in the London Borough of Croydon. In fact, Croydon has, along with Kent, I think, the highest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. From my own constituency casework, therefore, I am very familiar with many of the issues that have been raised about asylum in general and UASCs in particular. Croydon was also the first borough to roll out universal credit fully, so I have had a lot of experience as a constituency Member of Parliament of that as well.
Let me talk a bit about asylum in general, before turning to some of the specific points raised today. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol West, said that this country has a proud and long history of welcoming refugees to these shores. In particular, when the Syrian crisis occurred four or five years ago, we set up the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which I think has worked extremely well. We set an ambition, an aim, a target of resettling 20,000 people, mostly from Syria or from camps on the borders of Syria, directly in the UK, and we are, I think, extremely close to reaching the 20,000 level; I expect we will reach it in a matter of a few weeks. That scheme designed to help the most vulnerable people imaginable—people who have suffered terrible atrocities in Syria—has worked very effectively.
In relation to asylum more generally, there were 34,000 claims for asylum last year. The number has been going up for the last few years. Last year we made just under 20,000—19,480—grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or other forms of long-term leave. More than half were for asylum. I think that 20,000 per year is a number that we can point to with pride as a country that wants to look after people who are fleeing persecution. The figure of 34,000—the number of people who claimed asylum last year—is not the highest in Europe, but is one of the highest in Europe; it is certainly in the top four numbers in Europe. The fact that people are coming here in such large numbers, often travelling first through other safe European countries such as France, Germany and Italy, shows quite a high level of confidence among those who choose to come here. That is not to be complacent or to dismiss any of the points raised, which I will come to, but in itself it does show that people seeking refugee status recognise that the UK is somewhere that takes its obligations very seriously indeed. That is why, as I said, they often travel through safe European countries to come here. Clearly, under the Dublin convention, people are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.
In relation to financial support for the asylum-seeking community, the cost of supporting asylum seekers is just under £1 billion—it is about £800 million—a year, and approximately 50,000 people are being supported, so I feel that from a financial perspective, quite a lot is being done to support this vulnerable community. They are vulnerable in the ways that hon. Members very eloquently described.
I hope that those remarks have set the scene for the United Kingdom’s very significant and profound commitment to supporting refugees. I shall turn now to the specific question about the 28 days. I would like to talk a bit about some of the things that we are doing to mitigate the impacts that have been described today and then discuss the 28 days versus 56 days.
I think that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was Immigration Minister, there was a debate on this topic in which some of these issues were aired. Since then, quite a few practical steps have been taken to try to make things as easy as possible for refugees in the 28-day period following the grant of their status. Let me mention just a couple. First, the 28-day period is not necessarily triggered by the grant of status; it is started only when the biometric residence permit is issued. That is the document needed to establish the status and enable people to apply for benefits and so on without getting unduly delayed by bureaucratic error. I am told that if administrative errors occur, that resets the 28-day period. If hon. Members have encountered any individual cases in which administrative errors that are not the fault of the refugee have occurred and a reset has not happened, I encourage them to write to me with the particulars so that I can look into them. I would be very happy indeed to do that.
We also ensure that the individual’s national insurance number is on the permit, because experience suggests that one of the things that just generally speeds things up is the NI number being clearly displayed in a place where it is easy for people to see.
The question of access to bank accounts was raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and others, and it is clearly essential that refugees have bank accounts, because pretty much everything these days—getting work and everything else—requires a bank account. A lot of work has been done, and is under way as we speak, with banks to speed that up, make things easier and remove some of the barriers that exist, but I undertake to write to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is the City Minister and responsible for financial service regulation, to get an update on where we are with ensuring that bank accounts are available to refugees, who are obviously completely entitled to live here and to work, as we all do, and make sure that that is functioning as it should. I will follow up that specific point.
I was also one of those who mentioned bank accounts. I am very keen to know that what the Minister is asking for means that there will be feedback for all of us who are here and all the regions of the United Kingdom, because we need to have that provision in Northern Ireland as well.
I will write to the hon. Member for Bristol West about that point on bank accounts. She can disseminate that as she sees fit to other hon. Members who take an interest and I will copy it to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), since he specifically raised that point.
The hon. Member for Strangford and others raised the important issue of English language lessons. As the Scottish National party spokesman said, properly integrating people, particularly into the workforce, is critical. We spoke about universal credit, which I will come on to address. That is clearly an important way of supporting people. Ultimately, for those granted refugee status, as for anyone else, the way out of poverty is through work rather than benefits. Being unable to speak English makes it very difficult to get into the workforce.
English language support is important. Investment in it is about £100 million per year through the adult education budget, which gives the money to various colleges and learning providers. They then decide how to meet the specific needs of their local communities. We have augmented that with an extra £10 million to support refugees who have come through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, to ensure that they can access additional language training. On top of that, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is investing a further £4.5 million per year to support community-based language provision.
I completely accept the need for English language training. I would rather that we taught people to speak English than endlessly have to translate. Helping people to speak English is the best solution. I will keep that under review. If there is evidence that the level of provision is not adequate, I will happily follow up further.
I understand that the MHCLG funding for community-based language provision is due to come to an end and there is currently no news on that funding being renewed, despite our understanding a couple of years ago that the Government intended to renew it. If the Minister can do anything about that with his colleagues in that Department to raise the issue, we would all appreciate it.
I want to mention courses in English for speakers of other languages coming with a crèche. That is increasingly crucial the more those courses are provided by colleges and similar providers, instead of community-based providers. We are seeing that provision being cut across the country. Women with children are specifically disadvantaged by the cuts and they are not fair for all.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. As a father of young children, I understand that childcare is important, whether for parents in work or further education, so her point is well made.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a related point about language. Notwithstanding my remarks a moment ago that teaching people to speak English is preferable to perpetually translating—for society and the individual concerned—I would like to make it clear that the welcome guide for refugees to England is available in multiple languages: Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Farsi, Pashtu, Punjabi, Tigrinya and Urdu. Hopefully, that will be of use to speakers of those languages.
Regarding the 28-day period, we are working with the voluntary sector. Several hon. Members have referred to its excellent work. We are also working with other Departments, as was raised by several hon. Members. We are working with local authority asylum liaison officers in some of the main areas where asylum seekers are being accommodated. That is funded by MHCLG. The role of these liaison officers is to assist newly recognised refugees with move-on arrangements, particularly housing, to ensure that the transition from supported accommodation to wider society happens as smoothly as it can.
Our asylum accommodation providers, the people who provide the supported housing while the claim is being processed, are under a contractual duty, under their contracts with the Home Office, to notify the local authority and their liaison officers of the potential need to provide housing where a person in their accommodation is granted status. We are doing everything we can to try to make that work, between the Home Office-supported accommodation and the local authority’s housing services, supported by the liaison officer, as joined up as possible.
The central question is 28 days versus 56 days. I have read the Red Cross report, to which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred. I have it here. There is clearly a financial cost to keeping people in supported accommodation for longer than they are currently kept there. The Red Cross report makes the case that the extra cost in the Home Office estate would be outweighed by savings in local authorities, due to less homelessness support. I will study the report. It has some costings of that equation. I will look at the numbers carefully and make my own assessment as to where that balance lies.
In addition to the purely financial consideration, there are practical capacity considerations. As we know, housing is quite difficult to come by. If we extended from 28 days to 56 days, we would increase the number of people in supported housing by a few thousand. We would then have to find those extra spaces. Even if one could make a compelling financial case—the Red Cross says that case can be made—one must think practically about where those places would come from. That must be borne in mind.
Will the Minister commit to looking at how much would be contributed financially by tax payments, if asylum seekers were allowed to work after six months, as well as how much the Home Office would save, if it made fewer mistakes and had to pay claims as requested?
Work is not the topic of this debate, and it is more than a financial consideration. We can all agree that we must be quicker at handling asylum claims. Whether they are successful, and we must integrate people into the community, or whether they are unsuccessful, and the person must be removed, doing it quicker is in everybody’s interest. As a matter of priority, as the new Minister, I will find ways of making this process quicker, which would mitigate a lot of the problems we have been discussing.
I have listened carefully to everything that has been said. The points have been made with sincerity and compassion. I will reflect carefully on what I have heard this afternoon. I will look at the case made in the Red Cross report and study those numbers. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol West for securing the debate and for making her case in such a balanced and considered way.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I am aware that we are going to vote any minute now, so I will confine my closing remarks to expressing my thanks to all hon. Members for an extremely thoughtful and constructive debate. Sometimes it feels like groundhog day, because we have done this before, but I am heartened by the Minister’s response. His commitment to read the Red Cross report is welcome. I was glad to see nods from his officials at certain points made by hon. Members.
I want to be hopeful. I hope that the Minister will engage constructively with me and other hon. Members here, and I would be grateful if he agreed to meet me to discuss some of the detail. I thank him for doing that. I want to put on record the fact that I was referring earlier to David Burrowes—a good man, who set a good template. All hon. Members made constructive and thoughtful contributions and I welcome the Minister’s constructive approach to this. I hope we can take a different approach, so that we do not have to do this debate next year—that would be fantastic. We will come back to discuss the right to work—it is related—but I am happy to take the Minister’s commitment that he will focus on the issue of 28 days versus 56 days at this point.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for refugees after receiving an asylum decision.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre.
A devastating report last summer into the future of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre by a clinical advisory panel led by Professor Nick Slevin at the instigation of NHS England stated that there was
“increasing concern as to whether high quality, safe and sustainable oncology services can continue to be delivered…and there is an urgent need to address this concern.”
If media reports are to be believed, that was the first time in the NHS’s 71-year history that a major hospital specialising in such an important disease had been deemed to pose a risk to patients and declared unfit for purpose. The panel went on to note that many of the existing buildings and much of the estate used by the cancer centre was
“dilapidated and not fit for purpose. There is a need for considerable investment in buildings, equipment replacement and IT connectivity”,
as well as staff.
Mount Vernon is a nationally recognised specialist cancer service, up there alongside the likes of the Royal Marsden or the Christie in Manchester, so for it to be so dilapidated and so short-staffed when cancer diagnoses are rising is deeply worrying. The panel recommended a change in the trust managing the service and, crucially, that some parts of the service—it would appear in practice to be most—be relocated to a hospital with comprehensive acute services. The report insisted that significant capital investment should be made available to address the need for a full or even partial move of the service. It argued that the buildings and wider estate used for cancer services should then be managed by the NHS trust actually providing the services to strengthen operational control.
Professor Slevin made it clear that he and his colleagues were greatly impressed by the determination of staff to continue to provide the best quality care that they could in the difficult circumstances they were working under. He also noted the consistently positive feedback from patients about the care they receive at Mount Vernon—a point that many of my constituents who have used the service have underlined to me.
Mount Vernon is a part of the NHS that I have known for a long time, having used the minor injuries centre a number of times and having campaigned to save its then accident and emergency department in the mid-1990s. More than 1,000 residents in Harrow use the service each year, and I have yet to hear a negative view of the professionals there. My constituents and I are keen to ensure that the service is maintained to a high standard and that it stays on the Mount Vernon site, or in the next best scenario, in an area local to Mount Vernon. Critically, we need a sustained period of investment in staff, buildings and equipment. I now believe that despite University College London Hospitals coming on board, there is no plan to shift Mount Vernon’s cancer service to central London, but it would be good to hear that confirmed by the Minister.
Professor Slevin’s report set out a short-term action plan involving the transfer of the leadership, governance and management of Mount Vernon’s cancer services to an experienced tertiary or leading cancer service provider from London—that apparently is now sorted—as well as the appointment of additional staff and urgent backlog maintenance work to existing clinical facilities. I would welcome clarity from the Minister on the progress made in implementing that short-term action plan. In particular, will he publish the list of urgent backlog maintenance work that Professor Slevin and the rest of the clinical advisory panel noted was essential? Crucially, what progress has been made in tackling that work?
I tabled a written parliamentary question that the Minister answered on 11 February, suggesting that removing asbestos from Mount Vernon would alone cost £12 million, while the answer to another written parliamentary question that I tabled, published on 21 October last year, stated:
“Challenges remain around sourcing capital funding for backlog maintenance and long-term solutions for the service.”
On staffing, will the Minister set out how many additional staff needed to be appointed to the acute oncology service in July last year, when the report was published, and the progress that has been made in tackling those staffing shortages? I understand from the answer that I received on 21 October in response to another written parliamentary question that I tabled that a business case for additional staff in that area was developed and approved. Will the Minister release the business case and confirm how many of the staff positions approved for recruitment have been filled?
The short-term action plan noted that robust implementation of policies concerning admission criteria, daily consultant rounds and patient reviews was necessary, which would require additional medical staffing. Again, it would be good for the number of extra clinicians needed from July last year to be published, and to know what progress has been made in tackling those staffing shortages. The answer to my written parliamentary question suggested that a proposal for an enhanced seven-days-a-week consultant model and robust outreach medical acute oncology service provision had been developed. Was it approved? Can the business case be released, and the House informed of progress on its implementation?
I tabled a further written parliamentary question, which was answered on 10 February. That answer did not give me confidence that enough action was being taken to tackle the immediate critical vacancies. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), said in her answer that there was a 25% vacancy rate for nurses at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, an almost 10% vacancy rate for medical staff, an almost 30% vacancy rate for clinical support staff, and an 8% vacancy gap for scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Given the seriousness of the findings in Professor Slevin’s report, I am surprised that more progress has not been made in reducing those vacancy rates.
It is the long-term future of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre that most exercises my constituents, and no doubt many others in surrounding areas who depend on its service. The impact of the lack of capital investment is obvious to any visitor or patient. The acid test of the commitment of Ministers to the future of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is whether they will invest in the new linear accelerators that the service needs. Linear accelerators are fundamental to the delivery of radiotherapy services, but are costly to put in place. Mount Vernon has seven, six of which are due to reach the end of their normal operational lives over the next three years.
Professor Slevin’s report last summer noted the age of the linear accelerators, or LINACs, and an answer to another written parliamentary question on 11 February noted some of the costs of replacing LINACs, particularly if they were being moved to a new site. A day earlier, an answer to another written parliamentary question noted that three of the seven linear accelerators were due to be replaced this year, with three more due in 2022. Will the three linear accelerators due for replacement this year be replaced and, if not, why not?
Professor Slevin’s report noted that the brachytherapy service at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is nationally recognised, but access to theatres for treatment is “constrained”. What is the long-term plan to sort that issue? The report also noted the desire of East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust and the Hertfordshire sustainability and transformation partnership to see Mount Vernon Cancer Centre’s services re-provided in fit-for-purpose buildings, replacing the oldest facilities.
Indeed, so old and decrepit are the buildings that leaking roofs have forced “adjustments in service provision”. Nine months on, I ask the Minister whether there are still leaking roofs at Mount Vernon, forcing more of the cancer centre’s services to be moved. There are insufficient rooms for medical staff, specialist nurses, dieticians and speech and language therapists, inadequate electronic systems and poor IT connectivity, slowing the clinical process. There is no direct real-time connection of the X-ray systems between Mount Vernon Cancer Centre and hospitals in its catchment area, undermining the effectiveness of clinical management.
The report stresses that the impact of poor IT infrastructure should not be underestimated. Duplicate paper records, a lack of access to complete scanning images out of hours, and an inability to view a comprehensive patient record lead to clinical risk. In short, doctors cannot access the results of critical CT and MRI scans out of hours. In the short term, according to the answer to a written parliamentary question that I received on 11 February, a plan to digitise patient care records at Mount Vernon is expected to be ready for implementation in May this year. Has the funding been identified to allow that to happen or will it have to wait for a full review of the future of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre to be completed? I hope that it is the former.
Professor Slevin’s report left the exact long-term future for Mount Vernon unresolved. A strategic review of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre to resolve that question is expected to be completed sometime this year, according to the answer given on 11 February to my written parliamentary question. Who will lead that review, what clinical expertise will they have, and how can we be sure that they will see it through to completion? What is the timeline for that review?
Part of the problem for Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is that the Mount Vernon site is owned by Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, while East Herts NHS Trust runs the cancer service. Add in the confusion regarding which part of NHS England is responsible for owning the future of Mount Vernon, and it is not hard to understand why, despite two concerning Care Quality Commission reports in the past five years, there might have been a lack of NHS focus until now on Mount Vernon’s future.
I understand too that a further transfer of responsibility for Mount Vernon’s future from NHS East of England to NHS London is inevitable when University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust takes over direct responsibility for the cancer centre. Given that, and given the number of Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care who have answered my questions about Mount Vernon so far—answers for which I am very grateful—it would be good to know who among the Secretary of State’s ministerial team will continue to have immediate and ongoing responsibility for the project. If it is the Minister present today, given his seniority within the Department, I am sure that my constituents and I would welcome that news.
This 117-year-old hospital is not one of the six named for rebuilding or one of the 40 for which a rebuild or upgrade appears to be on the cards over the next five years. Unsurprisingly, I have been asked whether Mount Vernon Cancer Centre is set to close. The omens certainly do not look good, but assuming that that is not Ministers’ intentions, and that central London is not their intention for a move either, that would suggest a local move—to Hillingdon Hospital or Watford General Hospital, where I understand that upgrades have been announced or are planned. Failing those two options, either Northwick Park Hospital or Stevenage, Cambridge or Luton is likely.
My constituents and others deserve to know that the problems of Mount Vernon Cancer Centre are being sorted out. To give confidence to that end, transparency for the local community is essential. Given the seriousness of Mount Vernon’s situation, regular quarterly updates that are easy to understand and that offer a route to track progress are surely not much to ask for all those who use the cancer centre. To make such updates helpful, they should include consistent answers to three fundamental continuing questions. First, what extra staff does Mount Vernon need and what is being done to fill the vacancies? Secondly, will the three linear accelerators due to be replaced this year be replaced? Thirdly, when will a decision be made on Mount Vernon’s future, who will have a say in it, and how can they be influenced? I hope that the Minister will agree to give those updates.
Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that, earlier this week, a clinician at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre was suspected of having coronavirus. I understand that, after testing by Public Health England, the member of staff has fortunately proven to be negative for the virus. Inevitably, that initial concern will have been profoundly worrying for staff and patients. It is a further tribute to the professionalism of the staff at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre that they have maintained care and the high standards for which they have a deserved reputation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this debate on the future of Mount Vernon cancer centre. I know that the provision and location of radiotherapy services is of great interest to many hon. Members, and I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) earlier this month to discuss aspects of this matter as it relates to their constituencies and their campaigns for a satellite radiotherapy centre, working with Mount Vernon to help serve their constituents.
The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to the work of the staff at Mount Vernon—not just the work that they are and will be doing to help deal with coronavirus, but the work that they do day in, day out, for his constituents and many others. I join him in paying tribute to their work and dedication. He has made a typically courteous but powerful case for investment in that hospital and in the services that serve his constituents. If I may, I will say a little bit about cancer care more broadly before I turn to the specifics of what he has said regarding Mount Vernon.
Improving cancer treatment remains a priority for this Government, and survival rates are at a high. Since 2010, rates of survival from cancer have increased year on year, but we know there is more to do nationally. That is why the NHS long-term plan states how the Government will achieve their ambition of seeing three quarters of all cancers—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and apologise to the sponsor of the debate, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). Does the Minister agree that both of the preferred options put forward for Mount Vernon include a satellite radiotherapy centre in our area of Hertfordshire? I hope that will form part of the Minister’s thinking, as it seemed to during our recent discussion.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. He is right about the importance of satellite radiotherapy centres for his constituents and for large parts of Hertfordshire. He and others have made a powerful case and I have considerable sympathy for it. I find it compelling and I am looking at ways in which we might be able to deliver on that for his constituents and those of other colleagues in the area.
As I was saying, the long-term plan sets out how the Government will achieve their ambition for three quarters of all cancers to be detected at an early stage, and for 55,000 more people to survive cancer for five years in England each year from 2028. That plan includes providing new investment in state-of-the-art technology to transform the process of diagnosis and boost research and innovation. NHS England has committed more than £1.3 billion in funding over the next five years to deliver the long-term plan’s commitments on cancer.
I suspect that the hon. Member for Harrow West will say, “That is great, but what does it mean for Mount Vernon, my constituents and my constituency?” He has set out the background of what has gone on at Mount Vernon cancer centre, and of the review. He will know that the strategic review of that centre’s long-term future was launched by NHS England and NHS Improvement in May 2019. The review began with an independent clinical advisory group visiting the site and speaking with staff and patients. Its report advised that the current service model was not clinically sustainable, as the hon. Gentleman has said, and recommended that leadership of services from a specialist tertiary cancer provider would be key to future service development and sustainability, staff recruitment and retention, and enabling patient access to clinical trials. I am happy to provide him with more details in writing, if that is helpful. Indeed, if I am unable to answer all of his detailed questions in the course of today’s debate, I will write to him with detailed answers as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically how the review would work, who was leading it, and who would be involved in it. It is being led by a programme board chaired by the NHS regional director of specialised commissioning and health and justice for the east of England. That board includes representatives from Healthwatch Hillingdon, Healthwatch Hertfordshire, London and the East of England Cancer Alliance, as well as local sustainability and transformation partnerships, clinical commissioning groups and a number of acute hospitals. They all sit on that board and are active participants. If it is helpful to the hon. Gentleman, rather than simply giving him the job titles, I can seek to furnish him with some names—those of the senior leadership, at least.
The hon. Gentleman said that the independent clinical advisory group made recommendations for short-term actions, including addressing urgent backlog maintenance of existing clinical facilities and the strengthening of acute oncology services. The current provider, East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, supported those recommendations. In January of this year, following evaluation of proposals from interested trusts, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was selected as the preferred provider, subject to a period of due diligence. Depending on the outcome of that due diligence, the contract for running the site should transfer in April next year, with UCLH providing additional leadership support for that site over the next 14 months.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned backlog maintenance, which I have touched on. He is right to have done so, because, as he knows, backlog maintenance has increased in recent years. Although the trust received £33 million of central capital in 2019 to tackle critical infrastructure issues across the estate, monitored by NHSE&I, I know that it continues to be of concern. Although I do not wish to prejudge the future capital settlement and the capital spending review, the hon. Gentleman has powerfully made the point that the capital needs of his hospital and his trust should be considered in any future allocations of capital funding.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of access to brachytherapy services, which will be wrapped up in the review that is currently under way. Regarding the future location of services, I can assure him and hon. Members that options for the short-term and long-term future of the centre are being actively considered by the clinical advisory group and NHSE&I, with the local area and the hon. Gentleman’s hospital at the forefront of their thinking. When I write to him, I suspect he might wish me to be a little firmer in my reassurances. As far as I am able, subject to that review, I will endeavour to do so.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about staffing issues at the hospital. Existing clinical leads at Mount Vernon have increased their leadership duties at the hospital alongside their clinical responsibilities. Recruitment of a full-time clinical director will take place in conjunction with the new provider, once it is appointed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the business case for appointing additional staff to the acute oncology service that has been developed and submitted to NHS England. My understanding is that the business case has been approved and recruitment has begun. I will take up with NHS England his request that he have sight of it and—ideally from his perspective, I think—that it be made publicly available. I do not know what the answer will be, but I will certainly ask that question, because it does not seem an unreasonable request.
Regarding whether the three linear accelerators due for replacement this year are going to be replaced, my latest understanding is that although East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust has not yet agreed its full capital programme for the 2020-21 financial year, it has identified a requirement for capital funding, which the board will consider in that context. As soon as I hear the outcome of those decisions, I will write to the hon. Gentleman, who, as ever, makes his case politely but forcefully. More broadly, as he will be aware, NHS England has invested £130 million in the modernisation of radiotherapy across England, ensuring that older linear accelerators—that is, radiotherapy machines—used by hospitals are upgraded. We have made significant progress. I think the hon. Gentleman’s request acknowledges that, but he is essentially saying, “Yes, I have been given a promise, but please make sure that the delivery follows.” The decision on the trust’s investment priorities rightly sits with the board, and we will wait for that decision, but I will make sure that what the hon. Gentleman has said is communicated to the board. I suspect he will make sure of that as well, but I will ensure that the board is aware of his views.
The hon. Gentleman suggested quarterly updates to track progress against a basket of key indicators or asks in the context of the action plan. I hesitate to give a clear commitment until I have had the opportunity to talk to the trust and NHS England, but what I will say—I hope gives him an indication of my thinking—is that it sounds like an eminently practical and reasonable request to ensure that he, other interested parties and his constituents are kept informed about and engaged with a process that will, of course, be of concern to them but also of interest as well. It sounds reasonable—I am not aware of a factor that makes it unreasonable—and I will certainly press that point, because I think it is a sensible way forward.
In response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire, I have touched on satellite radiotherapy centres. Alongside working with the Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, we are proactively looking at providing satellite radiotherapy centres for his constituents in the northern part of Hertfordshire and around Stevenage. It is too early to say exactly how we might do that, but I am determined to work proactively with colleagues to see if we can achieve it.
We are committed to the digitisation of paper records, which the hon. Member for Harrow West mentioned, to enable effective patient care and enhanced patient safety. The digital transformation plan, which will include the digitisation of patient care records, is under way for Mount Vernon’s main acute services and is expected to conclude in May 2020. I understand that the commitment to do that—to support and fund it—remains unchanged. If anything has changed, I will make sure that he is updated as appropriate.
There are a number of hon. Members present. I suspect they are not here to hear my or the hon. Gentleman’s eloquence, but possibly that of other hon. Members and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who will take part in the debate that will start in a few minutes. Given the interest, however, I will see if it is appropriate to put in the Library a copy of my letter to the hon. Gentleman so that it is on the record.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks it would be useful, I am happy to meet him and to visit Mount Vernon with him to meet the staff, to hear the executive team’s thinking on what is going on, and to see it for myself. He raised a number of detailed and precise questions and important points. In the short time I have had, I have sought to reassure him and address a number of them, but I look forward to the opportunity to give him a more detailed answer in writing following the debate, and to visit him.
I reassure hon. Members that cancer, and improving cancer treatment and care, remains a key priority for the Government and the Department. We, along with NHSE&I and other arm’s length bodies, are working hard to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of all hon. Members are provided with the best care.
Although cancer care and cancer services are the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), given that a large amount of what the hon. Gentleman has talked about relates to performance and to capital and funding, which are in my portfolio, I will endeavour to maintain a personal direct interest in the issue, in partnership with my hon. Friend, to make sure that we both give it the attention it deserves and that he and his constituents have a right to expect.
Question put and agreed to.
VAT (Listed Properties)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered VAT on listed properties.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I apologise again to the Minister, whom I seem to drag to Westminster Hall on a fairly regular basis on tax issues. This debate is about VAT on listed properties, which come in all shapes and sizes. They can be modest country cottages, terraced houses, farmhouses and former industrial buildings being brought into some other type of use. They are spread across the entire UK.
The listed places of worship grant scheme has been in place since 2001. It has been taken up by 89% of churches; one third take up the scheme every year; and most churches, over the cycle, have used it six times. It is working quite well, but obviously it is not as clean as a pure exemption. I will come on to analyse that further.
Listed properties are owned by the normal cross-section of the population. The beautiful town of Sandwich in my constituency is home to more listed properties than any other town in the country. It is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in England. I want to do everything I can to help to preserve it and the other great medieval towns across our country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate for those of us who represent areas like Sandwich that have a high preponderance of listed buildings. There are more than 3,000 in my constituency. They are often in rural areas where properties are remote, isolated and, in many cases, hard to heat. I hope that he will talk about the opportunity to reduce VAT to, say, 5% on renewable energy initiatives in listed properties, which the Minister might want to take into account in the forthcoming Budget or the comprehensive spending review later this year.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point for people who have older properties, which are expensive to heat. We have ambitions to be carbon neutral by 2050, so the current regime of charging full VAT on trying to do the right thing for the Government’s other ambitions seems somewhat perverse.
We are branching into another area, but my right hon. Friend is correct. Just a few months ago, we were forced to raise the rating on small renewable units from 5% to 20% because we lost a European Court of Justice judgment. That is quite perverse in the current environment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there was a missed opportunity in 2008, when the ECOFIN conference in Helsinki agreed that VAT could be reduced to 5% on labour-intensive industries, which include building repair and renovation? Despite the best efforts of hon. Members, successive Governments have refused to take advantage of that opportunity, which would have been of great benefit to areas such as his constituency and mine, where there is a high concentration of listed buildings, very low incomes and a reduced ability for people to renovate their houses.
I was not aware of that ECOFIN conference. Any country under the EU VAT regime has always had the ability to reduce VAT to 5% on items, but the problem is that it is a ratchet, so once VAT has been implemented on something, it can never return to zero. That has been a feature and problem of our VAT membership. We have had various discussions about that in the main Chamber on the so-called tampon tax.
That particular dispensation was for labour-intensive industries and, at that time, certain countries reduced their VAT. For example, France reduced VAT on restaurant meals; Italy reduced VAT on building renovation and repair; and Belgium reduced VAT on bicycle maintenance and repair. The reduction in Italy was an alleged example—a rare or perhaps unique example—of the Laffer curve in operation in that, when VAT was reduced, receipts to the state increased massively as people moved out of the dark economy.
The hon. Member shows his great wealth and breadth of experience of international VAT matters, and I stand educated.
I want to do everything that I can to help preserve our great medieval towns. Listed properties are not grand ancestral piles; a huge majority are very modest properties that are owned and loved by normal people. Private listed property owners are protecting the vast majority of Britain’s built heritage out of their own pocket, but the costs for doing repairs and renovations have risen sharply in recent years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges with climate change and pollution is tackling some of the problems with the heating and insulation of such properties? If they are listed, there are features that have to be protected in the process, so it is an expensive business. It is very much in the national interest that these changes should be made, and it is only right that the Treasury should consider whether previous concessions could be reintroduced.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. There have been certain schemes over the years for wood pellet-type boilers, and grants have been available, but he highlights the unique features of older properties. It is often not feasible or possible to put in a cheap, efficient gas boiler, which other property owners might be able to do.
I turn to the obvious desire to insulate homes and make them more energy efficient. It is a very reasonable desire, because a lot of listed properties are draughty and old and do not have modern insulation. They are expensive to heat, which adds to the costs of being a listed property owner.
My hon. Friend will be aware that North East Hertfordshire is one of the constituencies that has a high number of listed properties, many of them modest. Does he agree that the situation in urban areas is different from that in rural areas? If someone lives in a rural area with a significant number of listed buildings, there has to be some sort of level playing field to try to help them make the relevant changes.
My right hon. Friend makes a perfect point about country living, as opposed to living in towns, because cheaper piped gas is often not available. People might have Calor-style units in their garden, or they might rely on solid fuels such as coal. We had discussions, dare I say, with the Government last week and advanced various measures that I cannot say I fully agree with at this time.
In 2012, we got to the point where the zero VAT rating for authorised alterations to listed properties was removed. The owners of 500,000 listed buildings across the country, 98% of which are privately owned, then suffered a potential increase of 20% in anything that they do to keep their properties in a good state of repair. As listed property owners often say, an individual never really owns a listed property, but is merely borrowing it.
Before the 2012 Budget, the zero VAT rating was available as long as people had applied for the proper listed property consent with the local authority. As hon. Members know, such consent is often costly to obtain and requires input from specialists, including architects and building control, the navigation of the local planning system and a variety of interpretations by conservation officers. All of that is on a scale that is wholly different from that of people who do not live in listed properties, and such requirements all add costs—even before having the bespoke works required.
The all-party parliamentary group on listed properties, of which I have been the chairman, is currently being re-established. It has evidence that the addition of VAT reduced the number of recorded works being carried out to protect and maintain listed properties by some 30% in the first four years, between 2012 and 2016. There was a notable and recorded drop in applications for proper conservation works. One can only guess what was happening. Were people simply not bothering to go through the process? Owing to the extra cost, were they simply deciding to make do with where they were? There was a full 75% drop in applications over just three years, subsequent to the change in the VAT rules.
These works will be of ongoing economic benefit, often creating a new home where one did not exist before or converting an older property into a business premises. They are positive goods that would perhaps take pressure away from new builds on green spaces. I have spoken to many listed property owners who face financial hardship. Many have been forced to sell their home as a result of costs increasing by 20%. It has to be said that a tax on listed buildings is not a tax on the wealthy, but a tax on attempts to protect our cultural heritage.
I secured the debate to join thousands of listed property owners in calling on the Government to introduce a form of VAT relief. Preferably, let us go back to where we were: a reduction from the 20% rate back to zero, which would be a great place to be. That will be possible in the post-Brexit world, but we are currently in our implementation period, so 5% could be achieved at the Budget next week.
Maintaining listed buildings has a lot more in common with other kinds of building work that has a lower rate of VAT. Some energy-efficient measures qualify for the 5% rate—obviously a restriction was introduced recently, which seemed rather perverse. Converting houses into flats, and renovating empty properties that have lain empty for two years qualify for a lower VAT rate of 5%. The Government and Treasury quite rightly want to encourage bringing such properties into use, and that nudge effect is advanced through the lower VAT rate.
Of course, the biggest anomaly of all—a correct anomaly, in my view—is that we have had a zero VAT rating on new builds since we became a member of the EU. There is a long history to this type of debate, going back to the 1940s. We had the Town and Country Planning Acts 1944 and 1947, which implemented the listing system that we know today. Even back then, the Government knew that they were imposing upon listed property owners a new range of probably unwelcome regulations, and that they had to give something in return. The something in return was a zero VAT rating or, before 1972, sales tax exemptions for this type of work. It is essential that we have a lower rate of VAT on listed properties, because we want to give people the opportunity to make the necessary improvements to this country’s built heritage.
In the 2012 debate—that year’s Budget did not go down too well, because there were quite a few VAT measures in it—the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that the reason for the change was to prevent an exemption for a
“big swimming pool in a listed Tudor house”.—[Official Report, 18 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 319.]
That was a fairly thin argument, because I do not think it was taken up by too many of the 500,000 listed property owners. If such behaviour was going on, we could have exempted that from the zero VAT rating in isolation.
Perhaps I can reinforce the hon. Member’s point by declaring an interest. When I bought my listed house some 20 years ago—very cheaply, I should say—it came with a name from my children. They called it the pizza house, because it came with added mushrooms growing out of the walls. It certainly did not have a swimming pool, but I, like everyone else, had to pay 20% VAT on the renovation. I think that strengthens the point that he is making.
The hon. Member makes that point well. Such properties need significant renovations that are not the norm when buying newer-type properties. We need to make listed buildings properties that people want to own, to spend money on, and to do the right thing by maintaining them. Maintenance costs for those properties can simply huge, so offsetting some of that cost would make a meaningful impact.
What is VAT there for? It was always designed to be a tax on consumption. Painstakingly maintaining a national heritage asset should not be considered consumption, but action in the national interest. Not only is the economic cost of the work often more expensive than other work, the VAT is an additional tax for doing the right thing. Removing the VAT does not give money back to the owners; it simply means that the Exchequer does not gain a little bit from the maintenance of the fabric of the nation.
Across the country, the built environment of our great towns and cities drives tourism and the continuation of many historic building skills. Government policy in the national policy planning framework, as well as guidance from Historic England, state that heritage protection must enable buildings to stay in active use and alterations can support that. If owners make changes to their properties without any impact on historic features that is considered a positive outcome, as it enables the continued use of such properties. The old way of removing VAT by zero-rating the renovation was simple, easy and reasonable. There is no reason not to return to that pretty simple scheme.
Hon. Members have mentioned energy efficiency. The type of energy efficiency required of older buildings is vastly different from more modern buildings. Materials are likely to be different, and the skills required to make such properties more energy efficient are different. We do not want those listed properties to fall out of use, and support would help to keep them in use. As has been accepted within other parts of the VAT code, renovations can be at a lower rate of VAT if properties have been out of use for two years, so reductions are not unusual.
Works on listed buildings are often carried out by tradesmen who specialise in conservation work. They are often small local businesses, rather than big corporates, so a reduction in VAT would increase correspondingly the amount of activity and would be a boost to a small and declining sector. Cutting VAT would encourage investment in skills in those types of artisanal works, and could encourage more young people into a sector that struggles to recruit. The increased taxable profits in those businesses would benefit the Treasury in corporation tax and income tax receipts. Cutting VAT would prime the pump in that whole area.
It is estimated that, through tourism, heritage across the country contributes £31 billion of value added to the economy. Those homes make our towns desirable places to visit, whether they are in Sandwich or in the constituency of Bath, which is represented in the Chamber. Who benefits from that tourism? Local businesses. There is not much in it for the public, who are busy maintaining their own properties rather than attracting tourists.
An interesting example is the Isle of Man, which has been through a similar process, following an argument similar argument to one that I am advancing. The Isle of Man has reduced VAT on such repair work to 5%, but only for the labour element. Some 96% of the Isle’s construction firms have reported increased workloads; 43% have reported taking on more staff; and 40% reported that their clients were having work done that they would otherwise have put off or not had done at all. There was a significant move away both from the owners having a go and carrying out work with which they are not fully conversant, and from rogue traders and cash-in-hand deals, which are not too far away from most street corners. The Isle of Man scheme was meant to be an experiment but, owing to its success, it is now permanent.
The Listed Property Owners Club keeps vast records on activity in the listed property market. There has been a drop in listed property applications to local councils and in works being undertaken. Figures from Historic England show that cost was one of the biggest reasons for works not being carried out. The numbers are significant: in 2017, 30% of people said it was just too costly and that they were not going to do the work at all. Another reason is that specialist local skills are dying out. In 2017, 17% of people could not get works done because they simply could not find a qualified trader. Historic Houses suggests that £1.3 billion of outstanding work to listed properties is being put off or not carried out at all. That is money that people would want to spend if they could afford it and if VAT were reduced.
I have not been quiet on this topic. I corresponded with the Minister just a few weeks ago, and I can anticipate some of the arguments that he may make in response. He might say that the rationale for the removal of the zero rating was to restore or to address a VAT anomaly, but we already have anomalies, with zero-rated new builds and the two-year lower VAT rate for bringing a property back into use. He might say that it was unfair that some people got a relief, while others did not. We are not talking about normal properties, however. We are talking about unique skills, because very expensive bespoke repairs are often required.
Getting new PVC windows done is VAT-able, but there are a vast number of companies that can do that and it is a cut-throat industry. The approach to a listed building is different, because it will often need bespoke wooden frames made at three or four times the price. That is an anomaly, and I am asking for an exemption from VAT on those bespoke works. Even without the VAT, those bespoke works would still be far more expensive than most standard products that are taxed at the 20% rate.
The old VAT relief used to nudge people towards the painful experience of applying for listed property consent, because saving 20% on a repair bill was seen as a good thing. That made sure that conservation works were up to the proper local standard, because there was an incentive. A worry is that people are undertaking inappropriate repairs to their properties to save money and, because enforcement by the local authority is highly unlikely, they are willing to take that risk. That is not a good place to be; I want to encourage people to do the right thing with their properties.
Another scheme that has been running for a very long time is the listed places of worship scheme, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Through Government grants, the scheme pays for the VAT that listed places of worship suffer—that could be implemented in lieu of a full zero rating. The scheme seems to work, and 89% of such places have used it. Over the period, many churches have used it five or six times, and a third of all churches use it annually. The Treasury might say, “It’s complicated and cumbersome”, but 13,000 applications have been managed effectively. It seems to work—if that is a method HMRC will consider—but the simpler method would be to go back to what we had before, which was zero rating if the proper listed property consent had been granted by the local authority.
To summarise, we can achieve what I would like to achieve by two means: either we go back to where we were before the 2012 Budget; or we go to a scheme akin to the listed places of worship grant scheme—so by means of a grant, which might make it targeted and would certainly prevent the swimming pool in the Tudor mansion. Now we are not so bound by rules on VAT, we have an opportunity. We can create our own framework that is right for our country, and I would like the Treasury to be part of people doing the right thing—improving, maintaining and repairing their properties. I have heard no great reason why the perceived anomaly was an anomaly at all, given that many charitable institutions receive VAT relief and other building works have a variety of VAT reliefs. We could push training, skills and profits into declining trades, and unleash a lot of pent-up expenditure into a market that is part of the good fabric of the country. Next week, I will be delighted to hear about some movement of support.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) on securing this debate, which is very relevant to my constituency. I have already had many discussions with relevant bodies, in particular the UNESCO world heritage site body, on the need to get to net zero. I am especially worried about listed buildings in the context of the climate emergency.
That is an important issue, particularly for my constituency. With about 5,000 listed buildings, Bath has the highest concentration in the UK other than here in Westminster. The Bath and North East Somerset—or BANES—Council has the highest number of listed building consent applications, at 700 last year. In Bath, the wish to continue and maintain our built heritage is very much alive, but there is a burden on those who own the buildings. I am very much aware of that.
That situation is not a coincidence. I am proud that Bath has been a pioneer in protecting buildings of interest since the 1880s. Listed buildings and how to maintain our built heritage is very much a Bath issue. As the buildings age, the challenges of preserving them have grown. In addition, we now face the challenge of the climate emergency, so the urgency of upgrading listed buildings has only grown.
The housing stock in this country is our largest producer of carbon emissions and millions of homes will need to be made much more energy-efficient over the coming decades if we are to have any chance of achieving net zero. That poses a significant enough task for most homeowners but, for those who own the 2% of total housing stock that is listed, the challenge is greater and more expensive, as we have heard. This debate has to be about not the swimming pool, which might add value to a property, but the maintenance of heritage and tackling the climate emergency.
Listed buildings are likely to be older and therefore less insulated, and to have less efficient heating systems than other properties. Coincidentally, though, older properties keep cooler, so if we look at the climate emergency and overheating, sometimes the listed building might provide an answer. Previous generations knew well how to keep cool. I have the privilege of sometimes being invited into beautiful properties in Bath, and have talked about the shutters that still exist in some of the older buildings. Previous generations knew how to use shutters effectively. It is important to work with people who own listed buildings and are interested in the history of how we used to live, and for people to put their mind to understanding the history and often the benefits of what previous generations knew about healthy living.
If the Government are to take their net zero obligations seriously, financial support and incentives are vital to reduce carbon emissions from listed buildings. The simplest way, and a necessary first step, for the Government to ease this financial burden is for VAT relief to be extended from simply covering alterations to applying to all renovations and improvements in listed properties, especially where aimed at reducing carbon emissions and getting to net zero.
Extending VAT relief would help the thousands of private owners of listed buildings in Bath and beyond to preserve important historical properties and to tackle the climate emergency. I do not want to argue with the hon. Member for South Thanet about whether it was worth leaving the European Union so that the 2%, the listed building owners, can get VAT relief, but it would be somewhat perverse—or hypocritical—of the Government not to use their freedom to look at VAT relief on listed properties in this country. Britain attracts thousands—millions—of tourists every year because of its wonderful built heritage. We need to ensure that we preserve it and, at the same time, to take our climate change and net zero obligations seriously.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher.
I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for securing this debate, which is on an issue that is overdue for some action. I certainly hope that the Government will take it on board.
The SNP has argued for a reduction in VAT for energy improvement measures in homes. We asked for reductions in VAT for more modern buildings, those affected by the cladding scandal. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a strong argument to do that for listed buildings as well. Research by the Federation of Master Builders demonstrates that cutting VAT for energy-efficiency improvements, for example, would significantly boost the UK economy and generate thousands of jobs, bring empty properties back into use, improve the energy efficiency of our housing stock, reduce the incidence of fuel poverty, and protect consumers and legitimate businesses by significantly reducing the competitive advantage of rogue traders.
The hon. Gentleman went into some of the history of the measures we are debating and how they came about. In 2012, when the then Chancellor proposed levying VAT on listed properties, the Scottish Government Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop—I note she is still in her post, despite the UK Government being on their fourth Chancellor since then—said in a written answer to a parliamentary question in Holyrood:
“The UK Government’s proposal is clearly a deeply regrettable step in the opposite direction from the approach that the Scottish Ministers advocate.
Maintaining the VAT relief on alterations to listed buildings, and reducing the VAT rate applicable to repairs and maintenance, would be important positive steps which would stimulate economic activity in a sector worth around £2.3 billion gross value added”—
to Scotland’s economy alone—
“a significant proportion of which is attributable to construction activity.”
At the time, she wrote to the Chancellor,
“urging him to withdraw from this policy”,
but, as we know, that is not always taken on. However, there is always an opportunity for the Government to reflect on the error of their ways—perhaps they would be wise to do so.
There are many arguments around the subject, and rationales about Tudor swimming pools and the like have been given, but this is not about people in big mansions getting their houses repaired. The reality is that half of listed properties in this country are occupied by people at the very low end of the socioeconomic distribution. This is not necessarily about attacks on the wealthy or just about protecting glorious listed buildings; this is about the homes that people live in.
There are 1,840 derelict sites and buildings in Glasgow city; 126 of those are in the listed buildings at risk register. It is no surprise that many are concentrated in areas of higher deprivation. People in those areas are three times more likely to live near vacant derelict land, but they are the same people who benefit most from having those buildings repaired and brought up to standard.
There is a particular issue where there is a high concentration of listed buildings in poor condition and low incomes. The market in general has a chilling effect on the provision of specialist labour, as the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) mentioned. There is a more general effect of the amplification of housing deprivation when one compares the many hundreds of thousands of new builds, particularly in urban and suburban areas in the south-east, which are free of VAT, with buildings such as those in my constituency, where 20% VAT is paid.
The hon. Gentleman is correct; it is a perverse incentive that a building could be perfectly fixable, but it is more cost effective to demolish it and build something new. We want to incentivise people to keep those buildings. In Glasgow, huge swathes of the city have been demolished and replaced with newer and less adequate buildings, which in turn have been demolished, rather than investing in the original buildings. In the areas where we still have a dense tenemental stock, there would be a real benefit to incentivising people to repair those buildings and keep them, because they are fundamentally good and we should have them for the future.
Within the city of Glasgow there are 25 different conservation areas. In my constituency there is Central, Park, East and West Pollokshields, Dumbreck, Strathbungo, Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Walmer Crescent and St Vincent Crescent. They all have different characters: the working-class neighbourhoods of Bridgeton have a beautiful cross, which would see the benefit of further repairs. It is very different in character from West Pollokshields, where there are bigger houses.
All those areas need repair and maintenance, because times have changed since the Victorians built them. They need continual maintenance and repair to avoid dramatic tenement collapses, which do happen on occasion in the city. That is because, despite the best efforts of organisations such as the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, which pays out building repair grants, development grants and grants that go towards those traditional skills, they are just papering over the cracks of a larger problem of the maintenance of tenement stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has also made the argument in the House that we need to look at these issues and find ways of tackling the burden on cities. Reducing that 20% VAT rate as low as we can would have a huge impact on our ability to deal with that.
The social cost of derelict and damaged buildings is huge. They are deeply uninspiring for people who live next to the sites and look out on them. They are a drag on aspiration and motivation, and they often serve a visual reminder to many people of a distant, out-of-touch Government who neglected the industrialised communities over generations and left them to rot. The Scottish Government have made some progress in reversing the situation through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which gives community groups the option to repurpose derelict buildings for the good of the people who live in those communities. The funding to do so comes from the Scottish Land Fund. Those are community-led, focused actions, instead of the top-down approach that has often failed communities and left them behind.
From a policy perspective, investment in high-deprivation areas makes economic sense. People in those areas are much more likely to spend their money locally, and repurposing buildings to create jobs or businesses has a high multiplier effect. Will the Minister look at the issue from that point of view, as a good endeavour to incentivise people in those areas?
There are plans afoot in my constituency to refurbish the old St James Primary School in Calton, to provide a brand-new primary school—a much-needed facility that will, if it goes through, specialise in Gaelic education, to become the next Gaelic school in the city of Glasgow. The building was built in 1895 but, sadly, stood derelict for 10 years after it was closed by the Glasgow Labour administration. At the time, I was a councillor fighting to save it, because it was very much the heart of the community. Without it, the community has no hub—all people see when they walk past is a derelict building with trees growing out of its roof. The council at the time said that it was too difficult to run and too expensive to repair: too expensive to get the energy efficiency measures that were needed; too expensive to fit a boiler to replace the old coal boiler that the janny had to haul coal into. Making the VAT rate for those kind of improvements more incentivised would be a good thing to do.
In addition, there is a lot to do with identity and the importance of those buildings in communities. I urge Minister to take action. As hon. Members have said, the excuse of the EU is finished with, sadly—I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on that. As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said, some of this has been of our own making, but it is now up to the Government to put that right.
I thank the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for securing today’s debate, and for his work in the all-party parliamentary group on listed properties to highlight the issues faced by people who own such homes. This interesting and well-informed debate has made it clear that the treatment of construction work is one of the most complicated areas of VAT law, where there is a lot of confusion that produces, no question, a lot of transaction cost and issues for people interested in trying to repair their homes.
It has cropped up a little in the debate that there are still certain circumstances in which the 5% VAT rate applies to construction work on listed properties. VAT relief may be possible for VAT-registered contractors on a conversion of a non-residential property into a dwelling; where a domestic property has been empty for two years prior to the work; for conversions where the number of residential units changes and becomes more intensive; where there are changes to introduce mobility aids for the over-60s; and for changes linked to a social purpose, for example if social housing is put in listed properties. Zero per cent. VAT also applies to certain kinds of work for disabled people. All those reliefs are targeted; they ensure that properties do not go unused and can be properly adapted for elderly and disabled people.
The debate has been about whether we need a targeted change in relation to repairs to listed properties. On a bit of a tangent, there was a little discussion about VAT on the installation of energy-saving technologies. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) in that regard—she was spot on. The comments by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) about the listing system in Bath and what it has achieved were very interesting, but I question whether a high cost for introducing energy efficiency and renewable energy is unique to the listed sector.
Others mentioned their personal circumstances; I live in an ex-council property that cannot have cavity wall insulation because it does not have cavity walls. The only thing that could be done would be to clad it in brick, which would be pretty expensive. I will not say that that is of the same complexity as many of the changes that might be needed in listed properties, but we need to look at energy saving overall.
I am not implying at all that the hon. Lady would be against broader changes for other housing, if that is why she wants to intervene. I know that she is a champion of those schemes in Parliament.
When it comes to this specific relief, I share the concerns of the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Glasgow Central about the impact of the changes on low-income areas—also picked up on by the hon. Member for South Thanet—and the lack of a level playing field between new build and existing listed buildings. Again, because of the existing relief system, if they have been lying unused for a couple of years, or if they are conversions from industrial use, they would already be covered by reductions.
I have a question for the Minister about another aspect of the current regime: I understand that there is a zero VAT rate for substantial reconstructions of listed properties if they proceed from a shell. I would like him to tell me whether HMRC has done any work to consider whether that might have led to the kinds of activities that, sadly, are too well known to us as MPs, whereby a listed property ends up having a strange fire at some point and its insides are gutted. It would be interesting to find out whether HMRC has done any work on that.
There have been a lot of changes to VAT over recent years. Any further changes need to be extremely well evidenced and justified. VAT is the third biggest revenue raiser of the different kinds of tax. We need to consider the dead-weight from proposals of this sort and whether they are appropriately targeted. I accept that reducing VAT probably would be an incentive for additional repair work, but we need to consider whether that is the right mechanism. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for South Thanet compare this proposal with the system for churches, which does seem to be appropriately targeted. We would need to look at that in relation to questions about, for example, repairs in low-income areas or among people who do not have the means to make such changes.
On the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the reduction in the number of firms that can carry out specialised repairs to listed properties, we have seen a reduction in the number of small building firms generally. It could be that that is correlated with what has happened more broadly in the economy. That is a worrying development whatever part of the building trade it occurs in, but we may need to parse the reasons for that reduction, which may be tied to the general state of the property market and the recovery from the financial crisis.
Finally, I am sure the Minister is sick of me saying this, but we need a better evidence base generally for whether tax reliefs perform what they were set out to do. We have figures for about only 111 of the around 326 tax expenditures that are set out by the Government; it is likely there are more that are not covered. Bodies such as the International Monetary Fund state that we should have as much scrutiny of tax reliefs as we have of spending proposals. I think that is sensible. Although I accept that applying for a grant scheme requires bureaucracy, claiming many of those tax reliefs requires an accountant, which is an additional cost for people. We must consider carefully whether the proposed relief would be appropriately targeted.
Again, I congratulate not just the hon. Member for South Thanet but all Members who participated in the debate. I found it illuminating, and I hope that the Minister provides answers to some of the questions that were posed.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I think the debate has shown that this topic is of great interest in different parts of the country and to different parts of our community. There is widespread interest in it throughout the House, but also in parts well outside it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), who is indefatigable and is learned in matters of tax, for calling the debate, and all other hon. Members who contributed to it.
My hon. Friend is known for his expertise in tax. I had suspected he was a Burkean in matters of preservation of our assets, our national heritage and the priceless inheritance of previous generations, and it was good to hear that Burkeanism in action. I salute him for it. I also salute him for his timing; he managed to secure the debate in the lee of a fiscal event that is due at some point in the not-too-distant future. I have found the debate engrossing.
I think we all agree that listed buildings are an integral part of the shared history of our British life and culture, and that they greatly enrich that history. The Government absolutely recognise—as, I know, does every Member of the House—the importance of protecting and making the most of that UK heritage. It is important not merely socially and culturally but economically.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Government released a heritage statement in 2017 setting out many ways in which they support this sector. It is important to remind ourselves that the Government write a cheque of £80 million or more towards heritage organisations. The listed places of worship grant scheme was discussed at some length. That and the UK heritage organisations do valuable preservation work. We also have Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to fund and support general advice and assistance for the conservation of heritage, including listed buildings.
The Government recognise, however, the very specific challenges faced by private owners of listed properties in planning regulations. That is why the Government introduced measures to streamline the listed buildings consent regime in 2013, including by removing the need for specific applications for minor works to listed buildings and giving local authorities the power to grant a general consent.
My hon. Friend highlighted several mechanisms by which the goal he seeks could be achieved, one of which is to extend the reduced rate—or possibly a nil rate—to more goods and services, and so to reduce the up-front costs associated with the refurbishment and renovation of listed buildings. As he pointed out, we have some experience of a comparable relief in the past. Previously, approved alterations to listed buildings were zero-rated when used for residential use or by a charity. That relief was introduced to reduce the costs associated with restoring or enhancing the unique character of a listed building or prolonging its active life.
Importantly, however, that is not actually what happened. The majority of work carried out under that relief was for extension purposes rather than for maintenance, and the relief did not deliver the original point and purpose of the legislation. I am afraid that, in so doing, it deployed large amounts of taxpayers’ money in ways that were not contemplated by Parliament when it passed the legislation. That is why that legislation was withdrawn as part of the 2012 Budget.