Tuesday 10 March 2020
[James Gray in the Chair]
Post Office Network
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the post office network.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I was tempted to add to the motion this morning so that it read, “That this House has considered the post office network while we still have it.” In 2017, Citizens Advice found that people value having a post office in the local community more than a local pub, bank branch or library. Sixty-two per cent. of small businesses—more than 2 million—use them at least once a month, and in rural areas post ofices are vital, with 36% of rural businesses using them at least weekly.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech. I congratulate her on securing the debate. She mentioned bank branches in rural areas, but in lots of constituencies—in hers as much as in mine, I am sure—only one or two banks are left, so the post offices are the true infrastructure that residents now rely on for getting access to cash and general banking services. Does she agree that if more post offices close, whole communities will be cut off, with some people having to travel many miles to find additional banking services? We really cannot afford that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point, which I will cover later.
Post offices matter to everyone. We are not all digitally inclined. We are not all able to access digital services online, and poorest and most vulnerable people in our society are the ones who are most affected by post office closures.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I agree entirely with what she is saying. In my constituency of Torfaen, post office branches have survived by going into other businesses—into chains or independent businesses. Does she agree that where contracts are in place for that to happen and circumstances lead to change, those post offices need to be supported and the contracts kept under review?
Absolutely. In constituency business, I too have heard of people taking on a post office in their existing business and being told that it is the new nirvana and things will only get better, but it is the existing customers who use the post office service in the shop, and there is no huge increase in turnover. It is important that post offices branch out. Longer opening hours are welcomed by many, but the whole point is to keep post office services available right across the regions and across all areas.
Rural businesses are more likely to use post offices to send deliveries and pay bills, and twice as likely to use them to withdraw or deposit cash. As hon. Members have said, banks are closing, so post offices become even more vital.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The decrease in the number of banks and post offices in our constituencies is of significant concern to local people. There is a real problem in terms of access to cash, which is particularly pressing for elderly and more vulnerable constituents.
Absolutely. I was outside Wishaw post office, which was temporarily shut, when a disabled constituent came to get her benefits. She did not have enough money to get on the bus to go to the next post office, which is a fair distance away. She could not have walked. She had to phone her daughter to come and collect her to take her to access cash. This is 2020 and that is still happening. People need cash. In a previous debate in this room, the then Chair of the Treasury Committee gave a forensic and detailed account of how post offices let down local people if they close, because access to cash is still vital to the most vulnerable people and to all of us. Most of the taxi drivers in my constituency do not accept cards, and that is the case across the UK. We cannot force people. The Government should not try, through Post Office Ltd, to force people to go down the digital and no-cash route.
Scotland is being hardest hit by the postmaster crisis across the UK. Although since 2009 post office numbers have remained reasonably constant, last year they fell by 1%, and since the early 1980s the number of post offices has almost halved.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate. When I speak to my local postmasters, one concern I hear is about the nature of the contract that they are supposed to take on. The length of hours requires them to keep extra staff at the tills. Will she join me in questioning the Minister about the terms of the contract and what is expected of sub-postmasters to make the services as feasible and as affordable as possible?
That will be one of my asks of the Minister. I have numerous asks, which might not surprise those present.
The Scottish post office network has the highest number of temporarily closed branches or temporary operators in the UK. Figures from Post Office Ltd show that of 1,016 temporarily closed branches, 134 are in Scotland, representing 13% of all temporarily closed branches; 52 of the 315 branches run by a temporary operator are in Scotland. Temporary postmasters step in when a postmaster leaves and a permanent postmaster cannot be found. This is becoming more and more common. People do not want to take on post offices in the present climate because of the difficulties involved.
The Tories’ continued refusal to support postmasters and the post office network particularly affects Scottish communities. I am sure other Members will testify to the importance of post offices in their own nations and constituencies. Some have already done so by intervention. What does the Minister propose to do about it? If she sees it as a matter for Post Office Ltd, will she ask it what it intends to do about it?
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate, which resonates throughout all our nations. The post office in Blaydon’s shopping centre closed some years ago, and the Post Office has been unable to find anyone to take it on. Does she agree with me that post offices are absolutely central to the health of our high streets and that the Government must adopt a more flexible approach to supporting the opening or reopening of post offices?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I totally agree with her. I learnt about the circular flow of income and cash many years ago. If we cannot withdraw money from the post office, we cannot nip next door to the baker’s and buy a bun or a loaf of bread, and the baker cannot use it to pay staff. Things come to a halt. It is basic economics, or economics 101 as it is now referred to.
Communication Workers Union officials have also queried the wisdom of closing Crown post offices—those directly managed by Post Office Ltd—given that the company is profit making. The union notes that franchising causes people to leave the service because jobs advertised by firms such as WH Smith, which holds a very large number of franchises, are lower paid than those at the post office. Last year's decision to turn 74 Crown post offices into franchises in WH Smith stores is also alarming, particularly given reports that franchising is being done without consultation with the existing local post offices, meaning the competition risks destabilising the network further. I believe we heard from the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) in a previous debate that that happened in York. The Crown post office was closed, put out to franchise, and opened next to an already franchised smaller post office branch.
There must be more consultation and strategic consideration on franchising. That is a particular concern of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, whose chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), is in the Chamber. Last year, the Post Office’s director of sales and trade marketing stated that it has no contingency plan in the event that WHSmith, which has experienced 14 consecutive years of sales decline, collapses. If WHSmith collapses, what will happen to the Crown post offices? We must ensure that further franchising happens only in consultation with other businesses.
The UK Government must provide more incentives for new postmasters to open post offices that are independent of major chain shops. Will the Minister look at that and instruct Post Office Ltd accordingly? It is appalling that this year the majority of sub-postmasters earned less than the minimum wage for running a post office. The pay increase announced in November will not take place until next month. It is vital that the Minister acts to ensure that profits are not increased at the cost of a cut to postmasters’ pay, forcing permanent post offices to close. Will the Minister take urgent action to review the sub-postmaster contract introduced in 2012? I think I can safely say that it is no longer fit for purpose.
The National Federation of SubPostmasters has raised sub-post office closures with the UK Government and the Government-owned Post Office Ltd. A spokesman said:
“Our records show around two-thirds of closures are due to the resignation of the sub-postmaster”.
The spokesman pointed to low pay as the prime reason, saying that
“This is a particular problem for rural areas in Scotland, as well as across the UK, where people rely on their local post office for vital postal and banking services.”
Last year, an NFSP survey warned that one in five towns could lose its post office in the next year. Surveying a thousand workers found that 22% are planning to close, pass on the business or downsize staff. Sub-postmasters have been forced to go without holidays and take on extra jobs to make ends meet.
We often find in situations such as the one in Loanhead in my constituency, where the Bank of Scotland is completely abandoning the community by shutting the bank branch, that the Post Office is expected to step in. We are very fortunate to have an excellent post office in the community that is willing to do so, but those increased pressures surely contribute to stress for postmasters, which adds to the points that my hon. Friend made about the potential for closure. If post offices close, what then for our communities, where the post office has been the final vestige, picking up the pieces after the bank has abandoned them?
I totally agree. The crux of the matter is that if we allow things to continue as they are, there will be a continual and continuous decline in the post office network until it reaches a tipping point and is no longer viable. We will all lose out, but the most vulnerable in our society will be affected the most.
In 2019, it was announced that from April sub-postmasters will receive better financial remuneration from Post Office Ltd for key banking services that they provide to the public. At the NFSP annual conference, the Post Office Ltd announced that it will raise the rates. That is great—it will be a threefold increase—but we must ask ourselves why the Post Office felt the need to do that and why it was not done earlier. A local sub-postmaster came to me and said that he was getting the grand rate of £1.88 an hour for dealing with cash intake to his branch. He will feel much better that he will get more money, but post offices are taking the place of banks, and that is not always right.
I was part of a group of Scottish National party MPs who tried to ensure that banking service provision is properly remunerated. To be fair, the issue was also raised by Members from other parties. I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) raised it during an Adjournment debate that he led last year. If people think that I sound repetitive, it is because I am being repetitive. Since I came to this place, five Ministers have been in place; today’s Minister is the sixth to have responded to a debate on post offices in which I have spoken. That cannot go on.
We welcome the changes that are happening, but it is vital that the details prove sufficient to protect postmasters’ livelihood and the network. Further improvements are needed to help to future-proof sub-postmasters’ business. The announced measures must not be the end of Post Office Ltd’s actions.
My hon. Friend is making a persuasive speech about the importance of post offices to our communities. She is hitting the nail on the head: it is about the service being sustainable. These services are at the heart of our communities. In East Renfrewshire, people in both rural and suburban communities are extremely concerned that post office services are no longer available to them. It is having a significant impact on their daily lives.
I totally agree. Across the House, in all the debates that we have had, there has been consensus and unanimity about what needs to be done. Time and again, folk have urged the Government to take action; many Members present have attended many such debates, and I welcome some new Members too. The Government have sat on their hands and done very little to improve post office network viability.
The National Federation of SubPostmasters said in November:
“It is imperative that we anticipate and adapt to future changes in the marketplace to ensure that subpostmasters are equipped and incentivised to grow their footfall and income. That is the only way we will be able to guarantee the long-term success of the overall business. This year we have looked to stabilise, next year and beyond we can look to sustain and grow.”
Sub-postmasters cannot do that on their own. They need support from Post Office Ltd and the Government, who are the single shareholder in that business.
There are major questions about the handling and oversight of the Post Office by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, under its various guises, over decades. The Department has failed post offices, and change is needed. For example, in 2016-17 the former chief executive officer, Paula Vennells, received a major pay increase, while postmasters took a pay cut. At a time when the network is damaged, that seems unwise. I might even put it slightly more strongly than that. I asked the previous Minister for postal affairs for an independent review into postmaster pay. I know I have said this already, but I will keep saying it: we want a review. Will the Minister commit to one?
I will talk briefly about the Horizon cases. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday, during which we heard some appalling stories. The Horizon scandal is not just the fault of this Government; it has been going on for years, under Labour and under the Lib Dems in coalition. I do not want to make it a party-political issue. Mistakes have been made and they need to be rectified. We cannot just say that a big boy or a big girl did it and ran away. It does not matter who caused it. This is the point that we are at, and we have to move forward and secure a future for our post offices. I do not care who does it; I just want it done, and so do my constituents.
The Minister was in the Chamber last Thursday, when the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) led the debate on the Horizon scandal and its impact on postmasters and post office workers. We heard of appalling cases of injustice in which victims were imprisoned, were given community service, or lost homes, businesses and reputations. Victims were pressurised into paying money to Post Office Ltd to avoid criminal charges, even when they knew they had done nothing wrong. Post Office Ltd covered up what it knew about the Horizon system and recklessly spent public money trying to avoid blame. The Minister’s response to all of this was lacklustre.
As I have said, since I was elected almost five years ago, I have faced five Ministers—as of today, six—in an effort to get Tory Governments to understand the importance of post offices and those who run them and work in them. I feel as though I have been battering my head off a brick wall, but rest assured that I will continue to fight for our post offices, alongside colleagues from across the House, because our communities need them. Victims of the Horizon scandal must be recompensed. Will the Minister meet Post Office Ltd to ensure that those who run and work in our post offices will not be the ones who pay the price for this scandal?
The Government once said that the Post Office should be the “front office” for Government services. Is the Minister still committed to that, and is she aware that the BEIS post office subsidy, which is paid to Post Office Ltd to ensure there is funding to maintain post office networks in rural locations, has tapered off? The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry into the post office, which was published in October last year, said:
“A re-think of how the Post Office is being funded for its role in supporting wider social and community goals is urgently required. This includes valuing the sub-postmasters and Post Office staff who deliver the services. It means making the Post Office a key channel for Government to reach customers. It requires ensuring that the Post Office brand continues to maximise opportunities with commercial partners, such as the banks and Royal Mail, so fees can be reinvested into the network and sub-postmasters fairly paid. Finally, it requires creative thinking on how the Post Office can continue its social purpose and maintain the high regard in which it is held by the communities it serves.”
A national post office network provides an essential public service. I do not think this Government and previous Governments get that; they do not understand that although many of us Members will go months before we cross the threshold of a post office, that is not how it works for the majority of our constituents. I have talked a lot about rural areas, but my constituency, in which I live, is an urban constituency, and a number of post offices have closed in Motherwell and Wishaw. Two Crown post offices have closed, numerous post offices closed in 2010 or thereabouts, and thereafter there has been a continual drip, drip, drip of closures and postmasters handing back keys. To provide that essential public service, a national post office network needs Government subsidy. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has expressed concern about what will happen if the network subsidy payment that supports the operating costs of the post office network is withdrawn after 2021. The Committee said it was concerned that
“the PO and many sub-postmasters and retailers who run POs will not be able to fill the gap in funding with other revenues. Many sub-postmasters are already struggling and thinking of leaving their POs and the removal of £50 million in subsidies could tip many over the edge. It could also convince some retailers and retail chains who host POs that it is no longer viable. This would have a damaging effect on the PO network. It should be avoided at all costs.”
I agree with all of that.
That Select Committee report was published in October 2019, but I do not think it has gone anywhere. We have had an election, which has represented another step back. There has not been a continuous push from Government to do what is needed, and although I understand that the general election had an effect, we need the Government to take up the reins again. What is the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee doing an inquiry on this morning? Post offices—isn’t that strange? That only underlines the importance of the post office network. If I do just one thing today, I want to convince the Minister that this is so important that we require something other than platitudes and warm words from Government. If I can do that, I will feel that I have at least done something.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that it is concerning that the Government seem to be prioritising digital by default? In effect, that means prioritising the banks that are able to make more money—increasing those banks’ profits—over the needs of many of our vulnerable constituents who will never be able to access digital or who may prefer, for very good reasons, to manage their own finances through cash.
I said earlier that there was unanimity across this Chamber, and there is. I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, and of course I agree with her.
It is really important that the Government and the Minister give us some surety that they are still pushing, in the spending review, for this subsidy to continue; I have already described the costly effects that might occur if it does not. A number of Government services are disappearing from our post offices; for instance, the Government have put post offices at a severe disadvantage when it comes to applications for passports. Why is it much cheaper to apply online? I remember that when I applied for my first ever passport, I filled in the form wrong three times. The nice lady in the Crown post office in Wishaw sent me back and told me to fill it in again. I was a teacher then, and I was busy—I could make all sorts of excuses—but I would not have got that passport if she had not said, “No, do this and this.” Of course, being me, I had left it until the last minute. I had three young children, a full-time job and a husband who thought that going on holiday just meant not working for two weeks. That is the kind of vital social service that post offices provide.
I have spoken about this issue to other Members on many occasions. One Welsh Member, who is not here today, told me about the valuable service that his mother’s local post office used to give her when she went in. Because the postmaster knew her PIN, he helped her to get her money out and to put it into different pockets for different things, and really just helped her along. Postmasters in my own constituency have told me that they feel hamstrung now. They cannot provide the kind of service that they used to, simply because they have so little time. They are trying so hard to make money to live on that they cannot spend the time that they used to with their more vulnerable customers.
Is the Minister aware that since October 2019, the Post Office card account has no longer been available to new claimants and pensioners? There has been an invidious, insidious attack on the Post Office card account for a number of years. In 2015, a local sub-postmaster came to me with a very official-looking letter from the Department for Work and Pensions addressed to a constituent. It said, more or less in these words, “You must have a bank account in order to get your benefits and your pension.” For years, the Post Office card account has been used successfully by pensioners and claimants. They could go into their trusted local post office and draw money out on it without having to worry about having a bank card and going overdrawn, or about the difficulty of setting up a bank account. Many people do not have a passport or a driving licence, and they have never had a bank account and find it difficult to open one. The Post Office card account was ideal for those people, but now it is gone. Are there any plans to bring it back?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way. My constituents have raised the same issues with me. If the Post Office card account has to end, it would be useful to hear what measures the Minister plans to put in place so that people who need to use that kind of account are not disadvantaged by the creeping closure of post offices in our communities.
I agree with my hon. Friend that that all matters. I am an old person—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I know everyone is shaking their head in amazement. I understand this issue. People who have been using those accounts should be able to continue to do so, and that seems to be happening. Those who are retiring later, thanks to other Government plans, should still be able to go into their post office and use it as others have been able to. Post offices are the focus and the heart of any town or small community, or anywhere rural.
The hon. Member makes an important point about people who are not digitally enabled, particularly older or disabled people. Does she agree that the closure of post offices also disadvantages small business owners, who frequently use post offices to collect and post parcels, and that that affects local economies?
I absolutely agree. When the Crown post office in Motherwell closed, one of the biggest lobbying efforts I had was from small business owners who could nip into Motherwell town centre to deposit their cash. With the closure of different banks, they now struggle and have to find somewhere else. The Motherwell Crown post office became a small retail business with two counters instead of six. That post office used to have queues out of the door at certain times of the week, and the town centre benefited from people withdrawing and spending cash. That does not happen now, because although the post office does an excellent job—I have used it—it does not have the required capacity.
The CWU has raised the loss of service and expertise that can occur when post offices are taken over by chains such as WHSmith. The employees are TUPE-ed over, but within a year their pay is cut and they leave, so the business no longer has the expertise to help and serve communities when they need it.
The Minister has been taking note of all my asks, and I hope that she will respond positively. Rest assured that if she does not, I will be back, along with many of the hon. Members who are present. I look forward to yet another debate about post offices in the main Chamber on 19 March, thanks to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, of which I am a proud member.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I agree with the powerful opening remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and thank her for securing the debate. Other hon. Members have made important points about the significance of post offices for local communities and town centres, which I will focus on.
A tsunami of post offices and post office counters were lost in my constituency after 2011. We then had 10 post office counters—no Crown post office—of which we have lost three in the three years since 2017. The most important served Brentford high street, where the community has doubled in the past 10 years, to roughly 10,000 to 15,000 households.
The post office counter was in a shop in the middle of the town centre, where many buses passed. It served a large population and a large number of small businesses. There was a one-year notice period during which everyone knew that the parade building in which the post office was situated had to be emptied because it was due for redevelopment, so the post office could not remain in the premises. The building has subsequently been demolished. It also happened that the postmaster decided that he did not want to carry on the business, which is an issue in itself.
The good news is that a couple of months from now—18 months after the post office counter closed, during which time we have had no service in the whole of Brentford—we will get a new counter at Costcutter on the high street. We will have had 18 months without a service that many people feel is vital. We could have avoided the gap, because the Post Office, the local authority, I as the MP and the local councillors knew that there was a need to find new premises and probably a new postmaster. The Post Office sought applications, but in the first round there were only two applicants from the many businesses and organisations in Brentford that could have opened a counter. Neither fitted the criteria, so there was another application round. I am not sure whether Costcutter tipped over the bar in that round and was accepted or whether there was a third round.
Why are people not applying for or retaining counters? As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and other hon. Members have mentioned, it is because the margins are so slim, the pay is too low, the requirements for only a qualified person to cover the post office counter make it restrictive in terms of leave and sickness, the increase in robberies and violence makes retail businesses physically risky, and the Horizon project has damaged the Post Office’s reputation. What is the Post Office doing about that? I understand that it has an element of a public sector duty as a fully Government-owned company that, as we all see, provides essential public services.
In my correspondence and meetings with the Post Office, frankly, I have found it very passive. I have received no coherent response from it or the former Minister—I have not had a chance to speak to the current Minister about it. From the response, it feels as though the Post Office is passive. A Post Office representative told me yesterday that, “If no one applies, what can we do about it?” That is not a proactive response from an important Government-overseen operation.
The Post Office access criteria require
“99% of the UK population to be within three miles of their nearest post office outlet”
“95% of the total urban population across the UK to be within one mile of their nearest post office outlet”,
but that does not make a lot of sense if the community, or the place that people can get to by bus, does not have a post office. There is a post office just over a mile from Brentford, but people cannot get there by bus and there is nowhere to park anywhere near it, because it is a tiny little shop. We should have one in Brentford town centre. The Post Office should recognise that. I have now been told that the Post Office has realised that Brentford is a priority and should have a main post office, but why did it not think Brentford was a priority two years ago, when we knew that there was going to be an issue?
I ask the Minister and the Post Office to work together to address the public sector duty and deliver a core service in all town centres, which we could define. We could use the PTAL—public transport accessibility level—grading used in planning to define the criteria for the quality of public transport access, parking and so on. We could also look at grants and the transaction costs.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw talked about business declining in the Post Office’s core services, which is true, because many people use services online that they used to go to the post office for, but where is the Post Office looking at new business nationally, such as basic banking and new opportunities? Where is the entrepreneurial spirit to combine the best of private sector entrepreneurialism and new technology with the public sector duty—in a sense, the Government-perceived monopoly for services?
Does the hon. Member agree that part of the problem is that successive Governments have not looked at those issues? They seem to perceive the Post Office as a business of the ’90s and 2000s, rather than one for the current and future generations.
The hon. Member expresses exactly my feelings about dealing with the Post Office—it is passive; it is backward-looking; it is old-fashioned. There is an inherent benefit to post offices, both in terms of their brand reputation and the legal governance position.
The Post Office has a new chief executive, who has been in post for just six months. My understanding is that it will soon release a strategic review about its role. I am looking forward to hearing positive, forward-looking answers to my concerns, so that my constituency and my town centre, like so many other villages, town centres, suburbs and towns, is served properly by this important, Government-owned, public service.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for setting the scene so well. She is absolutely right; we have been here so many times on this issue. I hope that we do not have to return to it, but we all know we probably will. We hope that the Minister will give us the reassurance that we so desperately desire—I am glad to see her back in the House and congratulate her on her new ministerial role.
I am always concerned when I see a debate on post offices surfacing, as it gives me concern that there has been another round of culls as we are seeing with the banks, but I am thankful that that is not what I am facing in Strangford today. I have had a very good working relationship with the Post Office. On almost every occasion we have been able to find a solution, and I will refer to some of them later.
At the end of March yet another bank will close in Newtownards—this time it is the Barclays bank. Barclays has agreed to meet me about that. I am concerned about bank closures, as I know other colleagues are. Indeed, one of today’s early-day motions is about the closure of a Clydesdale Bank branch in Scotland. I think 10 banks have closed in my constituency, and I am concerned about the effect of those losses on communities. Hailing as I do from a mixed rural-urban constituency, I am very aware that local post offices are a necessity.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to the debate in Westminster Hall last Thursday on post offices and the Horizon system. Some of the stories about the impact on people’s quality of life, health, finances and some of the implications we heard were horrendous. Something that came out of that debate was the cross-party, cross-political opinion that something has to be done—it is needed desperately. I believe that the opinion is the same today.
Post offices play a crucial economic and social role in our local and rural communities. One in five people face isolation if rural post offices close. Eight in 10 small businesses in remote rural areas would lose money if local post offices were closed and, nationally, there are more post offices than there are bank branches of all the banks combined.
The banks that have closed in my constituency are mostly Ulster Bank, alongside Danske Bank, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish, and now we have the Barclays bank closing. Credit unions have filled some of the gaps and have done an excellent job, but they cannot be expected to fill it all. New credit unions have opened in Kircubbin and there is also an active credit union in Newtownards, which is doing exceptionally well. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), had the opportunity to come over to Northern Ireland to visit that credit union, so he is well aware of its good work. The Irish credit unions and the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions have tried to bridge some of those gaps.
The Countryside Alliance has said:
“The post office network offers an important means of accessing cash, either using its own financial products or because it provides access to the current accounts of 20 other banks and the business accounts of 8 other banks.”
The expansion of financial services through post offices could replace lost banking and financial services to rural communities and small businesses, ensuring the long-term viability of the network and that the post office remains at the centre of rural community life.
There are currently 491 open post offices in Northern Ireland; 314 of them, or 63%, are classed as rural. In my constituency of Strangford there are 22 currently open post offices and 72% are classed as rural. That says it all. I have worked alongside the Post Office and we have been able to integrate post offices into shops in the constituency quite well. That has been successful in Carrowdore, Greyabbey, Kircubbin, Ballyhalbert, Portaferry, Ballynahinch and in two or three places in Newtownards, in Comber and elsewhere. That has worked because it is about knowing the community. The people who have been interested in retaining the post office have accommodated that within their shops, and have thereby ensured that the post office continues to be an important part of community life.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend on his grand tour of his Strangford constituency, but does he agree that in many rural areas in the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, what he has outlined is what has happened in the past few years—small post offices have been incorporated into shops and have developed services? That needs to be promoted more to retain and develop the network.
I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words. I agree that that has been a success story. Perhaps the Minister will be able to confirm in her response whether that is happening in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well.
There is now no longer a bank the entire way down the Ards peninsula. It is the post office that enables not only pensioners but local workers and stay-at-home parents to access banking and their funds. The importance of that to a community cannot be overstated.
The Post Office has highlighted to me that it has consistently met all five national access criteria; at the end of March 2019, 99.7% of the population lived within three miles of a post office—that is probably true in my constituency—and 92.7% lived within one mile. Post offices are very much an integral core part of village life, rural life and community life.
In addition, there are legal access targets to ensure that at least 95% of the population of every postcode district are within six miles of their nearest post office. It was found on 31 March 2018 that that criterion was not met in seven postcode districts. I am informed that as of 31 March 2019 there were three postcode districts that did not meet that criteria, and they are being worked on. Good work has been done, but other Members have referred to the importance of post offices and there are anomalies that need to be addressed. The post office network is attempting to fill the gap left by the rural bank branches—an extra burden that it is doing its best to address. That should be welcomed and further secured with clear signals from the Government.
I echo the calls of the Countryside Alliance to deliver on three key issues, which I hope the Minister can respond on. The Post Office and banks need to standardise banking services offered over the post office counter. Post offices must remain relevant in modern times through supporting growth in activities such as online shopping through parcel collection and delivery, and to continue to pick up the slack as banks and shops close in rural areas. There should also be access to the banking protocol, to ensure that when a branch is moved or closed, customers are made aware of the banking services offered by the nearest post office. It is crucial that post offices are an option that people can fall back on whenever banks close. That has happened in my constituency and I would like to see it happen in other constituencies as well.
We are slowly but surely moving into a situation where someone who does not have broadband of a decent speed will be isolated from their finances as well as other services, and not every person has access to online services. Our post offices are the last line of defence and we need to stand with them to defend this last bastion against rural social isolation.
It is a pleasure to hear your Glasgow accent in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I have lost most of it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for securing the debate, and I commend her for all the work she is doing on this important issue. As she mentioned, the SNP pushed hard for the banking industry to provide a fair price for banking transactions over post office counters, because the rate was simply unsustainable. I am glad that a substantial increase was agreed; it is only right, given that in many places the banks are completely reliant on the Post Office to deliver their services. I am delighted that that has been resolved.
One thing that unites Members of different parties—I say that despite the lack of Tory Back Benchers present—is the future of our post offices in our constituencies and local communities. My constituency has 14 post offices and each is vital to its communities, from Ferguslie Park to Bishopton, Gallowhill to Houston, and Linwood to Bridge of Weir—I thought that I, too, would go on a tour of my constituency.
The post office in Bridge of Weir is an example of a community seeing the real value that a post office provides to the village and working hard to secure it. It was closed in 2011 but, through the hard work of the local community, The Bridge charity was set up to take over the former library and repurpose it as the village’s post office and community centre, with a peppercorn rent from the council. From day one, however, the charity faced an uphill struggle. Its income runs at barely half of that projected by the post office, knocking the projections that the trustees made completely out of kilter. It is a matter of some anger that the post office did not qualify for community status due to the proximity of other post offices in other villages, even though Bridge of Weir public transport links can be charitably described as patchy.
Any closure of the post office would result in substantial inconvenience for service users and the wider community, which has a significantly older than average demographic. The Bridge is able to keep the post office only through cross-subsidisation of counter trade by the associated retail unit, which provides a fairly narrow retail offer in order not to conflict with any other retail operations in the village. That cannot be sustainable without a real change to the criteria by which local community post offices qualify for additional support. It is simply preposterous that every other shop in the village would have to close and lie empty before this community asset becomes eligible for consideration for the Post Office funding streams.
In the last few months Post Office Ltd has provided a one-off grant to support The Bridge. If it recognises that need, ongoing support should certainly be offered to The Bridge. I have discussed this issue with the previous Minister; if she will allow, I hope to discuss it with the new Minister. I hope that she will take away what I and many other Members are saying, and that she speaks to the Post Office about amending the criteria to introduce more flexibility—we need a bit of common sense in designating the units of the network that need support.
Post offices such as that in Bridge of Weir, and in thousands of communities across the country, need real support and recognition from the UK Government that they are not just places to collect pensions and post birthday presents; they are the lifeblood of places that have had facilities taken away from them over the years. Sadly, we know that our postmasters have been poorly served by the Post Office and its management.
The Horizon IT fiasco is not just a damning indictment of the Post Office management and its inability to resolve problems competently; it is a devastating judgment on the “Upstairs, Downstairs” culture that seems to pervade the organisation. Dozens of victims have had their livelihood and liberty stripped from them at the behest of management, who denied for nearly two decades that there was any problem at all. We now know that there was a problem entirely of the Post Office’s making, which has cost a high price, and not just financially; the human victims will never get back the weeks and months they have wrongly spent behind bars, and families will never get their loved ones back.
My constituent was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 months. Her life was turned upside down. She lost her marriage and house as a result. No level of compensation is adequate for the damage that Horizon has done to her life. That episode demonstrates the fundamental cultural issues within the Post Office management that need to be addressed, and it highlights the lack of governmental oversight that led to that management culture.
For too long the Post Office has been treated like an old armchair: too useful to throw out, but unloved, battered and kept out of obligation rather than enthusiasm. I wish the Minister well in her new role, but that attitude has to change if we want a post office network that is fit for the remaining years of the 21st century. That attitude left some sub-postmasters living below minimum wage earnings due to the paltry sums paid to them to maintain a link in the post office network, and it has left the Bridge of Weir post office continually fighting for its future rather than receiving the support it deserves.
We need recognition from the Government that a post office is more than the sum of its parts. It is a vital cog in our society and communities that helps to bind us together, and it cannot be yet another piece of social cohesion that is left to be stripped away by the mantra of market forces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing the debate and on her earnest plea that post offices matter. They absolutely do. In each and every contribution to the debate, we have heard about many of the different ways in which post offices matter to our various communities and sections of them. My hon. Friend made a clear call for the sub-postmasters’ contract to be reviewed, and she pointed out that we need creative thinking about how the business model develops. It is a call with which I heartily concur.
I very much enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who spoke eloquently about the difficulty of maintaining the visibility of the service, about some of the problems with security and about the locations of people who are willing to take on the service, which are not always the locations where, in an ideal world, we would wish the service to be transacted. She made those points very well.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke eloquently about the issues in his constituency, but he got right to the nub of it when he spoke of the post office as a core part of village and rural life. He hit the nail firmly on the head. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) spoke of the importance of a good and effective public transport network in ensuring continued access to the network, and he said that the service is beyond the diktats of market forces. Again, I heartily concur.
Let us look at some of the positive aspects of our post offices. A survey conducted in 2017 showed that 81% of respondents described the post office as important to them; 49% described it as very or extremely important and 97% described it as trustworthy—an unprecedented high figure. That shows the tremendous standing of the institution of the post office, which is not something that has been created in a marketer’s sketchbook. It is a reputation that has been built up over generations of much-valued service to individuals and communities, with a high-quality service at its very heart. The post office is at the heart of both urban and rural communities, and it has provided a universal service and common experience that we have come to value, wherever we are from.
We all understand that changes in the ways that people wish to access the services offered at post offices are inevitable. There is always a temptation to try to take everyone down the route of digital by default, regardless of whether we have the technological capability and sufficiency of broadband access, or the willingness or personal ability, to do that. We have to recognise that digital is not the default for many people, nor will it ever be. It should not be the default for accessing post office services, and we must not overlook the vital role that post offices provide not just to individuals, but to local businesses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to economics 101 and the importance of the circular flow of cash. That is of particular importance as many banks retreat from our communities and, in many cases, the availability of ATMs in our communities is dramatically reduced. That retreat affects not only rural communities, but urban communities. Lack of access to cash is particularly felt in some of the less affluent urban communities, where the post office’s presence as a provider of cash is vital.
In addition to ensuring the flow of cash, enabling it to be spent locally is important. Many post offices are located within retail businesses in the area, and they also provide direct support to other businesses on the high street. More than 2 million small businesses, or 62%, use the post office at least once a month. In rural areas, 36% of rural businesses use the post office at least once a week to receive deliveries, send products, pay bills and, with the banks retreating from the high street, to deposit cash, as the post office increasingly—willingly or otherwise—takes on the role of cash handler of last resort in many locations.
The network could certainly fulfil that task, but we have to proceed with caution. We must recognise that many post offices simply do not have the physical security to handle large amounts of cash, and that many sub-postmasters are perhaps unwilling to take on a task that carries an increased risk of crime. Although my SNP colleagues and I would very much like to stem the banks’ retreat from the high street, it is important that if and when they do retreat, they are held financially to their responsibility to support the transition and ensure that the post office network is suitably equipped to take on that role, should that be what we want to happen.
On the point about the need for banks to have long-term contact with the post offices that step in where a bank has abandoned the community, does my hon. Friend agree that the postmasters in those post offices will have to pick up the pieces if that long-term connection does not happen? Months or even years down the line, when customers find themselves in a situation and the banks are long gone, the postmasters will have to pick up the pieces.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. When a service of that kind is withdrawn, the transition is rarely seamless, as I have seen in my constituency where banks have withdrawn and even post offices have reluctantly had to close. There is always a hiatus and an interruption in service, and it is difficult to quantify the degradation in that function that people experience as behaviour changes.
It is not difficult to map out a socially useful and sustainable future for the Post Office. Each of us has spoken at length about the socially useful role that it serves. The challenge is to make that role sustainable for those who provide and operate those services. It should not come as any surprise that as the level of direct financial support to post offices has declined in recent years, there has been a similar decline in the number of post office businesses.
The foundation of a sustainable post office business has to lie in making the everyday transactions sustainable and worthwhile for postmasters to carry out. That aspect of the business is potentially profitable; in 2016, it made a £35 million trading profit. Post offices must continue to be the access point—or the front counter, as has been said—to Government and other public services for people for whom digital is not and will never be the default option.
Postmasters should be properly compensated for the role that we expect them to perform. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw made the excellent point that a review of the current contract is absolutely essential. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
Although we need at least to maintain the network subsidy payment at its current level, we should also allow a new business model to develop. As I said, the Post Office has a trusted reputation, which it has used to leverage, grow and expand the business into areas such as telecoms and financial services. It should be allowed to expand its retail offering.
We have spoken about the Post Office’s importance as a distributor, collector and mover of cash; it should be able to develop the Post Office Money side of the business. We have heard about the constraints put on the Post Office card account and about the access that the Post Office allows to business banking for eight banks and to personal banking for twenty banks. The Post Office must be allowed to develop and build revenue from its own offerings in current accounts, business accounts, credit cards, saving products and domestic and international cash transfers. That will make the business sustainable.
The Post Office is a much-valued institution and service, but it runs increasingly on goodwill, which is not enough. I look forward to hearing the Minister set out her vision of the future of the service and how it can be made sustainable, not just in goodwill, but in the finances behind it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important debate. She has played a key role in keeping the viability of the post office network in the minds of Ministers and the public. I have been pleased to work with her, the Communication Workers Union and many others on the important issues facing post offices across the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) both spoke eloquently about their local issues, many of which are reflected throughout the country, particularly access to cash, the loss of community post offices and the plight of sub-postmasters, who are not adequately recompensed for the very important services they provide.
The Horizon trial and its fallout have clearly put the debate in a different context from last April’s debate on the network. We have had opportunities to discuss Horizon, and there are more opportunities to come, but I appreciate that the subject of the debate is somewhat distinct from that. Some essential context from the trial must be mentioned, though, with warnings from Post Office Ltd about the “existential threat” that the trial posed to the future of the company. The implication is that the financial consequences of the scandal may have an impact on the funding available to the network.
In the fight for justice for wronged sub-postmasters, we must not lose sight of the rest of the network. Ensuring that it is properly funded for the future is key. It is clear, even before we understand the full impact of the trial on the finances of Post Office Ltd later this year, that the network is hugely reliant on the network subsidy payment. The legal and compensation costs that the business will bear will make the Post Office hugely reliant on Government support.
The Government are hiding behind the idea that the Post Office is an independent commercial business, but the need for public support at critical moments means that the Government can and must play a far greater role in shaping the future of the Post Office, rather than simply providing credit and monitoring basic targets. In truth, since the separation of Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail, the Government have not taken their strategic role seriously. We have not had a comprehensive statement of strategic direction for that vital service since 2010, and we have reached the point where the long-term future of the network is at stake.
The Minister will undoubtedly argue that the numerous consultations, funding announcements and statements illustrate the Government’s commitment to the Post Office’s future direction, but none of those pronouncements sets out any real vision for the future. Many communities have already lost vital services because of closures by Post Office Ltd or, increasingly, because can no longer afford to run the services. The Government must set out a true long-term plan that details how post offices can thrive in a changing world. Without such a plan, the network will drift further towards a model of postal counters in larger multiples, as opposed to a network genuinely rooted in communities.
The growth of Crown post offices being delivered by WHSmith and others points towards a possible future in which the public elements of our post office network are continually reduced, so that it becomes a network led by larger private businesses. That is not the future of the network that the public want to see. In previous debates, I have highlighted many concerns about disabled access and adequate numbers of well trained staff, which many of my constituents report to me and many other MPs.
By contrast, we have a clear vision of the future of the post office network. First, the network would receive far greater protection if it were reunified with Royal Mail in public control. The disastrous decision to split the two and to sell off Royal Mail threatened both businesses. As high streets and the postal market develops, we have missed great opportunities to unify the management and services of those businesses. Working together, post offices and Royal Mail delivery offices could provide a much more comprehensive network of local points from which to send and pick up parcels, driving growth and delivering sustainability for the Post Office and Royal Mail. Britain’s post should be public.
Labour would also set up a proper post office bank to bring 21st-century banking services into every community. High street bank closures are happening across the country, and while many post offices work hard to provide basic banking services on behalf of banks, they cannot offer many essential services that local bank branches can. Furthermore, the thankfully reversed decision by Barclays to withdraw its services from post offices shows that the existing relationship is neither sufficient nor stable. A post office bank, by contrast, would bring full banking services to every post office, meaning that people who value a local branch service would have reliable access to branches. Such a bank would offer a vital new line or remuneration for sub-postmasters, helping to protect them for the future.
Not only that, but smaller loans could be available through a post bank, enabling thousands of bottom-up transformational changes for start-ups, small businesses, local co-operatives and community projects in towns and villages up and down the country. A post bank would also be the location for much needed local business development support, further ensuring a sustainable customer base for post offices for generations to come. The proposal would also support the Post Office’s key functions of making cash accessible. Many people, especially those who are vulnerable or elderly, rely on cash in their day-to-day lives, and bank branch closures mean post offices are one of the few places that it can be accessed free of charge. A strong local network of free-to-use cash machines also helps to support small local businesses, which may not have the facilities to accept other forms of payment, and provides a lifeline to our struggling high streets.
Will the Minister commit to bring forward a comprehensive strategy for the Post Office? I know that she will not agree with every element of the plan I have laid out, but the House and the public must be able to see and scrutinise the Government’s plans for the future. Will she also set out what steps she will take to address the governance of the Post Office to ensure that sub-postmasters and the public are assured that the management of the company is able to take the network forward into the future with openness and transparency? Any strategy must identify the desperate need for fair remuneration of sub-postmasters, which will help to maintain a viable post office network, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who fondly referred to the Post Office as an “unloved” armchair, which I found very touching.
The post office network is a national gem, valued by many up and down the country. It can provide a bulwark against a retail downturn and essential protection for the digitally excluded, but it must have the correct vision and investment to achieve that. In recent weeks, the Post Office has faced great challenges. The Government must react and lead the Post Office forward for the future.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important debate on the Post Office. I was taking notes all the way through and sincerely hope that I manage to address many of the questions that have been asked. The Minister with responsibility for small business, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—he is the fifth of the Ministers the hon. Lady referred to—would have been present but could not be here today. I assure the House that I will pass the messages on to him.
It is encouraging to see the shared passion we have for this vital asset—the post office network is, absolutely, a national treasure. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) talk about new premises, and to hear the wise words of all Members—including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), who described the post office network as a “national gem”. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his kind words. He is always incredibly kind to me, and what he said was lovely. It was great to hear his wise words. It was interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who had positive things to say about the Post Office, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who talked about the flexibility we have.
I assure the House that the Government fully understand that the Post Office is an organisation like no other. Post offices up and down the country contribute enormously to the life and soul of the community, providing a convenient access to vital services and infrastructure that our constituents and businesses need to prosper. Since 2010, therefore, successive Governments have invested more than £2 billion to safeguard and modernise the post office network, to ensure that it is sustainable for the future.
I will address some of the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. Since 2010, the Post Office has turned a corner, but colleagues should not take my word for that. In 2016, it became profitable for the first time in recent history, culminating in a pre-subsidy profit of £60 million in 2018-19. Winning new business has contributed to the improvement of the Post Office’s official financial performance and, consequently, the Government funding required to sustain the uncommercial parts of the network has drastically decreased. The network transformation programme that took place from 2012 to 2018 enabled the modernisation of more than 7,000 branches, adding more than 200,000 opening hours per week and establishing the Post Office as the largest network trading on a Sunday.
A new chief executive officer was appointed in September 2019. He is committed to resetting the Post Office’s national relationship with postmasters. One of the questions that the hon. Lady asked was about that relationship, and we will continue to ensure that it thrives.
In addition, rather than branches closing, the overall number of post offices grew by 91 in 2018-19, and 653 branches have opened as part of the new network locations programme, supporting our high streets and providing customers with a better and more accessible service while making the network more resilient. Furthermore, the Post Office’s agreement with high street banks enables personal and business banking in all branches, providing vital access to cash and banking services for consumers, businesses and local economies while bank branch closures continue apace.
Post Office Ltd has taken further steps to incentivise prospective postmasters to take on a post office. That includes an increase to postmaster remuneration of 10%, year on year, in 2020-21. That is one of the questions you were asking—
Apologies—that is one of the questions she was asking.
The hon. Lady asked about BEIS and Government oversight of the Post Office. BEIS has challenged the Post Office and, in fact, the new CEO and the chair personally to strengthen their relationship with postmasters and to take on board the lessons learned from the recent litigation. They have provided assurances that they will do so. BEIS has established, and chairs, a quarterly group with the National Federation of SubPostmasters and the Post Office.
The hon. Lady asked about Post Office card accounts. The POCA contract is a commercial matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and Post Office Ltd. It is no secret that the contract for the Post Office card account will come to an end on 30 November 2021, but the DWP is in the process of developing a replacement. The predecessor Minister with responsibility for small business, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), wrote to her ministerial colleagues in the DWP in full support of a full and open tender process to ensure the delivery of the best possible service to citizens and value for money.
I turn to franchising. There is a widespread misunderstanding that franchising is a closure programme, leading to redundancies and the deterioration of services for consumers, but that is not the case. I appreciate that the proposed changes to the delivery of post office services can cause concern in the communities affected, and that some constituents have a strong emotional attachment to directly managed branches and their staff. However, the franchising model has endured to this day, and the vast majority—more than 11,300 post offices—are successfully run on a franchise or agency basis with large and small retailers as part of a thriving business.
Since January 2020, the Post Office and Payzone network have become exclusive bill payment providers for British Gas, bringing more footfall for businesses and revenue for postmasters. Although it is important not to be complacent and to recognise the challenges ahead, I encourage Members to look closely and objectively at the facts, which show unequivocally that the network is more sustainable today than it was in 2010. All that has been achieved notwithstanding the challenging trading conditions in the Post Office’s core markets and the wider sector.
Delivering post office services as part of a wider retail offer is a proven model that brings benefits to the community, the local economy, postmasters, consumers and, ultimately, taxpayers. Let me reassure hon. Members that as part of its ongoing monitoring role, Citizens Advice will continue to track the impact of post office changes on consumers and customer satisfaction with franchised post offices. Citizens Advice also has a formal advisory role in reviewing changes to the Crown post offices across Great Britain that are relocated and franchised.
I note hon Members’ concerns about temporarily closed branches. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw that Post Office Ltd is committed to maintaining the branch network, and there is no programme of closures.
Could the Minister could explain, now or subsequently, how the Government wish to retain the network? Our experience is that it is not being maintained.
If I do not answer the hon. Lady’s question subsequently, I will provide her with a written answer.
There are more than 6,100 post offices in rural areas, and almost 99% of the rural population live within three miles of one of those branches. Illustrating the importance of post offices in those areas is the fact that almost half of rural post offices have community status, which means that they are the last shop in their village. When the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw referred to how she had been helped with a passport application, I was reminded that, many years ago, I was in exactly the same situation when I went to do my passport. The Post Office recognises the unique challenge of running a community branch, and it provides fixed as well as variable remuneration to reflect their special situation.
A question was asked about opening hours. The network transformation programme involved the announcement of more than 200,000 weekly opening hours and established the Post Office as the largest network trading on a Sunday. The Government fully understand the importance of access to cash, especially in the context of accelerated bank branch closures. That is why the industry-wide banking framework agreement between the Post Office and the high street banks is pivotal in ensuring convenient access to everyday banking services. The House will be glad to know that, as part of its review of postmaster remuneration, Post Office Ltd increased the fixed remuneration received by community status branches to ensure the long-term stability of the rural network.
On Horizon, which the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw asked about, I echo what my colleague Paul Scully MP said to the House: although the Government are pleased that a resolution to the Horizon group litigation has been reached, we do not take for granted the strength of feeling about the negative impact that the Horizon court case has had on postmasters. The Government recognise that this has been a difficult period for postmasters, who are at the heart of communities across the UK. Although the financial settlement in December 2019 and the Post Office’s apology are significant steps in the right direction, there is still a lot that the Post Office needs to do to strengthen its relationship with postmasters and to regain public trust.
Let me reassure hon. Members that improvements at all levels of the organisation are well under way, reflecting the lessons learned from the past. Minister Scully has already spoken to the Post Office—
I think the Minister means to refers to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. The Minister should not mention the name of the Member of Parliament.
I apologise. The Minister has already spoken to the Post Office’s newly appointed chief executive, and has been assured that a major overhaul of the Post Office’s engagement and relationships with postmasters is progressing.
The Government will continue to monitor and proactively challenge the Post Office leadership and will hold it to account on its progress. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at what more needs to be done, and it will outline the next steps in due course.
Mention has been made of postmaster relationships and remuneration; in 2019, after a six-month review of postmaster pay, Post Office Ltd announced an additional pay increase of £37 million per annum. A question was asked about subsidy payments; beyond 2020, Government remain committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the network with Post Office Ltd.
To conclude, let me reassure Members that Government recognise the value and importance of postmasters and post offices to communities, people and businesses in rural and urban parts of the UK. We will continue to safeguard the post office network to ensure that post offices can thrive at the heart of communities across the country. I thank hon. Members again for their contributions to this excellent debate and for their hard work supporting access to post office services for our constituents.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, whether through interventions or speeches. I do not want the Minister to take this personally, because I could have said it innumerable times to many other Ministers, but we do not just want to hear kind words from the Government. We do not want the Government to say, “We will press Post Office Ltd”; we want the Government to tell us what they are going to do. That was missing quite a bit from the Minister’s response.
I want to pick up on one thing. It seems as though where the Government find that Post Office Ltd is making a profit, that is fine—everything in the garden is lovely; we are moving forward and the Post Office is doing really well, because it is making money—but how much money will the Post Office be making when the full cost of the Horizon scandal hits? It is not just about the people who have been taken to court and whose cases are going through the criminal court review procedures; it is about the people who paid the Post Office money because they did not want to be prosecuted, and who were harassed and harangued into doing that. It is about the cover-up. The Government cannot sit back and let the post office network flounder because of the great cost coming down the line for the Post Office as a result of Horizon.
That does not even cover things such as franchising. Franchising is not good. It has been proven, especially where Crown post offices are franchised, that franchising leads to expertise being lost: people leave, there is a reduction in the services provided and everyone loses out. I honestly hope that the inquiry that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is carrying out prods Ministers into effort and deeds, instead of kind words. Post offices need to be kept, and they need to prosper. We need them to support our communities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the post office network.
Political Neutrality in Schools
I beg to move,
That this House has considered political neutrality in schools.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I should declare some interests in this topic. I have two children of primary school age and my wife teaches. Clearly, I am also a Member of Parliament, and I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on education. The APPG plans to do some work on the mental health and wellbeing of our children in the classroom, which I will come to later.
We are fortunate in Somerset to have brilliant schools and teachers, and measures to level up funding for rural schools are welcome. As elsewhere, we need to ensure that support for special educational needs makes a difference for the children involved—that is something else I would like the APPG to focus on—but in general we have dedicated and highly professional teachers and support staff in our part of the country.
I did not seek the debate to suggest that classrooms are a hotbed of radicalisation. However, I have been approached by concerned parents—I am sure I am not the only Member in that position—about incidents, in the run-up to December’s general election and at other times, that I am told included the airing of strong and aggressive political views.
The issue received attention in the national press just before Christmas, when the musician Stormzy was criticised for telling a primary school class of seven-year-olds that the Prime Minister is “a bad, bad man” and, like the big bad wolf, would blow their houses down. That was not the first time Stormzy had attracted controversy. Given his previous homophobic rants on social media and the language and themes of his music, it is not unreasonable to question whether he was an appropriate guest at a primary school in the first place.
Stormzy—or Michael, to use his real name—has well-known political views. Most of us will have seen him getting the well-heeled crowd at Glastonbury hot under the collar with his support for Jeremy Corbyn, but those views do not belong in a primary school. I would say the same if he had a strong anti-Labour message; this issue is not about political parties, but about the abuse of a position of influence.
In the last few years we have seen a coarsening of our political debate. In too many cases, reasoned debate has given way to name calling and abuse. Politicians are thick skinned, and we are increasingly used to people firing abuse at us from the comfort of their own homes. Our young children, however, will not understand that, and they should not be asked to.
I am listening with care to the hon. Member. I absolutely agree that children, and particularly seven-year-olds, should not be subjected to the kind of language and approach that Stormzy was reported to have used, but is it not true that guest speakers who come into schools can be expected to be asked their political views? Certainly, whenever I go into schools I am asked what I think of the Prime Minister, of Brexit, of plastic and of climate change, and whether I have ever met the Queen. Is not the issue more about the appropriateness of the speaker’s response and the respect they give to the children and staff in the school than about their political position?
I will come on to some of those issues, but the hon. Lady makes some valid points.
One of the big challenges facing us generally is why children are more likely than ever before to suffer from stress or have mental health problems. That is partly due to better diagnosis, which is a positive step, but there has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of young people with high anxiety. The role of social media and mobile phones in that is for another time, but being exposed to aggressive tribal politics and told that the country is being run by a very bad man certainly is not going to help.
This area becomes more complex when we consider that we want our young people to be interested in and engaged with politics. At a time when anything can be researched at the click of a button and the number of sources on any given subject is rising exponentially, it is more important than ever that children are taught the skills to make reasoned assessments and form balanced opinions. I am sure many of today’s politicians were inspired at school by certain teachers to choose the path of politics. The more people who choose to get involved and run for office, the better.
I am surprised that it is necessary for my hon. Friend to raise this issue. In May 1986 a group of peers, led by Baroness Cox, successfully amended what was then the Education Bill to ensure that politically contentious material, if raised and discussed in schools, must be handled in a balanced way. In June 1986 the Government accepted that. My understanding is that that ban on political indoctrination has been carried forward in subsequent legislation, so I am surprised that this is even an issue today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will address some of those issues in his response to the debate.
Teachers often bring the same positive attributes to elected office that make them effective in the classroom. Many become councillors or Members of Parliament, and our democratic institutions are richer for having them, along with the skills and insights into education that they contribute. Whether they should remain in education while they do so, however, is a valid question.
There may be no straightforward formula for how to inspire and inform without exerting undue influence, or for where being passionate about an issue undermines reason and constructive debate. Measures intended to ensure political neutrality may lead to schools being less stimulating. An important lesson for young people is to be tolerant and understanding of the views of others. It is also the case that some of our educational institutions, particularly universities, have a reputation for a particular political slant. I am not necessarily against that, but we must look at the age of the pupils and the extent to which they are able to critically assess the information put in front of them.
I do not wish to stray too far beyond the topic of the debate, but I am also concerned that some young people are encouraged into activism on environmental issues in a way that may not be entirely healthy. They may be better served by learning to assess rigorously how they know what they know, to delve deeply into the factual and statistical bases for various claims and to judge between them.
The hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for bringing forward the debate, may be interested to know that research among young people involved in climate activism has shown that their mental health improved as a result of their undertaking appropriate but self-generated activity to support a cause they believe in. I thought that was very interesting.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I do not argue that activism should not be allowed; I just want people to be able to understand, on the basis of facts and statistics, why they might want to be activists.
It is hard to gauge the size of this problem and to compare it with previous times. The evidence tends to be anecdotal. I suspect there have always been teachers with strong views who have not held back in sharing them, although perhaps in the past those views were sublimated in interests in particular texts or topics. However, I can say that I have received complaints from constituents, and I doubt I am alone. I also know that those cases were less about the examination of political ideologies and focused more on personalities—an approach sadly reminiscent of Stormzy’s.
I sought the debate because I wanted to reflect the concerns of my constituents and to express my own views about the importance of our children’s mental health. Surely, learning that we can disagree with one other without using the language of hatred is one of the most important lessons there is. I accept that there is fault across the political spectrum, but we have only to look at Momentum’s contribution to Twitter to see how corrosive it can be when abuse becomes a normalised part of political discourse.
I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister is able to offer some reassurance that the Department is active on this issue. Parents should have a route to voice concerns in a way that does not affect their children, and teachers should have guidance that helps them to be confident in judging where the line is between passionate and coercive.
I have seen rather colourful comments on social media by teachers, who should be mindful that their pupils may be on the same platforms. Whether online or at school, teachers must inspire and equip our children to make up their own minds not just on politics but across a whole range of issues. I end by paying tribute to the overwhelming majority, who do just that.
It is a pleasure to debate yet again under your careful and, if I may say so, unbiased stewardship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) for raising this important issue and the excellent way in which he opened the debate. He is right to warn about the coarsening of political debate in the country, which concerns many of us in this House. He is also right that young people should be encouraged to be passionate but not coercive in political debate and how they engage in it.
One of the most important principles that we want to uphold in education is political neutrality, in relation to both the knowledge taught through the school curriculum and the professional conduct of teachers in how they support pupils in and out of the classroom. Political education is an important part of a broad and balanced education that prepares young people for adult life, and we want young people to be informed and engaged citizens. To ensure that they receive such an education in an unbiased way, all state-funded schools must meet duties regarding impartiality and balanced treatment of political issues in the classroom.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) correctly said, that is provided for in legislation. Section 406 of the Education Act 1996 requires teachers to provide a balanced political view in relation to the direct teaching of pupils by forbidding
“the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject”.
Teachers may express their personal views, which can sometimes be useful in prompting debate and discussion within the classroom, but in doing so they must have regard to the teacher standards governing professional competence and conduct to ensure that they show tolerance of and respect for the rights and views of others.
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the 1986 amendment was carried forward in subsequent legislation. Does he agree that, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) said, it is perfectly normal for politicians to go and talk about politics in their local schools? However, when I put forward a view—I speak for myself and I hope for her and most other hon. Members—I always emphasise that there are other politicians who would put forward a contrary view. That is perfectly allowed, is it not, by the legislation?
My right hon. Friend is right, and I try to do the same thing. One piece of advice in the legislation is that, when teachers teach about political issues, they do not express their views in a way that would exploit pupils’ vulnerability or undermine fundamental British values. When I speak to young people, I always bear that in mind and point out that although I am a passionate supporter of the free market, which I think creates and helps spread wealth in the most effective way across society, there are others who believe that a planned economy and more regulation is a fairer and better way of running an economy. I try to make those points before saying that my personal view is the former. I am delighted to hear that he takes a similar approach.
Section 407 of the 1996 Act requires that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered
“a balanced presentation of opposing views.”
Balanced in that context means fair and dispassionate. The law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views that accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those that do not. Therefore, if a particular theory represents mainstream opinion, there is nothing to prevent a school indicating a strong preference for that theory while making minimal but dispassionate reference to the minority view. However, many of the issues to which my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend refer are not in that category but those where large sections of society take opposing views.
My hon. Friend raised the reporting of Stormzy’s visit to a primary school. Schools remain responsible for what is taught and we expect them to have in place robust safeguarding policies that should set out clear protocols ensuring that visiting speakers are suitably supervised. The school should have a clear understanding of why the speaker was chosen and make guests aware of the school’s expectations, such as: abiding by its equality commitments; there must be no statements that might cause offence to others or otherwise undermine tolerance of other faiths or beliefs; and there must be no extremist material.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to equip children to question and evaluate the information they are presented with, whether that is in newspapers, on television or online. Apart from how teachers present political or any sensitive or controversial subject, the content of the curriculum they teach is vital. Schools have a role to play in teaching children to be savvy consumers of media and information. The best way to do that is by providing them with the fundamental knowledge they need to be able to make informed decisions and critical judgments. That is why we reformed the curriculum to provide the core knowledge that children need to understand the world.
Daniel Willingham, the American academic, author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”—I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in the education debate—and proponent of the use of scientific knowledge in the classroom, says that processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought—that is, domain or subject knowledge. Therefore, if a student is reminded to look at an issue from multiple perspectives often enough, he or she will learn that they ought to do so, but if they do not know much about an issue, they cannot think about it from multiple perspectives. We can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice they will probably not be able to implement the advice they have been asked to memorise. Therefore, just as it makes no sense to try to teach students factual content without giving them opportunities to practise using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.
The national curriculum we inherited in 2010 had been stripped of too much knowledge, with a heavier focus on the skills of learning. The Government therefore embarked on significant reforms to the national curriculum with the aim of restoring the importance of subject knowledge in all its complexity and fascination. In 2014 the new, more ambitious and knowledge-rich national curriculum came into force in England, and from 2015 we introduced more rigorous GCSEs. That is the most efficacious approach to helping young people to be more discerning and challenging of the views expressed online and in wider society.
The reformed national curriculum sets out a core body of knowledge that should form part of a school’s curriculum, giving schools the autonomy to decide how to teach it to maximise pupil understanding and address their misconceptions. The 12 national curriculum programmes of study not only avoid political bias by focusing on core subject knowledge, but enable teachers to consider how pupils can better evaluate and challenge fake news or misleading information, which can often be presented to them in social media as facts.
My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend referred to guidance. We issued amended guidance in summer 2018 to remind schools of their responsibilities. The online staffing and employment advice for all schools was updated to say:
“All staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately in terms of their behaviour, the views they express (in particular political views) and the use of school resources at all times, and should not use school resources for party political purposes.”
I hope that provides my hon. Friend with some reassurance that we take these issues extremely seriously.
The circumstances of 1986, which led to the legislation, were that some people were advocating the introduction of anti-imperialist studies in schools, and peace studies—anti-nuclear propaganda—was also being spread. It was those paradigm cases that led Parliament to legislate, and I am grateful to the Minister for his clear utterance that such legislation still holds good today.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That legislation is still in force. Being from the same era as him, I too recall the debates that took place at that time.
The Government have actively supported teachers in developing their school curriculums beyond the national curriculum. Most relevant to this debate is the Government’s educate against hate website, which hosts resources for schools to support the promotion of democracy, including those on media literacy. Between September and November 2019, the website was visited over 80,000 times.
Schools do many other things across the curriculum to ensure that pupils are equipped to question and challenge what they read, watch and listen to. An online piece written by the headteacher of Passmores Academy in Harlow on the topic of fake news comments on how vital it is to teach young people to check their own facts. The head of English at that school organised activities including students learning the truth behind the scaling of maps in geography, how propaganda has been used throughout history, diet myths, the manipulation of statistics, and the role of computer-generated imagery in the creation of fake news. Additionally, media bias was debated, leading to extended pieces of writing being produced on the subject.
Online safety is an important component of the new relationships, sex and health education. From September 2020 it will be mandatory for schools to teach those subjects. They are about empowering pupils with the knowledge that will support their current and future relationships and health, enabling them to become active and positive members of society. Pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data online, harmful content and contact, cyber-bullying and where to get help and support.
In Ofsted’s new inspection framework, the personal development judgment focuses on the development of pupils’ character, their confidence, resilience, independence and knowledge. It includes matters such as pupils’ ability to recognise and respond to online and offline risks to their wellbeing.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil for securing this debate. He has raised important concerns, shared by other hon. Members, as we have heard. I hope that he is reassured that there is legislation and support for schools in place, to mitigate the threat of political bias in our school system and to help young people be resilient to the concept of fake news.
Would Mr Fysh like to reply?
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his response, and I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. It is critically important that our young people are resilient to the impact of fake news and different types of propaganda, as he has set out. I thank him very much.
Question put and agreed to.
Palestinian School Curriculum: Radicalisation
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I am grateful to be leading my first Westminster Hall debate on such an important and timely subject. I am delighted to see so many Members present, and I am mindful of ensuring everyone has time to speak, so I will limit the interventions I take. I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests of a fact-finding visit I made to Israel and the Palestinian Authority last year.
During my trip, I was struck by the national pride that both the Israelis and Palestinians hold so dear, and faced the difficult reality that peace remains a distant dream. Zionist pioneers made the desert bloom, and Palestinian olive groves are world renowned. The potential for the land and the people is immense, yet no matter what land borders have been proposed in peace negotiations in the 73 years since the UN partition plan of 1947, the Palestinian leadership has rejected every option. I found myself wondering how that could be the case, when a two-state solution is clearly the only way to reconcile Jewish and Arab aspirations of self-determination in the land. It became apparent that the answer is not especially palatable: over many decades, Palestinian children have grown up in an environment of institutionalised radicalisation.
In schools named after suicide bombers, schoolchildren are taught from the age of six that Israel is a temporary construct that will,
“disappear as the fog over the sea”.
Palestinians are rightly proud of their youth literacy rate, which is among the highest in the world, but it is undermined by the more harmful material within the curriculum, which plays a significant part in indoctrinating the population. Eight-year-olds learn poetry from the following verse:
“I vow I shall sacrifice my blood, to saturate the land of the generous and will eliminate the usurper from my country, and will annihilate the remnants of the foreigners.”
As a former secondary school teacher myself, I know just how impressionable young minds are and the impact that such messaging can have on pupils’ development, values and world view.
A report published by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education in September 2019 found that the most recent Palestinian Authority school textbooks are even more extreme than previous editions. Despite promises from the PA to review and remove unacceptable content, the report concludes that there is a “clear deterioration” in content meeting UNESCO-derived standards for peace and tolerance in school education. After examining 202 textbooks from the current curriculum, IMPACT-se found,
“a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects”,
“the possibility of peace with Israel is rejected”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like him, I took advantage of one of the fact-finding trip organised by Conservative Friends of Israel in 2015, when I was first elected. The trip took in both Palestine and Israel, and while I was there we heard about a youth football tournament that had been hugely successful in uniting both regions. Does he agree that that demonstrates that there is an appetite for peace among young people, but that examples such as the ones he is giving seriously undermine the opportunities for it to happen?
I could not agree more. When I walked around the streets of Jerusalem, I saw Jew and Arab side by side, living peacefully together with the Christian community. There is indeed an appetite among the people of Palestine and the people of Israel to live side by side in peace. Sadly, it is the Palestinian Authority who keep dodging the answers to these very important questions.
Peace is not presented as preferred or even possible. Palestinian children are not taught what peace will even look like. Peace agreements and proposals with Israel that previously appeared in Palestinian Authority schoolbooks have been removed. Nine-year-olds are asked to count the number of martyrs in Palestinian uprisings—“If the number of martyrs of the first intifada is 2,026 martyrs, and the number of martyrs of the Al-Aqsa martyrs intifada is 5,050” and so on. Imagery in a textbook for 16-year-olds implies that Jews control the world. Ten-year-olds are taught that Jews are enemies of Islam and eight-year-olds learn in their textbooks that Jerusalem is a holy city only for Muslims and Christians. Right hon. and hon. Members will no doubt be aware that Jerusalem has been at the core of the Jewish faith and world for more than 3,000 years. Make no mistake: this is antisemitism, and we must condemn it as strongly as we fight antisemitism at home.
Mr George Bradford, a constituent of mine, works hard to raise awareness about extremist teaching in Palestinian schools. I met him here in Parliament last week. Does my hon. Friend agree that such awareness-raising has a valuable role as part of wider debates such as this one?
I agree absolutely. We must ensure that we raise awareness of this issue. It is sad that has taken a Daily Mail report to bring this matter to the public eye on a wider scale in the United Kingdom. We must do more to bring it to the world’s attention. We have seen other countries taking such a strong stance.
I mentioned that Palestinian schools are named after terrorists—at least 31 at the last count. Five of those schools are named after Dalal Mughrabi, the perpetrator of one of the worst terror attacks in Israel’s history, the 1978 coastal road massacre. Mughrabi led the hijacking of a bus and the murder of 38 civilians, including 13 children. She is portrayed as a central female role model for Palestinian girls. In the Arabic language textbook for 10-year-olds, of which I have a copy here, there is a large image of Mughrabi with the accompanying text:
“Dalal Mughrabi: Our Palestinian history is brimming with names of martyrs who have given their lives to the homeland, including the martyr Dalal Mughrabi. Her struggle portrays challenge and heroism, making her memory immortal in our hearts and minds”.
Order. May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that for his first speech he is doing very well, but under Standing Orders I am afraid that Members are not allowed to use photographs or props, or make reference to them. That is the first thing. Secondly, it makes it very difficult for Hansard to record something that is an object rather than text. I am sure he will note that, and I ask forgiveness for interrupting his flow.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I apologise, but you can understand the importance of the material that was on display.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the great speech that he is making. Is he aware that in addition to the 31 schools named after terrorists from the Palestinian Authority, three are named after Nazi collaborators? That sends a clear message, not only that killing Israelis is something that children should be encouraged to do, but that they will be honoured for undertaking such a heinous crime.
I am aware of that. Such a blatant attempt to stir up racial hatred and bring up what is a very dark history is despicable and disgusting. As one whose step-grandmother was born in Germany in the 1920s, went through an education system under Nazi rule and has lived with the shame of a nation—as many Germans do, even though they played no part in the atrocities that took place—I absolutely agree that reliving, remembering and reminding the Israeli people of such horrors should never ever be allowed, and that it should be called out for what is.
The fact that holocaust denial is most prevalent in Gaza and the West Bank compared with elsewhere in the world—standing at around 82% of the population—proves that something is going seriously wrong. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Palestinian education system should seek to promote peace and unity, with a curriculum driven by facts and history, rather than continuing to push prejudice and division?
I am sure my hon. Friend’s knowledge of that issue is far greater than mine. She has been leading the charge among the new intake of Members of Parliament to ensure that we tackle the scourge of antisemitism, not just in UK society but in the wider world. I could not agree more that we must promote peace and we must expect the Palestinian Authority to promote peace, because a two-state solution will never be achievable unless both sides share the common goal of finding a peaceful solution. The two-state solution is one that I passionately believe in.
The majority of Palestinians are under the age of 25, and recent polling has shown that they are increasingly moving towards more extreme ideology. It is with sad inevitability that the radical incitement I highlight will be a central contributing factor. The Palestinian leadership have failed to provide a positive vision for the future of their people. Until they ensure that their curriculum promotes peace, the prospects for an agreement with Israel will remain bleak.
My hon. Friend and I were together on that last trip to Jerusalem. He knows that I try to take a balanced view of the middle east and previously visited the area with a Palestinian charity. Most alarming is that these propaganda books are available to children as young as six, and that those on the Palestinian side found guilty of terrorism offences against Israelis—not throwing stones at buses; I have been critical about the way such people have been treated by the courts—are as young as 11. These deeply impressionable young people are being indoctrinated by the failed Palestinian Authority, which relies on fear and the poverty of the Palestinians to foment hatred against Israelis and the wider world. That is what this amounts to. It is in nobody’s interests for these textbooks be allowed, and certainly not at our taxpayers’ expense.
I remember that trip. When we met members of the Palestinian Authority, including one of the chief negotiators back in the early 1990s, we saw the lack of drive and vision for how to reach a two-state solution. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and will not try to better his comments, because he perfectly summed up the situation. The self-interest of these leaders in prolonging the conflict causes immeasurable long-term harm to the Palestinian and Israeli people.
I welcome to the Minister to his place, and I understand that he may not yet have had the chance to raise these issues with his Palestinian counterparts, but does he agree that we have a duty of care to children worldwide who receive UK aid to ensure that their educational experience is positive? Will he confirm that £20 million of annual UK support the Palestinian Authority contributes to the salaries of teachers and health workers through a vetted EU list? Does the UK monitor the training programme for the teachers whose salaries we pay? Who oversees that programme?
While it is not necessarily the UK’s place to determine the narrative and content of another territory’s curriculum, we are duty-bound to intervene immediately should unacceptable materials be used in education systems supported financially by British taxpayers.
The House of Commons Library briefing shows that, on 1 April 2018, in response to reports about this sort of material, the Department for International Development’s media team stated:
“DFID is planning to conduct a thorough assessment of the Palestinian curriculum and evidence and if we find evidence of material which incites violence, we will take action.”
That is coming up to two years ago, so I think we ought to have heard something from the Government about this by now.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. One reason why I wanted to secure the debate is that two years is absolutely too long. We need to ensure that UK aid money—UK taxpayers’ hard-earned money—is used appropriately, for aid and support and not to promote violence and extremism.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Debate and concerns raised in this place about this issue go back more than two years—check the parliamentary record. For five years-plus, concerns have been consistently raised by Members from various parties about the use of discriminatory and inciteful language in textbooks that, directly or indirectly, UK aid is helping to finance. We have heard repeated assurances from various Ministers over the years. One question we need an answer to is why there has been so little progress in clamping down on this destructive activity.
I agree completely that this has been going on for far too long. Warwick University’s vice-chancellor has failed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. That is an absolute abomination. UK textbooks, including those produced by Pearson, contained material that had to be removed. It is bad enough when that happens in our own country; we should be even stricter and harsher in ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money spent overseas is used appropriately.
The hon. Gentleman brings a lot of legitimate concerns to the House. On the timing and the immediacy of this debate, he will be aware that the Georg Eckert Institute is investigating this issue for the European Union, and the report is due in a couple of weeks’ time. I suggest that there would be merit in waiting for the report from the institute, because it has the advantage of being independent; it has no axe to grind. In what is always a highly charged debate, honest brokers can play a valuable role.
I agree that the report will be extremely important, and along with many other Members I look forward to reading its lessons and how we can make progress. While I and my colleagues may display a lot of passion, I totally take on board those facts and hope that that report will be made available for public consumption and not kept behind closed doors. The EU is duty-bound to ensure that everyone has a right to see what the institute manages to find.
Does the Minister share my grave concern that, even if we are not directly funding the publication these textbooks, we are paying for teachers and public servants in the education sector to draft, implement and teach this material, potentially in schools named after terrorists? I was encouraged by the UK’s call for international action on the content of these textbooks. The ongoing EU review of Palestinian textbooks is under way after months of delays, and the Minister for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), confirmed in a written answer last week that the interim report will be completed in spring, with the full report due later this year. Will the Minister confirm that the interim report and subsequent full report will be made publicly available, to ensure transparency and openness at every level?
The Minister no doubt shares my view that we have a responsibility to protect children who are supported by the UK, and that the continued use of the textbooks amounts to nothing short of child abuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Like him, I have been to Ramallah in the west bank, and met members of the Palestinian Authority. It worries me that they not only glorify terrorism but financially reward it, paying monthly salaries to terrorists and their families to the tune of £260 million in 2018, or 7% of their entire budget. Like him, I desperately want to see peace, but while those payments continue, the prospect is bleak.
My hon. Friend speaks with absolute authority on this subject. It is utterly shameful that money is paid to terrorists who have committed heinous crimes against the people of Israel and foreign nationals in Israel. This problem affects us globally. We absolutely need to ensure that the funding stops, because it does not show any sign of facilitating peace in the future.
This issue is taken extremely seriously by our colleagues in Europe. In 2018, the European Parliament’s budgetary committee voted to freeze more than €15 million of Palestinian Authority funding if they do not remove incitement from their textbooks. Last year, the ruling coalition in the Norwegian Parliament voted to withhold funding to the Palestinian Authority if this content is not removed. Our ambitions for a global Britain must include safeguarding for all recipients of UK aid, particularly in areas of conflict.
The UK Government provide £65.5 million annually to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which delivers vital humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, including education and healthcare. However, UNRWA schools in the west bank and Gaza use the official Palestinian Authority curriculum, so the textbooks I have quoted from are being used in UN schools that the UK and international partners support. In August 2019, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticised the content of these textbooks for perpetuating prejudices and hatred. While one UN agency condemns the textbooks, another promotes them.
Uniquely, UNRWA extends refugee status beyond the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, to the descendants of all Palestinian refugee males, meaning that the UN recognises 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, rather than the estimated 30,000 refugees alive today. There are now more than 320,000 Palestinian refugee children in UNRWA schools in the west bank and Gaza—internationally designated Palestinian territories. Children in those schools are taught that they are refugees from what is now Israel, and that they will one day return, in line with the teachings in their textbook. Does the Minister believe that that is compatible with our stated aim to protect the political and physical viability of a two-state solution? A right of return for 5 million Palestinian refugees will demographically end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. I do not suggest withdrawing UK aid contributions to Palestinians in need, but this Government—the people’s Government—must demand value for money and, with international partners, place pressure on the UN agency to ensure that its work lays the groundwork for a two-state solution, rather than prolonging the conflict.
I shall finish by reflecting on the impact that the Palestinian Authority curriculum has had in recent years on the children whom they are duty-bound to protect. Since September 2015, 87 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed and more than 1,520 wounded in 210 stabbings, 239 shootings, 77 car rammings and one bus bombing. Palestinian youths under the age of 21 have carried out many of those acts of terrorism. Even screwdrivers have been used as weapons, and perpetrators have included children as young as 11 years old.
It is well known that Palestinian terrorists who kill Israelis receive monthly payments to reward their acts of terrorism, with higher salaries given to those who have killed more Israelis. It should be a matter of great sadness to us all that these children are raised in an environment infected with radical messages, with no hope for peaceful co-existence with Israel. No curriculum is perfect, as we are very much aware, and it is ultimately for the Palestinian Authority to address these issues, but they are recipients of UK aid so there is an expectation that they will uphold international standards of understanding, peace and tolerance, as set out in article 29 of the convention on the rights of the child.
There is a memorandum of understanding underpinning DFID’s support for the Palestinian Authority that requires the PA to commit to the principle of non-violence, and that includes a commitment from the PA to take action against incitement to violence and address allegations of incitement in the education curriculum. Recent UK assessments have concluded that the Palestinian Authority demonstrate a credible commitment to that principle. Does the Minister agree that that simply does not compute with the material that I have highlighted today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the House today. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should be looking very closely at the psychological impact of these materials on children and their upbringing? Should they not ensure that the work done by the Department for International Development, including in my own constituency of East Kilbride, fosters positive mental health and wellbeing throughout the early years, and supports and builds individuals who will be positive contributors to society? Some of the materials that he has described certainly run counter to that aim.
I could not agree more. Again, we are seeing vulnerable young children growing up in a world of conflict who already have some sort of psychological damage, just because of the situation and circumstances in which they live. To add on top of that the material seen in these textbooks and for that to be taught by their teachers will only create more harm. The money could be much better spent on creating a peaceful, tolerant society, while providing world-class mental health support.
While my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North endure multiple types of deprivation and rightly call for greater funding for our schools, the UK’s commitment to build peaceful and stable societies overseas clearly misses the mark in this case. I struggle to look my constituents in the eye and justify our overseas aid spending when their hard-earned money enables radicalisation and UK-funded teachers use textbooks filled with hate. The two-state solution that we all hope to see remains unachievable so long as another generation of Palestinians are growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel and Jews. It is our responsibility as donors to ensure that the Palestinian Authority sit up and take note.
Order. Because of the interest in the debate, I shall set a time limit at this point of four and a half minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I declare an interest as the new chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I also pay tribute to former Members Joan Ryan and Dame Louise Ellman, who did so much to lead debate on this subject in the previous Parliament. Like the hon. Gentleman, I strongly support a two-state solution. That is precisely why I believe that we must urgently tackle the issue of radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum. As we have heard, it seeks to pass on old hatreds and prejudices to a new generation of young people. It is a barrier to reconciliation and co-existence. It is pernicious and simply unacceptable.
However, as we have also heard, this is not an issue just for the Palestinian Authority; our Government share some of the responsibility. UK taxpayers fund the salaries of some 30,000 teachers and officials in the Palestinian education authority. Those are the people involved in the implementation and delivery of this curriculum. Let us be clear: we are paying the salaries of those who designed and administer the curriculum and those who teach it. As we have heard, the memorandum of understanding that governs British aid states clearly that the Palestinian Authority should abide by principles of non-violence. I think that the hon. Gentleman quoted the provision about incitement in the educational curriculum, so I will not repeat that, but we know that it has existed for many years. Every year Ministers claim that DFID’s annual reviews—reviews that are not published, incidentally—show that the PA are upholding their commitments. I have to ask: how do they show that?
Last year, former Minister Alistair Burt admitted that the content of textbooks is not covered in the reviews and that DFID plays no role in relation to textbook material. I therefore say to this Minister that, whatever has happened in the past, surely now we have to have some commitment that we will look at that if it is to be possible, in all honesty, to say that the PA are complying with the memorandum of understanding.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not good enough for a Government to say, “We do not fund this or that directly,” because while we are giving funds to the Palestinian Authority for one thing, we are releasing funds for them to use for other things and therefore indirectly we are subsidising these abuses, even if we are not doing so in a more direct fashion?
I do agree. I suspect that every one of us here supports the aid programme, but we do not support the misuse of the aid programme. I am certainly not here to attack the Minister, but I am here to say that we have to guard our own best interests in the way the programme is being applied. I think that is the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
I hope that the Minister will comment on the independent evaluation that the PA say they have commissioned from the Arab European Foundation. I have not seen the evaluation, and I do not know whether the Minister has. If he has, will he be kind enough to place a copy in the Library, and does he think that there will be any action by the PA as a result of that report?
I hope that the Minister will accept that many people have raised this matter before. Joan Ryan and Louise Ellman first raised it back in September 2017. Their concerns were initially dismissed. Then they were promised an independent international review. That took about 10 months, to be honest, and it was supposed to report last September. I obviously welcome the review by the Georg Eckert Institute, but I believe that what we are now waiting for is a short interim report. Can the Minister give us any further update on that and whether it will be placed in the Library?
I think the short line here is that there have been many promises but little action. Ministers claimed in 2018 that new textbooks were being piloted. That turned out to be untrue. In 2019 the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education reported that the same curriculum was being taught for the third consecutive year. Mr Saidam, the PA Education Minister, committed to a constructive review but later denounced an attack on the Palestinian curriculum by the Zionist lobby.
The bottom line is that Britain is bankrolling this curriculum. We must take responsibility. I think we are agreed that we need to see some action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who did a very good job of outlining this concerning and difficult set of issues. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I wish him all the best in taking over Labour Friends of Israel. I declare my interest as the House of Commons chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel.
I will be brief. I do not want to repeat anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke about. I strongly support a two-state solution. I am a friend of Israel, but I do not believe that being a friend of Israel prevents one from being a friend of Palestinians, too. I am proud that I was part of the Government that increased their aid spending to reach the 0.7% target. I am a strong believer in the power and effectiveness of UK aid when it is spent well. Being a friend and supporter of UK aid does not prevent me from raising concerns and criticisms, where they are fair.
The concerns and criticisms raised this afternoon are entirely fair. We have previously debated these issues, in this Chamber and in during Question Time in the main Chamber. Having participated in this debate for the past five years, I sometimes feel that when we raise issues with the Minister, he wants to say, “Please move along; there is nothing to see here.” Actually, there is something really concerning to see here, and more examples have been raised this afternoon.
A number of hon. Members present were also at a meeting with the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who recently visited the UK Parliament to alert us to some of these fresh issues. I want to put on the record my tribute to Fleur Hassan-Nahoum for her work on this matter and more broadly in that difficult but wonderful city of Jerusalem, across its divisions. A few weeks ago, I was with her, with other members of my party. As well as talking about this issue, Fleur introduced us to some inspiring Palestinian Arab women in Jerusalem who are setting up their own businesses.
There are reasons to be hopeful when visiting the region. I go there most years wearing my CFI hat. I am always looking for those green shoots of hope. There are reasons to be hopeful, but confronting an issue such as this can make us feel incredibly depressed. Those young minds are being poisoned. When I meet Palestinians in the West Bank, one of the big barriers to any serious talk of a two-state solution and a peace deal that I become conscious of is a pervasive cultural acceptance of and support for violence. That starts at a really young age, with young minds in school.
As a Government that take pride in the aid that we give, it is right that we support humanitarian assistance to Palestinians—I believe in that—but it is also right that we ask difficult questions about how that money is spent. It is not good enough to be told that we are not funding these textbooks directly. The fact is that we are funding education in the Palestinian Territories. That is a good thing, if it is done well. We should own this issue and be more challenging of our friends in the Palestinian Authority, who, for whatever reason, try to make us believe there is not a serious issue here, when there is.
I say to the Minister that this issue goes beyond the Palestinian Territories. Different organisations, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide, recently raised with me examples of extremism and discriminatory language in textbooks used in Pakistani schools. Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of UK aid. There is a broader issue here about how we are spending aid. As a friend and supporter of the UK aid budget, I want to see aid spent well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for raising this difficult subject. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate. I thank him for the way he set the scene. I am happy to stand with him and other hon. Members on this matter, and to say to the Minister that there must be a change in the way things are done in this Department.
This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue, and I assure hon. Members and the Department that as long as God spares me this will not be the last time, unless aid distributed by DFID is not misused, as currently is the case. I was a member of the DUP Friends of Israel group in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am a member here too. I unapologetically stand with Israel and its citizens in this debate.
As the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said, I want Palestine to have the opportunity to go forward and the two-state solution could well be the way to do that, but for that to happen there must be commitment from the Palestinians. They must stop their attacks upon Israelis, and that must be the basis for any progress.
I ask the Minister to request that his Department reviews the UK funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, where the money goes through to the Palestinian refugees. It seems to me—the information we received indicates this—that they are deliberately using educational books to focus on Palestinian young people, who are easily influenced. It is important that education is not used for the wrong reasons.
We should remember that the controversy around the use of different funds by the Palestinian Authority is not new; it covers many more issues than Palestinian textbooks. Although that is the starting point, it shows what the end goal is: namely, to perpetuate hatred against Israelis by indoctrinating children with spin and lies, which is more akin to what Goebbels would have done in the second world war. This House must not aid the Palestinian propaganda machine by ignoring the signs.
Ever since I entered the House in 2010, the misuse of funds has been a regular topic. For example, successive DFID Ministers regularly denied that a World Bank trust fund to which the UK made significant contributions enabled money to be sent to terrorists. The evidence said differently. The recipients claimed that the money funded the salaries of 85,000 Palestinian Authorities civil servants, but as far back as 2014 a report by the International Development Committee stated:
“We are nevertheless concerned that DFID is not taking adequate measures to prevent its funds from being misused. Given the scale of the operation, with 85,000 civil servants being paid with UK money, there is a serious risk of abuse. We do not regard a six-monthly audit as an adequate protection to secure the integrity of UK aid funds… We recommend that DFID impose more stringent checks to ensure that the money it provides to the PA is not being misused while pursuing a constructive dialogue with the PA on the end-use of funds.”
Having enjoyed conversations with the hon. Gentleman, I know that he speaks with years of experience. My stepmother was involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, using music education to bring the different factions together. Does he agree that Northern Ireland is a good example of how, when peace and tolerance are taught in the curriculum, we can unite a country, rather than continue to see division, as we do with the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis and the Arab people of the area?
I agree. In my conversations with the hon. Gentleman prior to this debate we discussed those matters and were clear on what we wish to see. Northern Ireland may be an example, and it is one we use many times. We now have a working Assembly again, so there is an indication of a political process that can move forward. That requires tolerance and that both sides of society are prepared to be more respectful of others.
To return to the report of the International Development Committee, it has subsequently been discovered that the list of 85,000 civil servants to which DFID claimed it used to pay out millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money did not exist, and DFID swiftly redirected the funds to health projects. If the money is transferred for the purposes of education or health, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to, no one would see anything wrong with that, but when it is transferred or used for a different purpose, action must be taken.
I understand that this is a difficult debate for the Minister. Whenever the facts are presented, they cannot be ignored. Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist, the simple fact is that the misuse of millions of pounds of money cannot be acceptable. One interested party said to me that, in his opinion, the Minister’s job is to protect taxpayer’s funds, given that previous Ministers and civil servants have been less than successful when it comes to directing Palestinian aid.
The indoctrination of children cannot be funded out of aid. We cannot advocate for hatred. We send that message today. The Minister is the only one with the power to make a change, which would speak louder than my words ever could. Whatever reassurances the Minister offers today will have to be backed up by hard evidence. We must be convinced that not one penny can be diverted from those sources that we all agree it should go to: food and healthcare for the children caught up in this through no fault of their own. They must not be trapped in such a vicious cycle for the rest of their lives.
I look to the Minister, and I will continue looking to him, not because I like him, although he looks well—[Laughter.]—but because he is the Minister who has to answer the questions. It is really important that the Department and the Government find the right approach to aid that will end up only in the classroom, with food in the bellies of innocent children. Let us have an honest answer from DFID of where we are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Along with many other Members, I participated in a fact-finding trip to Israel, paid for by Conservative Friends of Israel, only last month. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate and on his exceptionally powerful and moving speech. I will not cover the same ground, but the trip that I have just been on and his speech have made it clear to me that we have an awful lot of work to do in this area.
I was struck deeply by this beautiful, historic, troubled land. The names are familiar to many of us and have been for a long time, often for very unhappy reasons. Like everyone here, I long for nothing more than for peace, and for the Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live together in harmony and make the most of this wonderful land together, but I struggle to see how that will happen when the educational biosphere in which young Palestinians grow up is saturated with antisemitic hatred. My hon. Friend quoted some examples from the IMPACT-se report, which I also have in front of me, and I will quote one or two others. One example that particularly struck me was the teaching in science of Newton’s second law:
“During the first Palestinian uprising, Palestinian youths used slingshots to confront the soldiers of the Zionist Occupation and defend themselves from their treacherous bullets. What is the relationship between the elongation of the slingshot’s rubber and the tensile strength affecting it? What are the forces that influence the stone after its release from the slingshot?”
I was particularly struck by that because it normalises violence and legitimises hatred. There is no way that children are likely to grow up with a normal, benevolent attitude to their fellow citizens when science is taught in such a way.
A second example that particularly struck me came from “Arabic Language”:
“Students in grade 9 Arabic study a story describing a firebomb attack on Israeli passengers traveling on a bus, reporting the terror incident as a ‘barbecue party’...on one of the buses of the colonial settlement.”
Not only is that unacceptable material; it constitutes antisemitic hatred that will prolong and worsen the terrible troubles in that land.
We have established that the curriculum contains difficult material, on which action must be taken. From the Palestinian Authority, we have white-washing and sanitisation; according to the Library briefing, they have said that the contentious parts of the curriculum are “the ripple effects” of the conflict. UNRWA states that it reviews textbooks rigorously and that its curriculum framework
“aims to ensure that our curriculum is in line with UN values.”
To say that it “aims” to do so is surely not good enough.
Then we come to the UK Government’s position. I understand DFID’s perspective that it does not fund the making of the textbooks, but that is a little bit lawyerly, given that it funds the teachers who teach the material in the textbooks. Whichever way we look at it, the UK taxpayer is funding the teaching of this material, even if we do not actually fund the production of the textbooks. We surely have to do something about that.
I know that the Government have an independent report, and I am sure the Minister will refer to it in due course, but will he be kind enough to answer three questions from me? First, why has there been a delay? In December 2018, the review was meant to be completed by September 2019. Secondly, DFID has stated that it “will take action”, but what will that action be? Given that the UK does not fund the textbooks, what action will the Minister be able to take? Thirdly, what comment does he have on the IMPACT-se report, which shows that, despite the objections of European politicians for the third year in a row, the teaching material still exists? That must be changed. Will the Minister comment on those points?
I am afraid we will to have to set a time limit of three minutes, and then it will be 10 minutes for the respective Front-Bench speakers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on his new role. I, too, refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I also went to Israel and the west bank on a fact-finding mission last month.
Hon. Members have highlighted the truly appalling content of Palestinian textbooks in Gaza and the west bank, where textbooks on radical Islamism are being used that are more extreme than previous versions. My hon. Friends have cited extracts that are certainly damning in their divisive nature. However, reform is possible. For instance, Jordan comprehensively reviewed its curriculum in 2015 in response to concerns about radicalisation in the country, and terrorism is now depicted as killing innocent people and having devastating consequences. That is not the case in the textbooks that we are discussing, however. Although it is not perfect, Jordan’s curriculum can generally be seen as an indication that reform is possible. I wholeheartedly hope that the Palestinian Authority review the textbooks and reflect on their own curriculum to try to encourage future peace with the state of Israel.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that Jordan’s education reforms show that an alternative approach is achievable and desirable? Is the Minister aware of any ongoing discussions between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority about the content of their respective curriculums? We should not lose hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. There is already extensive security co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and there are some fantastic NGOs on the ground in Israel and the west bank laying the groundwork for peace. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) has already referred to the fantastic work that Fleur Hassan, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, is undertaking on the ground in the east of the city.
I will skip forward in the speech that I prepared and ask the Minister a few questions. I hope he will agree that a new approach will empower those who support peace and the two-state solution, rather than the radical voices that benefit from the status quo and continued resentment. That will allow us to support the moving forward of the peace deal. Ultimately, we are not, and nor should we be, in a position to dictate how the Palestinians can and cannot educate their children. Can the Government truly be committed to stamping out antisemitism in our own country when they fund it in a foreign nation? Is it right that we fund divisive, antisemitic, anti-Israeli propaganda?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I declare an interest as a parliamentary officer of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I have visited Israel with them. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate.
Education is a social and cultural right for any child. It plays an important role in reducing poverty and promoting peace and tolerance, regardless of race, religion or gender. School education is one of the most powerful tools available for countering extremist influences. Parents and teachers know and appreciate that young children are extremely impressionable and easily influenced by people in positions of authority, and by the teaching and the books given to them. That underlines the importance of the quality and accuracy of what is taught to children, not only here at home but abroad.
The UK plays an important role in providing financial support to people in need in all corners of the world, and we should be proud of our nation’s contribution to the Palestinian people through UNRWA. UK financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority this year has paid the salaries of 39,000 teachers, doctors, nurses and midwives in the west bank, who have helped to immunise up to 3,700 children against prevalent diseases. The Palestinian Authority have overseen education provision since 1994, following the Oslo accords. It is unfortunate that since they took it on, they have issued the textbooks—they are used in schools in the west bank, the Gaza strip and most of the schools in East Jerusalem—that are the subject of this debate today.
Over the past five years, the Department for International Development has awarded £330 million to UNWRA. However, the agency insists that the schools must follow the curriculum set by the Palestinian Authority, which, as we have heard, glorifies martyrdom and rejects peaceful coexistence with Israel. Although the agency’s work includes healthcare, relief and social services, most of the funding that it receives—58%—goes towards education. It is a matter of concern that the textbooks that are used are educating young minds to accept prejudice and hatred, so that six-year-old Palestinian children are reading poems promoting violence, and science lessons depict a young boy with a slingshot targeting Israeli soldiers.
I know that the EU supported an independent review conducted by the Georg Eckert Institute, which is due to report its findings. Should it be the case that the curriculum and its textbooks are indeed warping young minds, rather than educating them, would the Minister agree that the UK should reconsider its funding and insist on a guarantee that schools funded through DFID will teach a non-discriminatory syllabus?
Order. Subject to there being no interventions, I think we will make it with three minutes each for the remaining speakers.
I join my hon. Friends in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing today’s debate; it is right for the House to consider this important motion. By considering the worrying levels of radicalisation in Palestinian schools today, we are supporting the peace brokers of tomorrow. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have travelled to Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding trip.
One thing that the House can do is to agree to denounce any form of hate speech or radicalisation in any curriculum. We must seek to stop radicalisation in schools to curtail extremism where we can. We must recognise that there is a dangerous level of problematic content in the Palestinian curriculum, and that only through diplomatic pressure can we prevent long-term escalation and conflict.
The radicalisation of the Palestinian curriculum is shocking, and I am appalled by the content that is being taught to children from a young age. At its heart, the curriculum repeats a call to arms and a stark antisemitism that risks stability in the region. Calling for teenagers to give their lives for jihad falls far short of UN standards, or indeed any acceptable standards. We have heard the horrific details of how violence is perpetuated through the curriculum.
The radicalisation of the curriculum is, perhaps, most worrying when it rejects the viability of peace in the region. The new curriculum systematically alters history to remove the validity of lasting peace. It no longer mentions previous treaties from the 20th century. The curriculum must acknowledge those treaties to encourage a viable two-state solution in the future. Further important international agreements on the creation of the state of Israel, and Jewish cultural and historical roots in the region, have been omitted.
It is vital for the long-term stability of the region that the school curriculum should teach that peace is a real possibility. That can be achieved only through the recognition of multiple cultural and religious connections to the land. By removing the validity of a two-state system, the Palestinian Authority seek to create a generation of nationalists. Rather than promoting peace and prosperity, the curriculum pushes for martyrdom and jihad. The omission of historical accords does nothing to help to promote lasting peace.
It is not right that British international aid—British taxpayers’ money—is going towards supporting a curriculum that actively perpetuates hate. Britain has always supported developing countries through education, and I want that to continue long into the future. It is, however, vital that the Government should limit spending where there is clear evidence—
Order. Forgive me; I call John Howell.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and allowing us the opportunity to highlight this important issue. I, too, want to refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, with reference to trips to Israel.
My hon. Friend mentioned the recent wave of violence against Israelis: 87 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming terror attacks in the past five years and more than 1,500 people have been wounded, many of whom face life-changing injuries. Since the Oslo accords of 1993, instead of educating its people towards peaceful coexistence with Israel, the Palestinian leadership has radicalised a new generation of Palestinians, and many are intent on harming Israelis and Jews.
Hon. Members will now be aware of the background of continuous incitement in Palestinian society—from an educational system that denies Israel’s right to exist, to the provision of financial incentives to terrorists and their families. Is the Minister aware, and does he share my concerns, that despite assurances from the current and previous Palestinian Education Ministers that incitement will be removed from textbooks, no change has taken place since October 2017? Since there has been no change in three years, how does the Minister intend to ensure that the Palestinian Authority implements the recommendations of the long-awaited EU review? I echo colleagues’ calls for the EU report to be made publicly available. Does the Minister agree that that is crucial for transparency?
The Palestinian leadership delivers messages in Arabic to the Palestinian people entirely contradicting the promises they make in English to UK and foreign officials. Is the Minister concerned that the Palestinian leadership says one thing to UK officials and another to the Palestinian people? Does he agree that UK taxpayers’ hard-earned money should not be enabling support to be given to terrorism, however indirectly?
Incitement to violence of such a magnitude is simply difficult to accept. We have a duty not only to UK taxpayers, to spend their money wisely, but also to future generations of Palestinians, who deserve a future filled with opportunities, not hate. I, too, started out as an optimist on this journey, and I am trying hard to put together at the Council of Europe an exhibition of projects that Israelis and Palestinians have worked on together, including Save a Child’s Heart and the work in East Jerusalem that others have referred to. I hope that it comes about, to show that those Palestinians who are derided for—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
We did have one more speaker, but he is obviously detained in his office or somewhere else, so I will go straight to the Front Bencher from the Scottish National party, who has 10 minutes.
Thank you, Sir Charles; colleagues will be glad to know that I will come nowhere near 10 minutes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in my first Westminster Hall debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on having brought this important subject before the House. As Members may be aware, before my election to this place I was for 15 years a Member of the European Parliament, where I served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and took a particular interest in the middle east, which is where I grew up. I have a personal connection to the region, and in the middle east, everything is connected to everything else. If anybody who is engaging with the middle east thinks that there are simple answers to black-and-white problems, they really need to pay attention to the wider context.
It goes without saying, but is worth saying none the less, that my party deplores antisemitism in the same way as we deplore Islamophobia and any bigotry, however it is directed. We take a position of principled neutrality on the middle east conflict, but we are in favour of a two-state solution. It is important to have a balanced debate and discussion on these matters. If Members will forgive me, I am not sure that we have entirely achieved balance in our discussion thus far.
There is a problem with Palestinian textbooks. This is a well trodden path that the European Parliament has examined a number of times, and as we have already heard, the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets has called for the suspension of funding to the Palestinian Authority pending resolution of these problems. A live investigation of these matters is under way, and the Georg Eckert Institute is conducting an impartial assessment for the European Union. It is my understanding that that report will be made public, as such reports tend to be, but I join colleagues in calling for it to be made public, because I think the best solution to this issue is ventilation and transparency about what the issues are.
None the less, we should be proud of the fact that we fund teachers, fund UNRWA, and fund the education of some of the most desperate youth in the world. The radicalisation of Palestinian children is of course a problem and something we should be concerned about, but if anybody thinks textbooks are the primary reason why Palestinian children are being radicalised, they are not paying attention to the wider context. We can agree, however, that there is an issue that needs to be looked at and ventilated, as the European Union is doing. I am proud that the United Kingdom Government are funding UNRWA’s humanitarian and educational efforts, which are important in a pretty hopeless part of the world. If we want to see where radicalisation is coming from, it is to be found in the hopeless situation that Palestinian youth and the Palestinian people find themselves in.
The Balfour declaration has long roots; we in this House and in these islands are bound to the people of the region. Whatever the constitutional future of the region, we want to see an educated populace, we want to see peace, and we want to see an end to that radicalisation. I agree that textbook content needs to be addressed, and it is being addressed by the European Union in an impartial report. I suggest that we pay close attention to that and reconvene when we have its findings. That will be a better discussion than the ideological discussion that we have heard today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing his first debate. He started with a tough subject, for which I admire him. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I declare an interest as I visited the region with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians.
We all care deeply about the education of children across the world. Nobody comes to this place thinking that that is not exceptionally important. It is even more important in the vulnerable refugee communities that are rightly at the forefront of the Department for International Development’s work. I want to be clear that there is no place for promoting hate or intolerance in school curricula or textbooks anywhere in the world. We have a double responsibility where UK aid may be present, either tangentially or in another form.
Last month, I visited the consul general. Hanging outside his residence is a sign that reads,
“Our mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To advance the United Kingdom’s security and prosperity through a just peace between a stable, democratic Palestinian State and Israel, based on 1967 borders, ending the Occupation by agreement. To strengthen the ties of friendship between the Palestinian and British peoples.”
That is a worthy goal and a worthy ideal that I suspect all 650 MPs would just about agree with. That is the context for the debate. With a sense of sadness, I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) that perhaps we are having this debate a few months too early. The exceptionally important review of the Georg Eckert Institute will set a context beyond the anger that has properly flown around, and settle things in independent facts. As a result, we will have a better discussion.
I do not mean to be critical, but I was concerned by references to the IMPACT-se report. When Alistair Burt, who is no longer of this parish but who was admired on both sides of the House, was the responsible Minister, he said in a written answer that he was “concerned at…the allegations” in the report and was
“working to commission a robust study”
of it, but that his assessment was that it was
“not objective in its findings and lacked methodological rigour”.
As long as our debates are based on such facts, we will struggle to move forwards. We have a responsibility to try to assemble the best facts.
The Department was right, therefore, when it said last March that it wanted to take an active interest in the issue in conjunction with international partners. If we are to have something that everybody has confidence in, it is best to act collectively, and the EU is an obvious actor in that place. The Opposition have supported the review throughout, and we will to continue to support it, because it has significant implications. What stems from the review will have an impact on the lives of refugee children—what they learn, where they learn and whether they receive an education at all. Those are exceptionally important matters that make a significant difference to people’s lives. We need to work collectively. It was bad when the United States unilaterally pulled out of UNRWA, because that does not promote anything. Even if a country has problems with institutions, to act in that way does not promote peaceful goals and certainly not a two-state solution.
We were expecting the review to be completed in September, so we are six months on. Since it was launched, there has been a lot of change in the Department’s leadership. There have been four Secretaries of State in that time; the Minister is the third Minister who I have shadowed. There is a fear that things will be missed. We hope that there will now be a period of stability and genuine commitment to the Department by the Government.
I know and respect the Minister. He is a good Minister who will do a good job. Like me, he is a plain speaker, so I have some plain questions that I hope will some get plain answers. When will the report be published? What are the Government doing to roll the pitch so that we are ready to act on those recommendations? What conversations are taking place with the Palestinian Authority and what is the nature of those conversations? The hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the importance of the Palestinian Authority, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) asked the Minister what the Palestinian Authority are willing to do. From talking to colleagues in the sector, my understanding is that the PA have said that they are willing to accept criticism and to engage. That has to be the right thing to do.
I do not know the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) well, but he made the outstanding contribution of the debate and spoke brilliantly when he said that we have to see the issue through a lens of reform being possible. That was not the tone of the whole debate. We need to work on it as a moving thing and a live thing. To do that, we need the debate.
UNRWA is another live matter. We were flyered outside the Chamber by someone wanting to put a report about UNRWA into our hands. Many people use this subject—I am not referring to hon. Members who have engaged with it seriously and soberly—as a proxy measure to damn UNRWA’s work and undermine it. We do that at our peril. UNRWA supports 5.5 million refugees with a range of vital services including education, healthcare, social services, infrastructure services and microfinance, about which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) spoke strongly. When we undermine UNRWA, we pick at and risk those things.
When I visited the occupied territories last month and I was at the Aida refugee camp, I met UNRWA staff and my first question was about textbooks. Their analysis was that, in their opinion, less than about 3% contravene UN principles, largely on age appropriateness, gender representation and inclusiveness, rather than on issues with Israel; they said that, in response, they had supplemented the curriculum with human rights content. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on whether that chimes with the best information he has. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) suggested that the curriculum was saturated. It is absolutely critical that we know the facts, so we know where to go next.
I am always respectful to other hon. Members, but if an evidential base proves that the money has been used for ulterior motives, which is wrong, surely that cannot be ignored.
No, absolutely. This is a case where 97% or 99% compliance will not give hon. Members or people worldwide much confidence. Of course, 1% is too much, but that is the basis to start from. We need to start from the evidence base, which is why we need the report.
I want to be clear that I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Earlier, he criticised the IMPACT-se study and said that he would like a more objective study, which is why we should wait. I am happy with that, but surely the impressionistic view that has been given to him, that 3% is not compliant and that there is some supplementary material, is also a subjective assessment. Should we not be wary of putting too much emphasis on that? Would we not be better to settle for his original proposition that, if there is doubt, let us have the clear unbiased objective report and a guarantee that action will be taken on its findings?
I am grateful for the intervention. On the IMPACT-se point, those were not my words, but the words of the then Minister. On UNRWA, I take the point that we need to see it in the round, but I do not see UNRWA as a particularly politicised operator, and it was on its numbers that I was relying.
From my time with UNRWA, it was clear that if its support stopped quickly, which it could if other Governments act as the United States did, there would not be significant support for people who desperately need it. The Government ought to be commended on their actions when that happened. I hope we can sustain that.
Surely that is exactly the point. UNRWA should act quickly to address all the concerns and issues that have been raised. All hon. Members want aid to reach people who are desperately in need, but at the same time, they do not want aid to be used counterproductively or in a way that promotes terrorist ideologies.
Absolutely. I am sure the staff of UNRWA do not want to be in classrooms teaching such things either. We have common cause here—we need to look at the evidence, because what we need to do will flow from that.
It is important that we look at the wider context. We are answering a fundamental question: why are young Palestinians being radicalised? We have picked one element of the issue—a very important element of it—but I also saw military courts where children were offered arbitrary sentences that were shorter than the period of time they would have been detained to have a full trial. We heard first-hand stories of inconsistent access to life-saving medical treatments. We visited suburbs that had been developed around and heard from children about their lack of hope for their community. Everyone will have seen the physical checkpoints and walls that those children have no prospect of ever passing through. Their lives are lived under the constant threat of demolition. We heard from Israel defence force soldiers, who said it was a part of their operating procedure to inconvenience and to disturb Palestinians, especially young men.
That is the broader context. We serve nobody if we choose only a little bit of context to try to answer the whole question. I know today we have focused on a very important issue—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is right to raise it—and we should find solutions, because it gets to the very core of why we use aid spending in this country. However, we will serve no one in the pursuit of a two-state solution if we look like we are picking sides.
As I stood up to speak, I thought about my friends who often have contrasting views on these issues, and I thought, “I hope that when I sit down, I will at least have disappointed them equally.” That is the territory that we are in here and that is the spirit in which we need to continue these conversations. Hopefully, we can revisit it after we have seen the report.
Before I call the Minister, I would just point out to him that if he stops speaking at 4.25 pm, that will give the mover of the motion two minutes to wind up. I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate and speaking so passionately. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is quite clear that this issue generates significant interest and passion in all corners of the House.
I wish to make a couple of broad points as a backdrop to my further comments. I will seek to address as many of the questions that have been brought up as possible. The Government are clear that quality education is vital to individuals, their families, their communities and wider society. Education has the power not only to transform lives, but to bring hope and to build the foundations for a sustainable, long-term peace, and that is particularly true in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Government are committed to a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
We believe that girls’ education is the key that unlocks so many of the challenges around the world; it can break the cycle of poverty, improve health and bring lifelong opportunities to entire countries. That is why we are prioritising the delivery of 12 years of quality education. It is a global priority, which is vital for all girls around the world, including those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—in Gaza and the west bank. The education of girls is going to be part of the road to a sustainable two-state solution. It is also worth bearing in mind that UNRWA funding, to which the UK contributes, means that half of the people educated in Gaza and the west bank are girls. Without the support of UNRWA, that might not necessarily be the case.
An enduring principle that I think we can all agree on is that antisemitism is unacceptable in all its forms; it is offensive, hateful and has no place anywhere in society, least of all in classrooms. We are therefore deeply concerned by reports of radicalisation in the Palestinian education system, and specifically concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s textbooks and the incitement of hatred and violence towards Israelis. It is clear from this debate that those concerns are shared by Members from all parties in the House.
I will offer the Government’s perspective on this issue and set out the steps that we are taking to address it, and in doing so I hope to cover the questions asked by right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to remember that the UK does not fund textbooks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The allegations relating to incitement in the Palestinian education system came to international attention following the publication in 2018 of the report by an Israeli non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education—IMPACT-se. They are serious allegations and we take them seriously but, as has already been discussed, they are contested by the Palestinian Authority.
We need to encourage change and support improvement in the Palestinian Authority, and an independent review will help to underpin that, which is why the UK has repeatedly raised concerns about the textbooks with the Palestinian Authority. Most recently, my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for International Development reiterated our concerns in a call to the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister just last month—it was one of the first calls she made after being appointed by the Prime Minister.
I am pleased to confirm that the Palestinian Education Minister is leading a review into the content of school textbooks, which will be completed in time for the start of the next academic year in September. He has committed that his team are taking into consideration the feedback from a range of sources, both domestic and international, and we seek to support that work.
In addition to our engagement with the Palestinian Authority, the UK has led international efforts to get to the bottom of the situation with regard to the content in the Palestinian Authority textbooks. We funded the development work for the methodology of an independent review, which is sponsored by the European Union. That review by the specialist and respected Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research is under way. As has been discussed, we expect the interim report in the spring, with the full report later on.
It is good news that the Palestinian Minister is undertaking a review. Have we also got an assurance that any textbooks that are found to be wrong, in every sense of the word, will be withdrawn and not used in the next academic year? That is the point.
The short answer is that we do not have an absolute guarantee, but as in so much of the work that we do with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, human interaction, persuasion and good old-fashioned diplomacy can bring about change, and that is what we seek to do in our relationship, hence my right hon. friend the Secretary of State engaging so quickly with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister.
As I have said, we expect the interim report in the spring and the full report later this year. It is ultimately for the European Union to decide whether it puts the report in the public domain; it is, after all, its report. However, it has been said on both sides of the House that transparency is our friend in this instance, and we will continue to encourage the EU to put that report in the public domain. I think it is worth waiting for that report to underpin the basis for our response to these concerns and our interaction with the Palestinian Authority. We have regular interaction with our European partners on the review and we encourage transparency.
The Government are firm believers in the positive power of education. We are proud of the support that we are providing for education around the world, including in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is a vital part of our wider effort to improve lives. In 2018-19, UK aid enabled 26,000 young Palestinians to be educated, and half of them were girls. We do not want to lose that, which is why I treat with caution calls to withdraw funding from UNRWA, because some young people—particularly girls—might lose the opportunity to have an education at all if that were the case. We are very uncomfortable with that option and that risk.
Our money to support education on the west bank goes into a specially dedicated bank account and is paid only to the individuals who are vetted through the Palestinian-European socio-economic management assistance mechanism. Each payment is individually audited to ensure that the money is received by the intended recipient. It is a rigorous process, which means that the UK can be confident that none of our aid is diverted. No UK aid is used for payments to prisoners or their families. Helping to meet essential education needs does not contradict our clear and long-standing message to the Palestinian Authority about prisoner payments.
I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate; I had a Select Committee meeting that clashed. I first raised this issue with a parliamentary question in the European Parliament 19 years ago. Why has the problem not been fixed?
I detect in the tone of my right hon. Friend’s question her frustration at the delay in resolving some of these problems. She is far from alone in feeling frustration that the peace process in the middle east has not progressed as quickly as we would like, but we are actively engaging on this issue. I reiterate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has engaged quickly and directly with the Palestinian Authority, and we genuinely hope that a balanced and independently produced report will be the key that unlocks what has been an intractable problem until this point. We will use that, and our position as a respected, honest broker between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, to try to push for improvement and reform.
I think the question that we all have in mind is this: is there not a suitable methodology within the system? It is good to provide money for Palestinian children’s education, and I understand the logic behind that. What I do not understand is how we check that. How does the Minister or UNWRA ensure that textbooks do not contain material that could lead to terrorism and change children’s opinions? That is the thrust of it.
I recognise the hon. Member’s point. We absolutely recognise that this is an imperfect situation, but we are working with the Palestinian Authority, as we will continue to do, to reinforce and support moves to improve textbooks. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) pointed out that Jordan has significantly improved the content of its textbooks. There is a pattern, and that is something on which we will engage with the Palestinian Authority.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate; I too was at a Select Committee hearing. Given that this has been an issue for 19 years, what faith does the Minister genuinely have that the Palestinian Authority will investigate the matter properly?
Minister, you have a minute and a half left.
Thank you, Sir Charles.
The simple truth is that we have to work with the Palestinian Authority. We have to encourage and support them to do the right thing, but ultimately a sustainable two-state solution will have to be negotiated between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority. Although there may be concerns about the ability or willingness of the Palestinian Authority to engage in this, they are the organisation through which we have to work in order to have a credible and sustainable two-state solution, so we will be patient. We will be persistent, we will be principled and we will be balanced, but we will keep pushing this agenda.
Mr Gullis, you have until no later than 4.27 pm to wrap up.
I am a committed believer in having a UK aid budget that will make a massive difference. However, I cannot escape the fear that, although we might be not paying for textbooks directly, we are somehow freeing up cash within the Palestinian Authority education system to fund the textbooks being distributed, to fund the teachers’ training and to have those teachers use the textbooks as part of their wider teacher training programme.
I applaud the Department for International Development. Back in July 2017 it allocated £3 million towards peaceful co-existence projects, which is exactly how I want to see the budget spent. Let us not forget that it is not just the United States of America that has pulled out of UNWRA; New Zealand, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium all ceased funding back in 2019, due to serious concerns about ethical misconduct allegations. This issue will not simply go away, and we need to look further into UNWRA and what it is doing in the region.
I first engaged with this issue when I visited the region last summer, and I was pleased that it received the national attention it deserves in a recent Daily Mail investigation. A few months ago I was teaching at my local school, where every day I saw at first hand the importance of providing children with an education free from prejudice and bias. This place offers an incredible platform to raise such issues, and I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.
Early Years Education: Equality of Attainment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of early years education on equality of attainment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles.
I represent one of the poorest communities and constituencies in the country. I take no pleasure in that fact. Sometimes, and especially on the left, it feels like we play poverty Top Trumps and fetishise life in poorer communities. I do not. I grew up in a low-income, lone-parent family and watched my mum work long hours during the day and study at night so that my sister and I could have a better life. Life in poverty is hard, cold and scary. The people in communities such as mine are brilliant, but the circumstances in which many are compelled to live are not.
The one thing that people know about living in poverty is that they are never going back to it, and that experience brought me to this place. As a young person, I wondered why my family seemed to work so hard but had so little help. As I got older and it became clear that my future would be different, I resolved to use my improved life chances and opportunities to stand up for families who are struggling like mine did.
Education is the great leveller. Available universally, it offers everyone the chance to acquire the skills, knowledge and qualifications to change their lives. When it works well, it is transformational. When it does not, it entrenches the inequalities that we seek to tackle. I still see that too often in my community, and the most patent inequality is between rich and poor—those who have, and those who have not. The gap between people from wealthy families and those from poor families has been too large for too long, with significant implications for the adult lives of those who miss out, because qualifications so often determine income, opportunities and social mobility.
We know that education has the greatest impact and is the greatest leveller when it takes place early in the life course, which is the subject of the debate. In early years education, for children until the age of five, it is about trying to address lifelong inequalities before they arise and breaking the cycle of poverty. After that, we are just firefighting; it is still important, but we are playing catch-up. It is important that we take opportunities such as this to critique the Government’s early years policies, because they are supposed to be making a difference right now.
With an ever-changing UK labour market, the consequences for young people not starting on the right path are as dramatic as they have ever been, if not more so. I will borrow slightly from the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) by talking a little about white working-class boys, as we did the week before last, when he and the Minister were both here. That cannot be spoken about too much and is not spoken about enough. In my community, the group that struggles the hardest is white working-class boys.
I have given the figures before in the main Chamber, but they bear repeating. In Nottingham, our primary education has come so far on such a rapid journey, and I am proud that we have broadly reached the national average for key stage 2 outcomes. That is not the best or only measure, but it is a significant one. But that success masks significant inequalities between boys and girls, because 70% of girls reach that expected standard for reading, writing and maths combined, while the same is true for only 59% of boys. In different primaries in my constituency, 76% of girls meet the expected standard but only 35% of boys, or 79% and 40%, or 92% and 50%. Of the 29 primary schools in my constituency for which I have data, boys have worse outcomes in 26 of them, and in 17 schools the attainment gap is over 10%. The differences are greatest in the poorest and least diverse communities.
That is a significant challenge that is replicated across the country. White British children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group. In 2015, only 595 white British boys who were eligible for free school meals achieved level 4 or better in reading, writing and maths—21 percentage points behind the national average. Furthermore, only one in 4 white British boys eligible for free school meals will achieve five GCSEs at A* to C, whereas the national average is almost 60%. This is a story in which groups of children—always the poorest, often the boys and particularly white British boys—start behind, and that gap grows.
There are many factors in creating that gap, including stereotyping and bias at home or even within education, stress at home, and parents’ negative views towards education, which can damage young people’s potential and aspirations. I have been a chair of school governors in my community for a decade, and I frequently see the parental attitude to education reflected in the child’s. The parents did not enjoy their time at school and they pass that on to their children in a sort of self-defeat, not daring not live a full life because of the disappointments of the past.
Our two brilliant universities, the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, provide great outreach programmes—I suspect they include Mansfield—for which they visit schools. I have observed those lessons, and the kids come out bursting with ideas. Although university is not the be-all and end-all, it is not something that happens to many people in my community. In many cases, kids who go home and say, “I’m going to go to university,” will hear the answer, “No, you’re not.” That is extraordinary and we have to overcome it, because those experiences can lead to poor mental health and emotional wellbeing in children and perpetuate a lack of engagement in education. That is cyclical.
Our schools do what they can to bridge the attainment gap. I chair the school governors at Rosslyn Park Primary School, which is the most challenged school in the city and the region by income deprivation affecting children index score. Before even getting a textbook out or writing on the whiteboard, teachers are learning about the social and emotional aspects of learning and pastoral care—never mind high-level safeguarding work with the local authority—and they do incredible things just to get the children ready to learn. That work has its roots in the ages between nought and five, because we find that when children come to school for the first time, too many are still in nappies or unable to form basic words, with 0% at the combined level of expected development, leaving an awful lot for a school to do. Schools are at the heart of the debate, but they cannot wave a magic wand to overcome those obstacles.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning our debate in this Chamber a few weeks ago about white working-class boys and attainment. An issue that seems to cut across later attainment and across different measures—the number of young men who end up in prison, for example—is their ability very early on to communicate effectively and understand what is happening around them, particularly in the classroom. Does he agree that early years communication and language support, particularly through provision in nursery and primary schools, is hugely important to helping kids to engage with school in the first instance and reach the right attainment levels later on?
I absolutely share that view. The hon. Gentleman will know from visiting schools and discussing behaviour with teachers and senior leaders, as all Members do, that they talk about the frustration and anger that build up in children— particularly white British boys—which leads to temporary and permanent exclusions. That all comes from the fundamental starting point of not really being able to engage fully and getting frustrated, as we all would.
I have time enough to explain the context in my community with a little potted history of Nottingham. I am sure that the context applies to Mansfield as it does to my part of the city of Nottingham. Ours is one of the poorest parts of the country, but it was not always that way. Up until four decades ago, we had lots of skilled work, with Boots, Rayleigh, Players, Plessis, the pits and much more, but over the course of a generation, virtually of all of that has gone. The massive impact on confidence and aspiration means that cyclical poverty has flowed from that, but, for the first time in a generation, we have a chance to change it. In my community, we have three exciting opportunities: High Speed 2 at Toton; improvements to access to East Midlands Airport, which is now the biggest pure freight airport in the country; and the repurposing of our power station sites as clean energy zones. Those projects will add tens of thousands of jobs—perhaps as many as 100,000—to our local economy, and represent a generational chance to break the cycle.
The uncomfortable truth though is that, were we to fast-forward to that bright future tomorrow, which I would very much like, we would have to bring in people from outside to fill those jobs, because our young people, in the light of their experiences, are not yet ready for them. When visiting schools and talking about HS2 and the timeline for that to come onstream, for example, we are not talking about theoretical people who will work in those jobs, but about the children that we see in the room. They will be the IT specialists, project managers, engineers, logistics experts, nurses, police officers and much more. They are the very children who we need to gear up, educate and skill up for that very bright future.
In Nottingham, we are proud of our record as an early intervention city. That is what we talk about when we discuss early years education. I would be smote down if I did not refer to my predecessor, Graham Allen, who is a national leader in that work. Programmes have been established in my constituency to help to develop new practices and change public services. When I was part of the local authority five years ago, I was very proud that we were one of the sites that won the national lottery community fund’s A Better Start programme for our project, Small Steps Big Changes. I am really proud of the difference that the project makes to the lives of our children and young people. Our Think Dads! training brings dads into the picture in a way that they had not been in the past, with father-inclusive practices when they go into the home. I encourage colleagues to look at the family mentoring scheme in the Small Steps Big Changes project, which skills up people in the community whom neighbours look to for leadership and help tackling the challenges faced by families. Those people get skills and employment as a result, and are often better messengers that we are for some of the messages that need to go through to provide better starts and education.
We are halfway through A Better Start, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s views on how it has done and where it is going. Has he had a chance to visit one of the sites and, if not, would he visit ours in Nottingham? There would be lots there that he would really enjoy. A Better Start is a 10-year lottery-funded programme—that is the best funding for any project in my experience—but it will stop. We will look at mainstreaming the bits that were particularly effective in Nottingham, but in the context of budget reductions. What will the Government’s answer be after that?
The Labour party is committed to early years action. We are so proud of Sure Start, which is one of our great legacies. That is the principle that we need to talk about and the way that we should approach early years education, by giving each child the best possible start in life, through childcare and early education, as well as health and family support. Sure Start provided for locally owned and driven programmes, which were understood and were sensitive to the needs of the parents and children, provided greater support for those who needed it. A child’s ability to succeed is shaped by their home environment. Sure Start was perfectly placed to improve and shape those environments. The cuts to Sure Start are not theoretical—the numbers are as they are—and we risk a lost generation. Whatever one’s views on public finances and the big or small state, everybody knows investing early produces greater returns. I worry that we have a generation that has not had that investment. Our priority should be for those children to catch up, while we invest in their little brothers and sisters.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great case for providing opportunity for all. The early years national funding formula pays a setting only 100 miles from Cornwall £1.39 an hour more for each child than we receive in Cornwall. Does he agree that, unless we invest in young lives to have the best setting so that pre-schools or nurseries can survive, potentially we are failing this generation?
I absolutely share that view. This is a stitch in time saving nine: those savings are false economies. We could save on our budget balance in the short term but, fundamentally, the cost will be much greater later in the system, whether in criminal justice or elsewhere, such as missed employment opportunities. We can do much better, and plan much better. I am interested to hear from the Minister what the vision for early years is. The challenges are well known, and that is why we have a broad political consensus. What will we do differently to break the cycle in places such as Bulwell, Bilborough, Aspley, Mansfield and Warsop? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and I am grateful for the time.
It is a pleasure to debate under your chairmanship again, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing this debate and on a powerful opening speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for participating and making important contributions.
Continuously improving this country’s education system starts with the early years. High-quality early education can have a huge impact on children’s development, not just when they are in the education system but throughout their life. Our ambition is to provide equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of background or where they live, and to improve access to high-quality early education across the country.
This Government are therefore prioritising investment in free early education support to parents and carers. Disadvantaged two-year olds can access at least 15 hours of early education each week, and since we introduced the programme in September 2013, more than 850,000 children have benefited from it. In addition, in 2017, we introduced the 30 hours’ entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds, which benefited about 600,000 children in the first two years. The 30 hours’ entitlement makes childcare more accessible for parents and carers, saving up to £5,000 per child per year and giving them the ability to balance work and family life.
We are continuing that investment. We plan to spend more than £3.6 billion on early education entitlements in the next financial year. In April, all local authorities will see an increase to the hourly funding rates for two-year-olds and an increase in the vast majority of areas for three and four-year-olds.
The figures for children supported by free childcare are hugely welcome, and those for the increase in funding doubly so. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the scenario that I raised with him in a previous debate, in which, with the two-year-old offer in particular, parents earning more than £100,000 or a couple earning up to £200,000 a year may access the 30 hours’ free childcare, whereas a single mum on the minimum wage might not be able to. I understand the balance that has to be struck. We support families who are working—that is important—but should we not support more families, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, if we want to address that imbalance in earnings?
Those are issues always debated in debates such as this, but what is important is that we introduced the concept of free early years education for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We always want to do more, of course.
In addition, we offer financial support for childcare costs through universal credit and tax-free childcare. The issue, however, is not only about parents and carers of young children being able to work, safe in the knowledge that their children are in good hands. Evidence from longitudinal studies, including the effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project, EPPSE, and the study of early education and development, SEED, suggests that the duration in months and years is more important for child outcomes than the average hours per week. Education and childcare from an early age can make a huge difference.
For example, both EPPSE and SEED found that an earlier start in childcare from the age of two has benefits for the 40% most disadvantaged children. The recent SEED report on age five found that, for the 40% most disadvantaged children, starting in childcare from age two, combined with using the 15 to 20 hours per week, had benefits for those children’s verbal development in year 1 and on their overall achievement in the early years foundation stage profile in reception. The international evidence base is also consistent, finding that the quality of childcare affects child outcomes: higher quality provision improves children’s outcomes in the short and the long term.
The early years workforce plays a key role in the delivery of high-quality early education and childcare. It is testament to them that 96% of childcare settings are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which is an increase from the 74% so rated in 2012. The latest early years foundation stage profile results show that the proportion of all children achieving a good level of development is improving year on year, with 71.8% of children having achieved it in 2019, compared with 51.7% in 2013.
That progress is welcome, but too many children still fall behind. I take on board all the points made by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. The gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers has narrowed overall since 2013, but still too many finish their reception year without the early communication and literacy skills that they need to do well. Early years education, including in the reception year, presents a key opportunity to close the gaps referred to by the hon. Gentleman in his speech.
We have piloted and consulted on an important package of reforms to the early years foundation stage statutory framework which sets the standards for education, development and care for children from birth to five. Revisions to the early learning goals and education programmes will see greater focus on language and vocabulary development, which is key to tackling the word gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Our proposed reforms are intended to reduce workload and to free up teachers to spend more time teaching, interacting with and supporting children—disadvantaged children in particular—to ensure that they are developing the rich vocabulary, skills and behaviours that they need to succeed when they start school. Our consultation on those reforms closed on 31 January, and we plan to publish a response in the spring.Alongside that, we are revising the early years curriculum guidance from birth to reception, to ensure that teachers and practitioners have the right information to support children and to give them rich activities and experiences on a daily basis. We have also invited schools to opt in voluntarily to implement the reforms from this September, a year ahead of the full roll-out planned for September 2021.
Alongside changes to the curriculum, we are committed to supporting the early years workforce to develop the appropriate skills and experience to improve outcomes. That includes an investment of £26 million to set up a network of English hubs, to strengthen the teaching of phonics and early language in schools around the country. We continue to support graduates joining the early years sector through the early years initial teacher training, including with fees, bursaries and employer incentives.
Since the publication of the early years workforce strategy in 2017, the Department has worked closely with the early years sector to deliver our commitments to support employers to attract, retain and develop early years practitioners, including more robust levels 2 and 3 qualifications, and a new early years T-level qualification that will be available this year. There is growing evidence that investing in professional development is key to improving those skills, which is why we are investing £20 million through our early years professional development programme to provide early language, literacy and maths training for the pre-reception workforce in disadvantaged areas.
As I said earlier, what happens in a child’s home is hugely important. What happens before they start school can have a huge influence on later outcomes, and the quality of the home learning environment is a key predictor of a child’s early language ability and future success—that was referred to by all hon. Members participating in this debate. We cannot consider improving early education in isolation. Unfortunately, children from some low-income homes are more likely to arrive at school with below-average language skills, leaving them at an educational disadvantage from the start.
We have therefore launched Hungry Little Minds, a three-year campaign to encourage parents to engage in activities that support their child’s early development and set them up for school and beyond. The campaign, working with partners from across the public, voluntary and private sectors, promotes simple everyday things that every parent can do.
I am sure the Minister will be aware that Sure Start did exactly that. In Barnsley; we have lost 14 Sure Starts in the last decade—that is 73% of provision in my borough, which has had the worst cuts in the country. When will early years funding be back to its pre-2010 levels?
We have already announced a £66 million increase in funding for early years—I referred to that when I made the point that there will be increases in the hourly rates to local authorities up and down the country.
I want to conclude the debate by re-emphasising the importance we attach to the early years sector to improving outcomes, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why we introduced the entitlements to free childcare; it is also why we are reforming the early years foundation stage profile and the guidance on the curriculum. A Better Start, the programme raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, is hugely exciting—in central Government we look to it as an innovative approach, building on the evidence base, and we look forward hugely to the evidence that it produces, which we can learn from right across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
British Steel Industry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the British steel industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am pleased to have secured this debate, particularly ahead of the Budget tomorrow, and at what feels like a critical juncture for our industry, and for the entire manufacturing sector that our industry underpins. The Budget is the first major fiscal event since 2018 and the first test of the Government’s promises to the British people, particularly to all their new voters from industrial areas. Today we will make the case to the Government that now is the moment to offer that long-overdue commitment to the steel industry, in order for that 21st century foundation industry to continue delivering for Britain.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that what is required is long-term planning? Following the mothballing of Orb in December, we are in a situation where an electrical steel producer is not producing steel that would be ideal for the green industrial revolution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is completely absurd to have a Government who on the one hand are committed to decarbonising our economy, but who on the other hand are failing to support Orb, which could play a major role in electric vehicles, which play a major role in decarbonising our economy. It seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
The Government must recognise the strategic importance of steel to our country’s future. They must also recognise that steel must be front and centre of their so-called levelling-up agenda if they are at all serious about tackling regional inequalities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Liberty Steel recently announced the loss of 350 jobs in south Yorkshire, due to a “challenging” market circumstances. Does he agree that is concerning, because those are traditionally well-paid manufacturing jobs, in comparison with the low-wage sectors that tend to dominate the local economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have to mention today’s very bad news of 500 job losses announced by Tata Steel, which shows that we are back at square one. We do not seem to have learned anything from previous years. Industries need a Government who will proactively work in partnership to produce a policy environment and market environment conducive to investment and to those businesses thriving.
The excellent “Steel 2020” report contains a brilliant quote, on page 28:
“Government procurement and other incentives should be used to increase domestic steel content in manufacturing and construction…there is clearly a significant market opportunity.”
Is tomorrow’s Budget not a brilliant opportunity to support steel?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need a patriotic procurement policy. We need procurement that gives the right weighting to local value. Let us look at big opportunities such as HS2—2 million tonnes of steel. How much of that steel will be British? Let us ensure that every single Government Department and HS2 are signed up to the steel charter.
The UK economy cannot stand up without a backbone made of steel. It certainly will not be able to level up if is not able to stand up. Steel underpins our everyday lives, from the houses we live in to the offices we work in; the trains, buses and cars we travel in; and the major infrastructure projects, such as HS2 and the possible Heathrow expansion. It is crucial for our defence industry and to our national security. I hear people say that steel is a sunset industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not a sunset industry; it is an industry of the present and of the future. It underpins our entire manufacturing base, from automotive to construction, aerospace and so much more.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that we cannot just carry on managing decline and that we must invest for the long term? Once a plant goes, it is gone; very rarely do they come back into operation.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we saw the tragedy of Redcar: once the blast furnace is turned off, that is it. In my opinion, that was an act of industrial vandalism. We must ensure that we take into account the cost of doing nothing. The cost to the Government and the British taxpayer of closing these businesses down is astronomical, so let us have a proactive industrial policy based on investment, and let us use tomorrow’s Budget to deliver that.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. The uncertainty about steel production in Newport, with the closure of Orb and the ongoing nervousness at Llanwern and Liberty, has had a huge impact on jobs in my city and the surrounding areas. Does he agree that we need to secure a level playing field for UK steel producers by addressing the energy price disparity, preventing steel dumping and investing in research and development, so that the British steel sector can thrive globally?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about having a policy environment that is conducive to driving investment. Businesses are looking for a partnership with the Government. As she rightly says, the cost of energy in this country compared with what the French and the Germans pay means that our steelworkers are competing with one hand tied behind their back. They need a British Government who are on their side.
Let us not forget the tremendous value that the steel industry generates for the British economy. It produces 7.3 million tonnes of steel a year, which is around 65% of the UK’s annual requirement. It employs 32,600 people directly in the UK and supports a further 41,000 through the supply chain. It makes a £2.8 billion direct contribution to UK GDP and supports a further £3.6 billion through the supply chain, and it makes a £2.5 billion direct contribution to our balance of trade. Steel is also integral to the greening of our economy. It is used in wind turbines, tidal lagoons and electric vehicles, and of course it is far cleaner to make our own steel here than to import it from places such as China, where steel production is much dirtier and the carbon footprint of transportation is huge.
Although we can be immensely proud of the contribution that our industry and its workers make, we must reflect on the sector’s recent struggles. UK manufacturing has been in decline, dropping from 30% of GDP in the 1970s to just 9% today, and the UK’s shift towards a city-centric, service-based economy means it is now the most geographically unequal country in northern Europe. We have the richest area in the whole of northern Europe—London—but also the five least prosperous, with west Wales and the valleys the poorest of all.
Let us not forget that steel jobs are good jobs, paying an average salary of £36,000, which is 36% higher than the regional average in Wales. Port Talbot provides 4,000 such jobs. The wider supply chain benefits are even greater, and the sense of local pride that our community feels in providing the very backbone of the UK economy is immeasurable. However, since 2010 our steel industry has been abandoned by the UK Government, leaving us trying to compete with one hand tied behind our back. After 10 years of Tory austerity, our community has also been left to fend for itself as a result of the money that has been taken out of our local economy.
The lowest ebb for our local steelworks in Port Talbot came in 2016, which marked the height of the steel crisis. A number of market forces combined to set the hares running: the UK had some of the highest electricity prices in Europe, which have gone on to cost the sector £200 million since 2016; business rates were through the roof, five to 10 times higher than in France, Germany and the Netherlands; and there was increased Chinese dumping in European markets to undercut European steelworkers. At one point, the UK Government blocked the EU from taking stricter action against the Chinese.
With such little support from the Government, all that came to a head. Leading the march for steelworkers as they always do, Community and other steel unions flew a delegation to Mumbai, which I was fortunate enough to be part of. In the midst of a crisis that nearly led to the loss of 4,000 jobs in Port Talbot, our community fought tooth and nail to make Tata Steel recognise that these were real people with real families to look after, not just numbers on a spreadsheet.
There is an important point here: these are not workers who have refused to change; in fact, they are quite the reverse. They have been at the cutting edge. They want to do everything to make the plants as efficient as possible, but with all these other factors counting against them, there has to be a point where something changes.
I fully agree. British steelmakers make the best steel that money can buy; of that, there is no doubt whatsoever. Look at the flexibility they showed over the divestment of the pension scheme, when many steelworkers thought not about themselves but about their families—their sons and daughters, and their grandsons and granddaughters. That shows the passion and commitment of our steelworkers and their willingness to be flexible. I pay tribute to the steel unions, and to Roy Rickhuss and Community for their leadership in making that happen.
Our endeavour at the time paid off. Tata Steel decided against closing or selling the business, and in exchange the workforce showed incredible sacrifice by voting for the divestment of the pension scheme. In return, Tata Steel put forward a substantial investment plan and promised that there would not be a single compulsory redundancy in the coming years.
Fast-forward four years and we are stuck at square one. While electricity prices and business rates continue to be a thorn in the side of our steel sector, Brexit and Donald Trump’s section 232 steel tariffs are combining to create a hostile policy and market environment once again. Some 70% of UK steel exports go to the EU, and a basic trade agreement with the EU could cost the industry £70 million a year through additional border checks. Although Trump’s tariffs were aimed at punishing China for illegal dumping, they ended up severely damaging the UK’s US exports, which have dropped by 30%. Exports of long products such as rods, bars, rails and construction materials were hit particularly hard, falling by as much as 60%. I am sure the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) will wish to say something about that.
These are tough times. It is important for steelworkers in my constituency and across the country that Tata Steel keeps its part of the bargain by continuing to invest in the long-term future of UK steel making. Our steelworkers, who make the best steel that money can buy, are crying out for UK Government support. It is time the Government put their money where their mouth is and backed this essential British industry. We need a Budget for steel—a Budget that really does level up.
First, the Government must take specific action to reduce UK industrial energy prices in order to move the steel sector’s costs in line with its European competitors. The Government’s energy intensive compensation scheme barely touches the surface; it deals with the symptoms but not the cause of the problem. UK steelmakers still pay 80% more for energy than their French counterparts, and 62% more than German companies.
Will the Minister commit to studying and delivering on the nine recommendations in UK Steel’s “The Energy Price Gap” report? They include providing 100% compensation for the indirect costs of the carbon price support mechanism, enabling energy-intensive industries to buy energy collectively, and providing an exemption from capacity market costs. It is worth noting that any savings on electricity prices would be reinvested in the recently announced clean steel fund and would deliver £750 million of investment in the sector over the next decade.
Secondly, the Government must back business rates reform to drive capital investment in industry. Will the Minister commit to removing plant and machinery from rates calculations? Thirdly, the Government must maximise opportunities for UK steel in major infrastructure projects by introducing measures to increase the amount of UK steel purchased by those projects. Will the Minister back calls for HS2 to sign UK Steel’s steel charter, and will he recognise the potential for the Government’s steel pipeline to support 6,000 new steelworker jobs and contribute £3.3 billion to the economy if every Government project used British steel?
Fourthly, will the Minister commit to using the estimated £200 million in returned moneys from the EU research fund for coal and steel post Brexit to boost UK steel sector innovation? Fifthly, will the Minister commit to removing Donald Trump’s section 232 tariffs from day one of the UK-US trade negotiations? Finally, will the Minister commit to delivering on a sector deal for steel? Aerospace, automotive and construction all have sector deals, yet the industry that underpins our entire manufacturing base—the steel industry—does not. That really is a travesty.
Steel is very much a 21st century industry that forms the backbone of the British economy. That fact must be reflected in tomorrow’s Budget. The Community union is set to launch a new campaign called “Britain, we need our steel”, because Community knows that the UK relies on UK steel every bit as much as its members and the steelworkers in my constituency do.
My constituents and their families, and steelworkers and their families across the length and breadth of our country, are not asking for charity; they are asking for a fair crack of the whip. They are men and women of steel who want the opportunity to compete without one hand tied behind their back and a chance to continue to serve their country by producing more of the best steel around for generations to come. I truly hope that the UK Government share that vision and will stand up for steel in the Budget tomorrow.
Thank you for giving me the chance to speak in this important debate, Sir Charles. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing the debate just before the Budget, which is the right time to discuss this important issue. He is right to highlight that the steel industry plays a crucial role in our economy; that cannot be argued against. It is also important to note steel’s regional impact. Steel is particularly important in south Wales. The Tata steelworks provide a massive economic boost beyond the Aberavon constituency in which it resides. People live and work in Tata from right across south Wales, including my constituency of Bridgend.
Wales is the UK region that employs the second largest number of people in the steel industry, and it has been reported that Tata pumps about £200 million a year into the Welsh economy in wages alone. That does not take account of the wider effects on local businesses and the local supply chain, many of which link their success to the presence of Tata in south Wales.
A recent study by Cardiff University found that the total economic impact of Tata in Wales was approximately £3.2 billion. We must remember why that is important. Many communities in Bridgend and the neighbouring constituencies are among the poorest in the country. Any industry with such a dramatic economic footprint deserves our full attention and support. Our prosperity relies on thriving businesses big and small, so we must do all we can to keep them there.
The steel industry in Wales and right across the UK has gone through some real difficulties in the past few years. The hon. Member for Aberavon mentioned the decline and the difficult years, including the 32% fall we saw in 2016—the largest fall since 2008. While the economy as a whole may have recovered since the 2008 crash, steel has not kept pace. UK steel certainly requires more support.
One of the biggest challenges currently facing the UK steel industry is over-supply in the market, driven mostly by China. The figures speak for themselves: China produces about 928 million tonnes of steel, compared to just 7 million tonnes in the UK. The most notable effect of that is to drive down the price and make it more difficult for British companies to be competitive in the marketplace. I am therefore pleased that the UK Government supported anti-dumping measures to address cheap Chinese steel imports, ensuring that British steel, which, as we all know, is the highest quality steel in the marketplace, can remain competitive.
Another vote of confidence in the UK steel industry is the recent sale of British Steel to Jingye, which will protect 3,200 jobs in the Scunthorpe and Teesside areas. I put on record my congratulations to the UK Government for the work they undertook to finalise that sale, which is a vote of confidence in the UK steel industry. Britain and the world will always need high-quality steel and there are tremendous opportunities over the coming years. The opportunities for growth are substantial, with the potential for £3.8 billion of domestic sales for UK producers.
The UK Government have also taken wide-ranging action to support the industry, including: more than £300 million of relief for electricity costs since 2013; public procurement guidelines, with annual reports on the proportion of public sector steel bought from British firms; and details of a steel pipeline on national infrastructure projects worth around £500 million over the next decade.
Although I hope that the future is bright for the UK steel industry, particularly in Wales, we always can and should do more. I hope that the Government, as well as Members across the House, will work to ensure that British steel companies are at the front of the line for national infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2, and that British steel is at the heart of the Government’s levelling up agenda as well as our international trade deals so that the whole world can access the high-quality steel that only the UK can produce.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on setting out the challenges facing the UK steel industry so effectively and forensically. Like him, I am a long-term member of the all-party group on steel and metal related industries, which I have the pleasure of co-chairing with the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft). In our group, alongside the Community and Unite unions and UK Steel, which represents the industry, we have been clear for a long time about the strategy we want the Government to follow to save our steel industry. That has never been more important than it is now, when we see a number of global and UK-specific factors aligning to create a uniquely challenging set of circumstances for steelmakers in this country.
Just this week, Tata wrote to its staff to say that its financial position was serious. This will be another critical year. The Government must act now to help the environment at home for business and our trading relationships, whether they lie in the EU, the US or elsewhere. We have heard those asks repeated again today, on the eve of the Budget, which offers the Government a major opportunity to do the right thing and provide the sector with the strong foundations it needs to weather the current downturn and be in a position to ride the next upturn when it comes.
That is why, as other hon. Members have said, we need action on electricity prices. It is a fact often quoted, but still unresolved, that the UK’s energy intensive industry pays some of the highest industrial electricity prices in Europe. UK steel plants, as my hon. Friend said, paid 62% more than their German and 80% more than their French counterparts last year. We need a level playing field with our European competitors. As he also said—I do not apologise for giving the same messages, because our group has been relaying them to the Government for some time—plant and machinery need to be removed from business rate calculations to drive that capital investment.
As others have said, we must maximise the opportunities for UK steel in major infrastructure projects. According to the last tranche of data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 42% of the steel that was procured was sourced from outside the UK. That is still not good enough. Projects such as HS2 give us an opportunity to do better and finally get properly behind the steel charter. We need to use the money that is returned to us from the EU research fund for coal and steel to boost steel sector innovation.
Finally, we must prioritise our steel industry in upcoming trade negotiations. Some 40% of all UK steel is exported, and it is very vulnerable to any deterioration in our trading relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. As my hon. Friend said, we have seen the impact of the Trump tariffs on our exports. Many of us feel as though we have been firefighting for the last five years. The completion of the sales process for British Steel is good news for the company and some of its workforce, given the huge uncertainty and the setbacks that there have been along the way, but we need the Government to be proactive, not reactive. The Government need to decide whether they value making things in this country and whether we want to become an importer of steel, not a maker of steel.
My hon. Friend is giving a powerful speech. Does she agree that following Jingye’s takeover of the plant at Scunthorpe, there is a risk that the Government may say, “Box ticked—that’s sorted. The short-term issue is resolved, and we can walk away and think about something else”? Does she agree that it is vital that that does not happen, and that we still have to address the structural problems that we are discussing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot be reactive; we have to look holistically at achieving a long-term strategic vision. Help for British Steel is, of course, welcome, but we need help for the whole steel industry in the UK, including the Welsh steel industry.
Just before Christmas, Tata’s Orb steelworks in Newport—the only producer of electrical steels in the UK—was mothballed. It needed investment, but with investment it could have provided the steel for the electric vehicle industry, in which the Prime Minister has repeatedly said that he wants us to be a leader. Last week, we found out that no Government support was forthcoming, that no suitable buyer had been found for the works and that Tata was now considering other uses for the site. No help or good news was forthcoming.
There is a human cost to the closure. As my hon. Friend said, the steelworks provided well-paid, highly-skilled jobs in an area that needs them, but the closure also represents the loss of a strategic industry at a time when we need it. We are going to need electrical steels like those made at Orb, so either we will have to import them or someone will have to go out and build another plant. How did we allow that to happen? We need this steel Minister to take a holistic approach, rather than a piecemeal and reactive one.
I am honoured to represent a constituency that has a proud steel tradition, which includes the Llanwern steelworks. The automotive galvanised steel produced at the Zodiac plant in Llanwern is renowned for its quality across the world and is used by manufacturers in the automotive sector, which is closely linked to the steel sector, to make more fuel-efficient and lightweight cars. I have mentioned Orb, but there is also Liberty Steel, which produces hot rolled steel coils and floorplate coils for the construction sector. Sadly, in January that company announced job losses in Newport, which is a reflection of the clouds of uncertainty that still hover over the sector.
Steelworkers in my constituency take huge pride in what they produce. There is a real passion for the industry, and that is why we fight so hard for it. Reflecting on that, I want to mention Paul Horton, who worked at the Orb steelworks for 37 years. He was the main union rep for Community and did an excellent job, alongside other reps from Unite. He attended a debate on the future of Orb in this Chamber just a few months ago, when he sat in the Gallery. In that debate, I highlighted the contribution of workers past and present at Orb, and that of the trade union representatives from Community and Unite who fought so hard for everyone there.
Paul clocked up 12,849 days of work at the site and, although he was reaching the end of his own time at Orb, he knew it would be a tragedy for Newport and for south-east Wales to lose such a strategically important works. Sadly, on new year’s day—the day after he finished work after 38 years—Paul passed away. He was a wonderful man and a passionate advocate for our steel industry. In mentioning him today, I want to reflect on the passion and dedication of those who work in the steel industry, and to honour his memory by carrying on the fight to save our steel.
I will call the Minister no later than 5.33 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate.
It has been a huge pleasure, during the early weeks of my time in this place, to work with Opposition Members on steel-related issues. It is clear that all who are involved care deeply for the workers in their constituencies and across the country, and for the steel industry. We have had excellent news in Scunthorpe this week, with the buy-out of British Steel by Jingye Group. We are conscious of the fact that there have, sadly, been job losses, and our thoughts are with all who are affected.
I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis), who spoke incredibly eloquently and mentioned the Scunthorpe deal. I will not repeat the excellent points he made. I put on record my thanks to the Government for the support they have shown to British Steel since last May. Without that support, frankly, we would not have a steel plant in Scunthorpe; it is as simple as that.
It has been a pleasure to begin to work together with colleagues who are here today. We need to be clear that not one person in this country could go a single day without steel. The industry is incredibly important for our nation, and I look forward to increased support from the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate.
As someone more famous than me said, this is
“déjà vu all over again.”
Since I came to this House in 2015, I have been involved in a number of steel debates. As a proud member of the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries, I pay tribute to the work that the group has done over the past five years.
I am the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, where we have one steel plant left, which was saved by the Scottish Government in 2015-16. When many other steel plants in the UK are teetering on the brink, it gives me no great pleasure to say that. The UK Government must stand up for the steel industry and deliver a sector deal. President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel imports from the EU has hurt the sector in Scotland and across the UK. Although the tariffs are aimed at blocking highly subsidised Chinese steel, they have adversely impacted steel manufacturers in Scotland and across the UK. Trump’s tariffs also pose threats to the whisky industry, which is ours and ours alone.
Around 10% of UK steel exports went to the US in 2017, but that fell to 7% in 2018 and 8% in 2019 after the tariffs were introduced. The steel industry is not a nice-to-have aspect of the manufacturing sector; it is crucial to all aspects of infrastructure projects in these isles. It supports a huge number of jobs—well-paid jobs, in the main—and feeds a supply chain that contributes even more to employment and economic prosperity. Further support for the sector could open significantly more opportunities for employment and growth.
It is time for the UK Government to match the ambitions of the SNP Scottish Government and get on with the sector deal, to deliver tangible support on energy procurement and all the industry’s other asks. The hon. Member for Aberavon went over those asks eloquently, and I will not repeat them, but they are things that UK Steel, the all-party group and I have been requesting since at least 2015 from a succession of BEIS Ministers. That is not good enough. It is time that the Tory Government took action, saved the steel industry and showed it a really good future.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the steel industry goes wider than just steel manufacturers? For instance, last Friday I visited Lincoln Electric, a high-quality welding company that specialises in welding together all sorts of things, including steel plates. We need those auxiliary industries, which benefit the steel industry, to support more to happen in our country.
I really did not think I would be in such agreement with the hon. Gentleman, but I am pleased to say that on this topic, I am.
After a study into the industry, the UK Government encouraged the steel industry, as part of a planned industrial strategy, to come forward with a proposal for a sector deal, and it did. The industry made serious commitments on its side and asked for a list of commitments from the UK Government, which they have refused to sign up to—in particular, to decreasing energy costs for the steel industry. The industry sees that as vital if it is to compete with steel producers on the continent. The £50 million per annum electricity price disparity that the sector asked the UK Government to eliminate in autumn 2017 is now about £70 million per annum.
Even leading Tories say that the UK Government are a problem for the UK steel industry. The Tory Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, was quoted in The Spectator only this month as saying:
“The biggest problem with the steel industry in the UK is Whitehall…The UK steel policy and the BEIS team are absolutely useless.”
No one from the Opposition has actually said that, but this is what he says:
“It has become a sticking plaster. Oh, British Steel’s fallen over, how do we rescue it? Oh, now south Wales is in trouble, how do we rescue it?”
He says there is too much worrying about failure and not enough planning for success:
“It’s never: what do we want the steel industry to look like? What can we do as a developed nation when we’re having to compete with places like China?”
I have agreed with two Tories in one speech. This is something of a record, Sir Charles.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I would like to carry on—
Order. It is traditional in a one-hour debate that the Front Bench speaks for five minutes. I have been lenient because the hon. Lady took an intervention, but can we move on? Mr Stafford, you have not been here for the whole debate, so I think we will just let her continue.
Thank you, Sir Charles; I am just about to wind up. The SNP Government have fought for threatened jobs wherever and whenever there has been a chance to save them. Unlike successive Westminster Governments, the SNP will never turn our back on Scottish industry. I am proud that they saved Dalzell works in my constituency; Sanjeev Gupta, the chair of Liberty House, said that he was very impressed with the efforts of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Steel Task Force to save that plant. No such commitment has ever been shown by a UK Tory Government.
I have taken on board the fact that I need to wind up, Sir Charles, but I just want to say one more thing. Brexit is only going to make all this worse, but in the past the UK Government have used our membership of the EU as a shield that prevented them from doing anything about the UK steel industry’s asks, which it has repeated time and time again. Will the Minister confirm that he can do even more now that this Government have dragged us out of the EU against Scotland’s will?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate. As a long-serving member of the steel APPG, he has been at the forefront in fighting for the future of the steel industry and communities that rely on plants across the UK. I also pay tribute to all the members and former members of the APPG who have kept steel high on the Government’s agenda.
The steel industry in the UK has faced many challenges in recent decades, particularly in the past few years. High energy costs and business rates, uncertainty among international buyers about Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU and USA, and the need for certainty about Government procurement have all contributed to increasing concern within the steel sector. Despite those challenges, the steel sector is adaptive and passionate and, with the right amount of support, will prosper.
Over the past three years, I have met steel companies, trade unions and trade bodies. They have all had the same consistent message about what the steel sector needs to succeed. We have been waiting since the launch of the industrial strategy White Paper in 2017 for a steel sector deal to be implemented by the Government. It is time that the Government brought that forward to deal with the many challenges that the industry continues to face.
I will try to skip through most of my speech, because it is important that the Minister answers a lot of the points that have been made. I will just reflect briefly on reducing energy prices. That has been a major ask, and many of our APPG members here, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), have spoken eloquently about the need to deal with it. The high business rates are just ridiculous. We need plant and machinery removed from business rates; that would boost investment and bring the UK into line with international practice.
Large-scale infrastructure projects provide vast opportunities for steel. Projects such as HS2 contribute towards the 3.8 million tonnes of steel identified in the 2019 steel pipeline. The UK steel sector can and should play a significant role in providing that steel. Investment would secure 6,000 new jobs and an additional contribution of £3.3 billion to the UK economy. The Treasury should sign the UK steel charter and commit to maximising the supply opportunities for steel producers.
The section 232 tariffs imposed by President Trump should be at the forefront of any future trade talks with the USA. It is important that we ensure that the British steel sector is exempt from the punitive tax that was intended to prevent Chinese dumping. British jobs should not be put at risk because of Trump’s trade war.
In July 2019, the Under-Secretary of State for BEIS committed to providing £66 million to support foundation industries, including steel, through the industrial strategy challenge fund. Will the Minister update us on the progress made on that, and when the tangible benefits should be felt by the steel sector?
The concerns of UK steel manufacturers and parliamentarians must be heard and addressed. The long-awaited steel sector deal must be published without delay, to allow the industry to plan for the future with confidence, so I ask the Minister when he will publish a comprehensive sector deal that addresses the concerns of steel manufacturers and parliamentarians. Our steelworkers are well-paid, highly-skilled professionals, well placed to deliver the green revolution that our planet badly needs. I beg the Minister to give them the support they need to help us to do just that.
Minister, you have until 5.53 pm at the latest to sit down, so that we can allow the mover of the motion, Mr Kinnock, to wind up.
I am delighted to conduct and take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I will not see 5.53 pm as a challenge; I will speak to the points that were made, and I would like to make some of the points that we really should air as a Government. I think there has been a bit of misrepresentation—a suggestion that somehow we are not doing anything, and I want to say a few words about that. First, however, I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this timely and important debate. It is timely because it comes the day after the important announcement by Jingye and British Steel—I know that the British Steel is not situated in Port Talbot, but it is a big part of the story of steel in this country—and the day before the Budget, which we all eagerly anticipate. I am sure there will be more in that Budget about some of the support that we are providing to industry generally.
Hon. Members will have seen the announcement on the sale of British Steel to Jingye yesterday. The sale secured British Steel’s sites in Scunthorpe, in Skinningrove and Teesside, and it is to be welcomed. I know that the Secretary of State has worked tirelessly to ensure that a deal was on the cards. I also pay tribute to his predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who also worked tirelessly so that we could reach this point and celebrate the fact that the deal has been done.
Many hon. Members here have suggested that we have not done anything, or we are not doing enough, to support the sector. I notice that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) suggested that it was—I paraphrase—“the evil Tories” who were doing nothing. That is a grotesque characterisation. I point out that in many areas, this Government have provided finance and support and engaged eagerly with the sector. That sort of partisanship—“The Scottish Government do things so much better”—is beneath the level of this debate.
I do not generally intervene on Ministers when they are responding, but in 2015, when the steel industry was at crisis point yet again, the Scottish Government saved the Dalzell works, while many, such as Redcar, went to the wall. If a small nation with a devolved Administration such as Scotland can do so much, perhaps the Government should think again about what steps they are taking. Fine words will not do. We have had them many times in the past.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to continue. I will not get into a debate as to who is better or what the Scottish or British Governments have done. All I will say is that we have policies and have given funds to support the sector. We are completely aware of the strategic importance of the steel industry and remain committed to it. I will say a few words, to emphasise what has been done.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I have already given way, and I would like to make a few points before I give way again.
We have provided more than £300 million to the steel sector since 2013. We have tried to make energy costs more competitive in the sector. We are acutely conscious that steel manufacturers in Europe have slightly lower—in some cases, considerably lower—electricity costs, but then again, the other side of that coin is that consumers in those countries have much higher electricity costs than consumers in this country. There is a debate to be had about how that pricing structure should work.
Looking forward, we have announced the £315 million industrial energy transformation fund, which will give steel manufacturers finance towards using clean energy in their manufacturing processes. We also have a £250 million clean steel fund, which is also supporting the sector’s transition from fossil fuel-burning dirty energy to low-carbon technologies. These initiatives and funds have all been announced and funded in the past few years. We continue to support the steel industry, and we engage with it through the Steel Council set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) when he was Business Secretary, so it is not true to say that the Government are doing nothing, or that we do not regularly engage with the industry.
High-end steel engineering at Kiveton Park Steel in Rother Valley produces steel for aircraft, industry and precision engineering requirements, and is exported widely to Brazil, Mexico, India and China. How can we ensure that our trading relationships are enhanced by the benefit of British manufacturing and British steel products?
Exports are at the centre of our industrial base, which is one reason why we support the industry in the way I described. I mentioned the funds and actual policy engagement; we see leaders in the steel sector often. I am pleased that my hon. Friend raisd this issue; it makes a change from fracking, which he often raises with me. However, this is of fundamental importance not only to our industrial strategy but for jobs. I have been struck and impressed by the human stories and the passion with which many MPs here have fought for their industry, their constituents and for the country as well, because we recognise that steel is an absolutely strategic sector.
On prices and the business environment, business rates come up as an challenge that steel companies have to deal with, but they are not alone; across our economy, business rates are often raised. In that vein, the Treasury is committed to reviewing business rates—we hear what people are saying. We want to see what mitigations we can introduce to make the business environment even more benign, to allow companies to thrive.
One extraordinary moment in this debate was the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw quoting Ben Houchen’s writing in The Spectator. That was quite an interesting development. I speak to Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley, regularly. He knows that he has many friends and associates within BEIS who are always willing to listen to him on these issues, as they relate not only to the Tees Valley but to the wider steel sector and our industrial base generally. I am proud of engaging with him on this, and I am sure that he understands and recognises that we support the sector and that we are thoroughly and absolutely committed to the steel industry in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) mentioned exports. My Department works constantly with the Department for International Trade to ensure that the UK has a suitable trade regime. Naturally, we have not concluded a free trade agreement with the United States as of today, but when we are in the process of doing so, the potential and real damage inflicted on our workers by steel tariffs will be a subject of debate. I am sure that everything will be dealt with in that round of conversation.
I welcome the Minister’s recognition of the deeply damaging impact of the section 232 tariffs on our highly competitive steel industry, which is not state-subsidised, unlike China’s. Does he agree that the point of maximum leverage is now? If the United States wants to enter into trade talks with the UK in a spirit of good faith and trust, surely it would be at the very least a gesture of goodwill to fire the starting gun on the talks by giving the UK an exemption from the tariffs.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a rabbit hole. I am not here to talk about the specifics of our trade deal with the United States; perhaps he should call for another Westminster Hall debate on that. Certainly conversations around any trade agreement with the United States will centre in no small degree on our industrial base and on the nature of our relationship in terms of steel. He will understand that we are now in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. We have not started the American trade talks, and I think it would be prejudicial to them—that is my own view—to start making demands in that round of conversations before we start the formal negotiation.
Procurement is important, and we have many projects that rely on UK-made steel, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I do not know whether he has visited Hinkley Point, but I had the honour and privilege of doing so only four or five weeks ago. When I was there, I was told that 100% of the construction steel and rebar for Hinkley Point C was procured in Wales. Port Talbot was an essential part of the construction of Hinkley Point, which they were very proud of. I had the honour of going round the site and seeing the extremely effective and impressive amount of steel that had been imported across the river from Port Talbot to Hinkley Point. That is a classic and very good example of how major infrastructure projects are, even today, reliant on production in Port Talbot.
HS2 was also raised, so it is quite right to talk about the rail network in connection with domestically produced steel. The good news is that 93% of the steel used to maintain our rail network is made in the UK. Does that mean that we have the perfect procurement policy, using UK-manufactured steel? No. However, it is wrong to say that we have not made some progress or that we are not reliant on UK-manufactured steel in our infrastructure and our building, and through Government persuasion, intervention, agitation and conversing with the industry, we can improve the proportion of UK-manufactured content in our infrastructure.
The picture for the steel industry is challenging. Many of the concerns that hon. Members have raised about pricing and the geopolitical environment are out of our hands. I remember the biggest fact in the steel industry from the time, many years ago, when I was an analyst in this sector. In 2000, I was struck by the fact that China produced only 15% of global steel. Today, that figure is 50%. The hon. Member for Aberavon and others will know that Chinese steel is strongly supported by China’s Government, and there is a history of dumping. The pricing framework has been under a lot of pressure from Chinese production. We must deal with that, and we want to, but it is a serious pressure that we should all be conscious of.
It is wrong to say that the Government have not done anything in this regard. We have plenty of investment and funds. Not only do we have resources and money, but we engage with the industry, for example through the British Steel Council, which never happened before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove introduced that in 2016. We have worked with the industry. We signed up to the UK steel procurement charter, which shows our commitment to ensuring that UK steel producers get a fair, good chance of securing public contracts.
I think the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned the EU. No debate in this House has passed without mention of the EU in the past four years. This is a classic example where we will no longer be tied by the state aid rules of the EU, so there is ample opportunity for Governments to provide some measure of comfort to the industry, as well as support, as we intend to do.
I am pleased to have spoken in this debate. I have left some time for the hon. Member for Aberavon to sum up, Sir Charles.
I thank the Minister for his remarks. I welcome anything the Government have done and can do to support our industry, but we have not really made much progress on the specifics, and the devil is in the detail. There is a crazy disparity between energy costs in this country and in France and Germany. That is the simple fact of the matter. We need policy intervention to give us that level playing field. It seems absurd to have an energy-intensive industry compensation package paying for the symptoms rather than addressing the causes. I urge some detailed responses to my questions, specifically about energy policy.
It is great to hear that the Government are reviewing business rates, but this crisis has lasted for five years. It seems incredible to me that we are still reviewing something when we know what the answer is: take plant and machinery out of business rates. On trade, a gesture of good will from the United States would be a welcome way to start those negotiations. I recognise that the Minister will not be in the room for those negotiations, but it is his job to champion the steel industry across Westminster and Whitehall. I hope he will be the voice of the steel industry in those trade negotiations. On procurement, there was a specific question: will the HS2 vehicle that runs that project sign the steel charter tomorrow? There is no reason why it cannot do that.
I welcome the Minister’s constructive response, but the devil is in the detail. I would welcome detailed progress on those points, because otherwise it feels like we are using a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. Our British steel industry is the pride of this country and the foundation of our manufacturing sector. It is the pride of communities such as the one I represent and those represented by colleagues around the Chamber. I hope we will see that proactive response from the Government in the very near future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the British steel industry.