Wednesday 18 March 2020
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Prison Staff: Health and Safety
I beg to move,
That this House has considered health and safety of prison staff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), because this debate is of his instigation. It was his idea, and it is regrettable that he is not here to move the motion, but he is doing the correct thing by self-isolating. I understand that the same is true for the ministerial Benches; it is the appropriate action to take. I thank the hon. Gentleman and his staff for the support and guidance they have given me, and for the opportunity to speak in a debate that is especially important not only at this juncture, but in the wider context of recent years.
We have to start with an explanation of who we are dealing with when we talk about prison staff, because there is a great lack of awareness, if not ignorance. As a young lawyer in Scotland many years ago—over a generation now—I would give a jury speech that would basically explain that the ladies and gentlemen of the jury did not know the jury system in Scotland. They knew more about Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” than they did about the fact that jury trials in Scotland have 15 members and three verdicts. Things are obviously slightly different when it comes to prison staff, but in many ways the context is the same. Many people’s impression of a prison will come more from “The Shawshank Redemption” than from the prison in the locality near them, or where people from their communities go. We have to challenge that.
The lack of awareness also extends to those who work in the Prison Service. That is why I put on the record the fact that they are a uniformed service; they are also an emergency service, although they are not classified in that way by Government. I think others will comment on that issue when we talk about how their pensions are treated: it is an outrage that people are expected to operate on a landing at the age of 68. Some jobs are age restricted, and being a prison officer should most certainly be one. They deserve to be treated the same as other services.
This is a historic issue. My good friend Professor Andrew Coyle served at both Peterhead prison in Scotland and Brixton prison down here in London, and is a global expert on prisons. I remember reading in his history of the Prison Service in Scotland that in the initial stages, police and prison officers had parity. The pay of a constable and the pay of a prison officer were the same until the latter part of the 19th century, but then that changed and since then prison officers’ pay has never caught up. To some extent, that is a tragedy, but it is where we are. I do not think we can reverse that, but we can mitigate it and take action, whether on pensions or other terms and conditions.
That brings me to the question of who we are talking about. As I say, there is a great deal of misunderstanding; I remember going into the Prison Service and chatting away to officers about this. There are many occupations at the present moment, such as health service workers, police officers or those who work with the children and elderly, where people will cross the street to thank them and shake their hand. That rarely happens for prison officers—they get a sharp intake of breath instead—but the service they give often mirrors that contributed by those other services, and the work they do is valuable.
There is also a sense of misunderstanding among those going into the service. I remember asking young officers at the training academy at Polmont in Scotland whether the job was what they had anticipated. They said they had gone in thinking their job would be like a security guard’s, but it was much more like that of a psychiatric nurse. Those of us involved in the prison estate know how much of the work is like that of a psychiatric nurse, even though these people are not properly trained or qualified for such work. It is about dealing with deeply troubled people; prison officers do have to deal with deeply violent people on occasion, but the work they do with young offenders, women prisoners and vulnerable prisoners is really quite exceptional. It is a matter not of brutality but of humanity, which is why we have to put on record our tribute to them.
We also have to remember that these people are not particularly well trained for this work, nor are they well paid. As I understand it, a prison officer in Norway goes through a degree course of four years. In Scotland, as in England, a person will be able to be active and working—albeit not necessarily on the landing—within a period of weeks that they can count on both hands. That is hugely different from what other regimes expect, but it is expected here. Indeed, once we include people’s toes as well as their fingers, they will be on the landing and expected to deal with frontline work. I do not argue that there needs to be a degree course, but I do think that we need to expect and understand the challenges that prison staff face, because they do that with sparse training and not for a king’s ransom, as has been mentioned in relation to a variety of other issues.
That takes us on to the particular issues. The first issue that I want to touch on is why the Minister and I are here. The reason is that the coronavirus is striking down Members of this institution as it will strike down members of our community.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the coronavirus, will he accept that a large part of the problem that prison officers face is the working conditions and prisons’ terrible state of repair? On the Justice Committee, we estimated that the cost of the repairs would come to £900 million.
Yes, I fully concur. In many areas, the prison estate is Victorian; sometimes it even predates that era. It has to be upgraded. Good work has been ongoing in Scotland—that does not come cheap—and I know that work has been established here. Equally, we have to have the right institutions. Super-prisons are not the way to go. We have to have the right prison estate, and it has to be a suitable prison estate.
The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about what we need to do to support prison officers because they are behind the wire, but deterrence is one of the key issues; it is vital in prisons. At a prison in my constituency, HMP Stocken, there was a nasty attack on a prison officer. It is extremely troubling that although the guidance is that for attacks on prison officers there should be consecutive sentences, too often prisoners are actually receiving concurrent sentences, which essentially acts as no deterrent and tells prisoners that they can go on attacking prison officers as they will.
The hon. Member makes a valid point. I am always of the view that these things are best dealt with by the independent judiciary; we must allow them to deal with the particular facts and circumstances. However, I have to place it on the record—the Prison Officers Association and the other unions would expect no less—that we cannot tolerate prison officers being viewed as punchbags, because people should not routinely be abused, albeit I do think that the judiciary have a duty to take cognisance of the issues and challenges being faced.
An analogy that I have heard when speaking to people is that prisons are a microcosm of our society. People will say, “Why don’t prisons educate prisoners like this? Why don’t they give them work training like that? Why don’t they care for them like this?” It is like going into a school or college and saying, “You’re going to do every class in the curriculum and you’re going to do it in this corridor,” because that is the situation in a prison. There is a requirement for education facilities, work facilities, health facilities and social engagement facilities; there is a requirement for kitchens. And those things are required in a confined space, so some of the things that can be delivered in a school, college, university or even a Parliament cannot be done, and certainly not to the same extent.
Equally, on the coronavirus, we have criteria being put down about social distancing, working from home and self-isolation. How can that be done by prisoners, let alone prison officers? There is a specific need there, and my request to the Minister is this. Can we get some guidance and assurance about testing and about the safety and security of staff and of prisoners?
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made the correct point. We have to deal not simply with prison officers and prison staff, but with prisoners, because if we create conditions, as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned, that are unacceptable, that creates a toxic cocktail that we have to address. I therefore ask the Minister to be specific about what assurances he can give to staff, because some of the anecdotal tales coming back from the trade unions are of staff members being expected to do things that would not be asked of staff here and that are unacceptable or unsafe, and prison staff have families and elderly relatives the same as the rest of us.
That does not take away from the reason why the hon. Member for Easington brought up this issue in the first instance. It has already been touched on in the two interventions: violence on the prison estate. There was an underlying crisis even before the coronavirus came upon us. This has been ticking away. It has not been an act of God. It has not been a global pandemic from which we cannot isolate our country any more than any other nation can. There have been wilful acts of neglect by this and past Administrations. There has been a failure to act timeously and appropriately. Money was tight, but it is tighter now. Money can be found for corporations, but apparently it cannot be found for custodians. That cannot be right.
We must look at the records on the issues raised, in terms of staffing and violence, and in terms of specific drugs, such as Spice, about which I have some sympathy for the Government. Even with the best regime, the ability to stop drugs coming into prisons is a social as well as an institutional problem, which we have to deal with.
It is clear from the Library briefing, which many of us have, that prison workforce numbers fell by a quarter between 2010 and 2014, from 25,000 to 18,000. To be fair, the numbers have come up again slightly, but they are still not back to where they were. In addition, the numbers were higher before 2010, although that figure includes support staff, and, because of contracting and privatisation, which I will come on to, the fall in numbers has been ongoing.
More critical has been the loss of experience. Becoming a prison officer is not something that people can pick up in 10 weeks; it is picked up over years of service. They need to know who to watch out for, who to look out for, who is vulnerable, who needs to be watched because they are up to various things, and all the tricks and turns that go on. In 2010, 7% of prison officers had been in post for less than 2 years, compared with 35% in 2019. When we are dealing with a crisis in numbers and the estate, to have over a third of the staff being inexperienced is simply scandalous. The proportion of prison officers who had 10 years’ experience or more went from 56% to 46%.
There has been an increase in the numbers of assaults, and the record on that is quite lamentable. It reached a peak of 10,424 assaults on staff in the year ending June 2019. Before 2015, there were around 3,000 recorded assaults. That is a threefold increase and more; it is simply unacceptable.
I have some understanding of what the Government are dealing with in terms of Spice and I cut them some slack. It troubles our communities and our estates. It needs checks and it needs to be rolled back. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made the point that no one should routinely be afraid of assault when they go to work. No one whose loved one works in the service should worry about them on a daily basis. Some occupations will always trouble us, such as those that went down the pits, went offshore fishing or serve as police officers, but we take steps to ensure their safety. Little has been done and the situation has worsened for prison officers, which is simply unacceptable.
What is said to police officers—that they cannot and should not expect to routinely be punchbags—must equally apply to prison officers. Whether it is by concurrent or consecutive sentences, or by increased sentencing, action needs to be taken. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton that those perpetrating the assaults need to realise that their actions have consequences, and for prison officers such assaults cannot simply be viewed as being part of the job or par for the course.
It is frightening. The prison officers’ unions have provided testimony from individuals that is scandalous. A male private sector prison officer states:
“Prisons are totally unsafe for staff and prisoners. I have been a prison officer for over 20 years and its decline in that time has been shocking. This decline is down to the profiled staffing levels being reduced by 50%, with the same risk prisoners to work with.”
Another male public sector prison officer states:
“I have just returned from hospital after receiving treatment for yet another bite I received as a result of an assault by a prisoner. However, on this occasion the prisoner has been confirmed as being Hepatitis C positive!”
That is simply unacceptable. There is a whole catalogue of such comments and I could go on. A male public sector prison officer says:
“I have been in the Service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work - but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.”
That is scandalous, and we have to address it.
We must increase staffing levels and retain experience. That must mean looking at terms and conditions, and especially at pensions. We need to address those who perpetrate the problem. We need to tackle a culture of violence and the cocktail of drugs, which are mentioned by the prison officer staff unions in terms of how they want a charter implemented, and I ask the Minister to take that on board. It cannot just be soaked up by those who serve. Action must be taken by Government.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the private sector. I put on the record that I have great support for private-sector prison officers and staff, as I have for those who work in the public sector, but privatisation has been an unmitigated disaster, as it was in probation, and I would ask the Minister consider rolling back upon it. The best testimony that I ever received was the former inspector of prisons in Scotland, Clive Fairweather.
I do not think Clive Fairweather would necessarily have been a supporter of me or my party, as his whole background was having been a British Army officer—indeed, his final role had been as commander of the SAS—but I remember Clive telling me why he opposed private prisons. It has stuck with me ever since. He said, “When I was commander of the SAS, if I needed to authorise people to take the lives of others, I did so because of the authority I had and the cap badge that said I was acting on behalf of the Crown. If I need to take the liberty of an individual then I should do so not because it suits a corporation diktat or a corporation profit, but because of the authority of the Crown.”
People are complaining about money going to private hospital beds as we hit a coronavirus crisis. Let us remember that a lot of money has been going to private investors as we have had to fill up the private estate in order to balance prison numbers. That has meant that there has not been the money to spend on terms and conditions or to improve the estate, because so much is going out of the door in revenue payments that we cannot afford capital expenditure.
There are other issues I would like to briefly touch on. We have a growing elderly population. I said earlier that our prison staff are not trained to be psychiatric nurses, but nor are they trained to be geriatric nurses. Yet we now have—certainly not in Scotland, but in England—a centenarian in prison. In Scotland, I visited a prison where we had a particular ward that was for those who were septuagenarian, octogenarian or nonagenarian. It was a geriatric ward.
It caused huge difficulties for the staff, because most of those prisoners were in there for historic sexual offences. Accordingly it was not just the prison officers who were viewed as punchbags, but those prisoners too. It caused difficulties for the management of the prison to keep them separate and secure from those who would otherwise view it as an opportunity to “pay off”, as they say, some gratuitous violence.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the age of the sex offenders that he mentioned, they should rightly remain in prison, because the crimes they have committed will affect those children, and now adults, for the entirety of their lives? If they were not brought to justice until they were 70 years old, because the system failed in the past and we did not believe that those crimes had been committed, they must serve their time. The victims deserve to see justice being served.
Absolutely. I always remember that being put to me by the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini. She said, “They took someone’s childhood. They can forfeit their old age.” That seems to me to be a reasonable trade-off.
The question is not whether they should be punished—that is undoubtable—but where they should be retained. Many of our prison estates, as I have already touched on, are Victorian. I had this discussion with the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service; we would be better acquiring a care home and making it semi-secure if we need to, although most of these people are hardly going to be running down our high streets on their zimmers, fleeing from a prison officer. The whole institution in which we retain them is inappropriate.
I mentioned the prison in Scotland because not only did they have to keep them secure from others who would have done them harm, but they could not even double them up. I thought it was funny at the time, but it was not really. They could not put them in a top bank because of their rheumatoid arthritis. It simply was not possible to double them up. It might be that as a society, we should be looking at acquiring different premises for those people.
The principle remains that they have to be punished, but the question is where they should be detained. Do we need to spend on that high security? For some of them, most certainly, but most of them are hardly going to be a threat. We could keep them under the same lock and key as a dementia ward in many instances, I would have thought. That would be easier for us and better for the staff.
There is also the question of throughput care. The great tragedy is the skills that prison officers have. I remember being at a showing of the movie “The Angels’ Share”, which I thought was quite beneficial in trying to challenge young people about their behaviour, and I remember a prison officer’s commenting that he spent more with time with those young people than he did with his own kids in his own family. Yet when they left the estate, despite the bond he had created and the fact that in many instances he had become a father figure, he could not relate to them. We have to get the balance. That officer would not want trouble when he is out with his family, taking them places, but there are skills that the prison officers can take out into the community.
First, we have to get other agencies to come into the prison earlier and more often—often they do not—to take their responsibility, as opposed to leaving everything with the Prison Service until the prisoner is discharged beyond the prison gate; and secondly, we should look at the opportunity for how we can use those skills and maintain the through care. We all know that the reason why so many people come back in through the revolving door is that they fall by the wayside and the person who was keeping them on the road was that particular prison officer.
I simply want to sum up, Mr Robertson. You have given me a great deal of latitude. I put on the record my thanks to the Prison Service and its staff. I ask the Minister: what steps will be taken not simply on coronavirus and the staff, but to address the underlying issues that are looming—and already exist—in the prison estate on staffing levels, staff morale, violence against prison officers and the drugs cocktail situation, as well as the growing issues of through care and in particular an elderly population? That is a big task, and we face many tasks at the moment, but we can no more expect our hospital staff to be heroic than we can expect our prison staff—who are being heroic—to be so. Not only must we give them the thanks to which they are entitled but, more importantly, in our privileged position as legislators, we must take steps to action plans to protect them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure to have two Front Benchers in this debate who have both been members of the Select Committee on Justice. They understand the sort of comments being made by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and I hope that they recall the report on prison governance that we produced, which covered a number of the issues.
We are in an enduring crisis of safety and decency in our prisons. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this crisis is not something that has just happened; it has been going on for a long time. Violence is at an all-time high. Up until March 2019, there were more than 34,000 assaults in the prison system and, of those assaults, more than 10,000 were on staff. That is an increase in assaults on staff of 15%.
A major contributory factor to the level of violence and the state that prison officers must endure is working conditions. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prisons are mostly Victorian—or earlier—constructions. We need to tackle the level of accumulated maintenance in such prisons, but the focus of Government activity seems to be on 10,000 more prisoner places, rather than on curing the maintenance problem.
I give full credit for the £100 million put into the Prison Service to improve safety and security, and we should not lose sight of that, but the concentration on providing an additional 10,000 places has meant that repairs to prisons have taken a back seat. We can address much of that, and the prison in Leeds is doing so. Working parties of staff and prisoners together carry out maintenance activity within the prison. I would like to see something similar taken on board by other prisons, to get the work done. The Justice Committee looked at this and came to the conclusion that the backlog of maintenance required in prisons came to about £900 million—an increase from £716 million in 2018. That that is an incredible backlog, and it shows that not enough is being done to tackle this.
Several things contribute to the problem. One is a real crisis of leadership in prisons. There has been a tremendous amount of activity to try to give governors more power over what happens in their prisons, but I do not think that that has gone far enough. We need governors who really have control of their prisons, because after all, they see the detail of where maintenance is required and can deal with it continually.
Another significant aspect is space being made available for purposeful activity. There is no doubt in my mind that purposeful activity plays a strong part in prisons. I have said in the House before that, with previous Justice Committees, I have been to Denmark and Germany to see how prisons there deal with purposeful activity. In Denmark, one thing that made the biggest difference was not purposeful activity in the sense of making things, but the way in which the prisoners were treated. What made the biggest difference was that they did not eat communal style, as in the “Porridge” series, but were allowed to earn their own money and to cook their own food. There were some restrictions, such as knives having to be chained to the wall, but that made a huge difference in keeping the lid on violence in that prison and making sure that the prisoners were fit for rehabilitation. The German prison I visited—this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for East Lothian made about where in a prison these issues can be tackled—had a big warehouse for making furniture. The prisoners all played a part in making furniture, which had an enormous impact on their lives.
My last point, which I will just make before I leave space for others to come in, is that there has been too much ad hoc dealing with the problems in the Prison Service over the years. Nobody has taken a strategic direction, grabbed the issue by the neck and sorted it out. If there is one message that I would give to the Minister, it is that strategic direction needs to be put into the Prison Service. The issue needs to be addressed, because it is not just a question of prisoner safety, but of prison officer safety.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate on this critical issue, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I also thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for stepping in at short notice.
First, it is important to consider what we, as a society, believe the purpose of our prisons to be. I am a former police officer and have witnessed at first hand the wide, varied and complex reasons why people end up offending and, consequently, entering our justice system. Surely the main aim of our prisons is to rehabilitate offenders so that they leave and do not go on to reoffend and are able to make a positive contribution to society. Punishment is obviously a factor, but in the vast majority of cases it should be secondary to rehabilitation.
However, the challenges facing the Prison Service make that very difficult to achieve. Tom Halpin, chief executive officer of community justice organisation Sacro, commented:
“The current overcrowding in Scottish prisons means the focus is on security and safety…Rehabilitation—particularly for those on short sentences—is simply not a priority.”
Prison staff are central to achieving positive outcomes for prisoners and wider society. They need to be properly supported, and to receive good training and the right resources to help them to rehabilitate. Failing to deliver that contributes to the poor health and safety of staff, as we are discussing.
As Members have laid out, the current situation for prison staff is frankly intolerable. Assaults on prison staff have been rising for more than 10 years and for every 1,000 prisoners in England and Wales there were 35 assaults on staff in 2010; last year, the figure had risen to 121.
It should not be like that. Every person should have the right to feel safe at their place of work. We must do better. Ultimately, our prisons are under-resourced and overcrowded. As of last July, Scottish prisons were close to capacity after the number of inmates increased from 7,400 to more than 8,200. Although prison staff numbers in England and Wales have increased since 2014 to 23,000, that is still fewer than were employed in 2010.
Prison staff are working at capacity, so they do not have the time to access the training and development they need to do their jobs better. That means they are not developing. As the hon. Member for East Lothian said, it is about not just initial training but ongoing professional development. A member of staff in the prison sector said:
“I feel the poor environment in establishments has been caused by inexperienced staff training new staff. The training staff unfortunately think the state of the prison is just the norm, and are teaching the new staff the wrong way to deal with situations and making some very dangerous decisions”.
That problem is compounded by the fact that staff retention is challenging. Last year, 38% of those who left the workforce in England and Wales had served in the Prison Service for less than one year; the figure in 2010 was just 7%. Things have totally deteriorated, arguably to crisis levels. If the service cannot retain staff, the staff cannot gain the skills and experience to deal with and support the complex needs of many in our prison or justice systems. That results in a huge burden on staff’s mental health. We must remember that health means mental as well as physical health. If we believe that both are equally important, we must demonstrate that by giving the support required.
The largest cause of sickness absence in the prison service is stress. In 2018-19, the Scottish Prison Service lost more than 14,000 days due to stress-related absence, an increase of 32% on the previous year. Just as we are trying to create workplaces that conform to physical health and safety standards, we must ensure that we create mentally healthy workplaces. Another member of prison staff said:
“I have seen perfectly healthy people join in the last 12 months and become very ill due to prison work and the lack of discipline to create a safe space for prisoners to live.”
I am keen to hear from the Minister on what further steps are being taken in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Does it have a mental health first aid programme? What steps is it taking to discourage presenteeism? Acknowledgment of mental health issues and early intervention can support better recovery and an earlier return to the workplace.
The “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, recently launched by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, suggests some ways to help relieve the burden on staff. Primary among them is a proposal to introduce a single reporting system for violence in prisons, as the current system is very fragmented. Staff need to feel they can support any incident, and we need to make it easier for staff to do so. A new system should be accessible both internally and externally so that staff can report incidents away from the workplace.
I am pleased to have signed the early-day motion on this matter, tabled by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), which I am pleased to see has gained widespread support from all corners of the House. In particular, I highlight the part of the motion that refers to prison staff as “diligent, brave and committed”. I echo those remarks. The service they provide is remarkable and the Government need to recognise that by providing the resources required to help them.
I call on the Government to commit to a zero-assault ambition for prison staff and to use radical evidence-based policy to address the causes of violence in prisons. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their place of work. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment last year of £100 million to fund airport-style security for prisons, we must ask whether that is tackling the root causes of violence in prisons. It is not simply about preventing access to offensive weapons but about working to ensure that prisoners do not feel the need to carry them or use them in prison.
Prison will sometimes be the right outcome for certain types of offences and offenders. We need to ensure that it is safe and viable for everyone within it and that it delivers the outcome we want it to achieve, with people serving their sentences, coming out of prison and not reoffending. Overcrowding, under-resourcing and lack of training and development for those on the frontline of our prisons make that objective far more difficult to achieve, and that fails us all as a society. That is now more important than ever. The coronavirus pandemic that Members have referred to means we are entering a crisis that will have an increased impact on the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and staff. It is vital that the Government listen and take swift and decisive mitigating action.
I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for setting the scene so expertly. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). Her contribution is based on the point of view of a police officer and her interaction with prison officers over the years. I want to add my support to what was set out by the hon. Member for East Lothian. The Minister knows I have every confidence in him and I look forward to his response to the issues we have brought to his attention.
The hon. Member for East Lothian referred to “The Shawshank Redemption” and “12 Angry Men” as examples of how we might form an opinion of the way in which prison officers and the legal system work. My knowledge comes from those two films and also from the comedy classic, “Porridge”, which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to. That series is more about mischief than badness, perhaps because of Ronnie Barker, and is a gentle way of looking at the Prison Service. If only it was like that, but it is not. It is a matter of concern in every corner of the United Kingdom.
I am sure we were all dismayed to read the November article in The Daily Telegraph, which outlined the situation that prison staff currently find themselves in. The background information that we have today, including that from the Library, indicates the same thing. The article stated:
“Prison officers are being assaulted almost 30 times a day as violence, self harm and suicides in jails hit a record high, Ministry of Justice figures show. The number of assaults on staff rose by 10 per cent in a year to pass 10,000 for the first time since records began more than a decade ago in June 2009. More than 1,000 of these were serious assaults, up seven per cent on the previous year.”
There is clearly an issue to address within the Prison Service. Those figures are reflected in Northern Ireland, which the Minister does not have responsibility for, although perhaps not to the same extent. The article continued:
“There were also more than 24,000 prisoner on prisoner assaults in the year to June, equivalent to 66 a day and a three per cent rise on the previous 12 months. That is also the highest for a decade. It means the overall number of assaults is closing in on 100 a day with 93 every 24 hours—another record high.”
That is a record high we do not wish to record because we want to record the good things and how we are improving them.
“Of these, 3,928 were serious assaults, of which 2,984 were prisoner on prisoner attacks.”
There is clearly an issue that must be resolved. I have spoken to friends of mine who work or have worked in the Prison Service. I am in regular contact with prison officers in my constituency, some of whom are retired. We are losing good men and women who get to the end of themselves due to the abuse that they suffer, followed by allegations and the feeling of a lack of support.
There have been record high resignation rates among prison officers. They are treated abysmally not only by the prisoners they interact with every day, but by the Ministry of Justice. There is a fear of stepping into situations and getting into more trouble, which is what we must address. Prison officers need protection. They need confidence in the system, the governors and the prisons, and they need to feel confident that our Minister and our Government will support and stand by them. Prison staff must be able to use the force that has been deemed appropriate and know that they will have support if an inmate makes a complaint. Too many officers complain to me about being left “hung out to dry” and then carrying the stigma after they have been cleared. The officers and also the educators, nurses and cleaners all have the absolute right to be safe and secure.
Can the Minister explain why frontline prison officers’ resignations have soared to 9%? What is being done to address that? In January, four prison officers and a nurse were hospitalised after a terrorist attack by two prisoners. Again, what has been done to assure those prison officers that they will be safe and receive the protective body clothing they need, as well as the security they need? There are many examples—it would probably take until 10.30 am to read them all out, which would not be fair to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). I will not do that, but there are lots of other things that we could put on paper.
Let me be very clear: if an officer is at fault, there must be an investigation. There should be no potential for abuse, but neither can we continue to have staff feeling that they are fighting a losing battle in keeping the peace and winning the fight against bullying and drugs, which are rampant in our prisons. In my constituency of Strangford, there are many people—especially the young—who go to prison not being drug dependent but come out drug dependent. We have to ask ourselves why that is happening. Every month at justice questions, right hon. and hon. Members ask about the availability of drugs in prisons. Again, it is something that has to be addressed.
I accept that we need to rehabilitate prisoners—it is right that we should—but we also need to have control of prisons in the hands of the Prison Service, the governor and the officers. People’s concerns include the fact that when
“a prisoner assaults staff or other prisoners, they are back on the wing 20 minutes later.”
One prison officer said:
“Prisons are in a state of emergency!”
The following is from a male public sector prison officer:
“I have been in the Service for over 20 years and I have never felt scared to come to work—but now I fear for myself and my colleagues.”
If that is how prison officers feel, we have to address those issues as soon as possible.
We wonder why the health of inmates is so at risk. I believe the reticence of prison staff about their safety and mental health means that they are unwilling to intercede when they see signs of bullying and abuse of drugs. Some of the people who go to prison are very vulnerable. They find themselves subjected to peer pressure and surrounded by people who have stronger personalities and characters, and they may find themselves slipping into lawlessness and criminality inside the prison and then outside. It is really important that we have rehabilitation and help those people to get out the other side and to try to live a better life afterwards.
We are harming our inmates by preventing officers from doing their job. A lot of this is due to the lack of adequate numbers on prison floors. It is clear that an adequate number of staff is essential in order to provide strength in numbers, and to serve as witnesses to any allegations. The Justice Unions Parliamentary Group has provided some papers and made three recommendations, which I will read out. The first is:
“Adopt the new Safe Inside Prisons Charter developed by nine national trade unions representing the majority of prison staff, and move to a tripartite system to tackle prison workplace violence involving close collaboration between unions, employers and the Health & Safety Executive.”
The second is:
“Launch a national prison violence reduction strategy as a matter of urgency, fully resourced and in partnership with staff unions—including action to retain prison officers, who are currently resigning at record-high rates.”
The third is:
“Fully abide by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act and take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all workers in prisons, including those not directly employed by HMPPS.”
We must invest in our staff in order to improve prison facilities. I look to the Minister, as I always do, because I know he is aware of the situation and wishes to reply responsibly and positively. We need to understand how this can be done UK-wide, not just in English and Welsh prisons. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi Long? If not, I ask him to contact her. I know that our new Justice Minister has indicated her desire to improve the mental health of inmates, and I ask the Minister to liaise with her in a UK-wide effort to improve working conditions and the health and safety of staff, as well as that of inmates. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Robertson; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I highly congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) on stepping in to lead the debate. I rise as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, and I should also mention the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance and its “Safe Inside Prisons” charter. I thank all staff in prisons. They are, in many cases, by the nature of their work, invisible and unheard heroes, which we should bear in mind.
Staff in prisons will be very aware of the criteria against which they are held to account by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. If safety is one of the four healthy prison tests at inspection, surely health and safety in prisons must be on every agenda all the time. Whether in the private or public estate—no matter who employs the member of staff—safety is a priority.
Safety of course means freedom from violence and from the threat of violence, and must apply equally to everyone in the prison estate. It is therefore a matter of surprise to me that inspection reports reference prisoner-on-prisoner violence specifically, while violence towards staff is much less of a priority. Yes, the purpose of a prison inspection is to assess the experience of prisoners, but the very nature of the prison estate means that the health and safety of prison staff is intrinsically bound to the health and safety of prisoners.
To me, it is self-evident that a workplace that sets so low a priority for its staff’s welfare as to fail to record every incident of violence against them will inevitably also fail on the welfare of prisoners. The culture of fear and reluctance around the reporting of violent incidents needs to be challenged and radically changed. If present priorities effectively reward under-reporting, every step must be taken to ensure that violence against all staff is recorded and promptly acted on. Currently, the system appears to contain perverse incentives that actively encourage under-reporting.
If the targets against which prison management is answerable are producing such results—effectively creating an environment in which violence against staff is ignored—those targets or contractual requirements must be changed —they are otherwise unfit for purpose. Raising the priority of staff safety will require a culture of change at all levels. The regular use of body-worn cameras, for example, would aid in the collection of evidence. To bring about their intended effect, challenge, support and intervention plans need to be rigorous, sufficiently challenging for violent prisoners and supportive enough of prisoners who are victims of violence.
There must be a record of every act of violence against any member of staff employed in a prison, as well as meaningful consequences for prisoners who commit such violence. Those consequences could come through judicial process or internal prison procedures. Attacks on staff can no longer be excused as collateral damage in the hidden theatre of violence staged behind high walls across England and Wales.
HMP Berwyn is the newest facility in the prison estate, having opened three years ago, and the second largest prison in Europe, with capacity for 2,100 prisoners —there are about 1,800 there at present. I will read from the exit interview of a member of staff who left last month after working there for just over two years—the attrition rate is between 10% and 14%. I will try to be as brief as possible, and will leave out the sections that I could not corroborate with others—I have checked what I am about to read out. He said:
“Most importantly the staff and friends who I have worked alongside have made the job for me. They are the reason us staff come in every day, and I will always thank the place for letting me meet these people. I have made friends for life and also met a partner within the service, who is fantastic and has been brilliant and supportive, especially after I was recently assaulted on Christmas day at HMP Berwyn.
I feel at HMP Berwyn everything always seems to be about the prisoners. So long as the regime is running, nothing else matters. Band 3 officers are not listened to, staff safety is not a priority and is constantly compromised and undermined. Recently I was assaulted with hot water on 25/12/2019 on Alwen B Uppers by a prisoner. This has been the final nail in the coffin for me. I was almost left blinded in my left eye and during my time trying to recover occupational health had been in touch at the start of January with me and have offered support and a meeting on the 25/02/2020, two months after the incident, by which point I will have left HMP Berwyn, so this is no use whatsoever.
More importantly, I called North Wales Police in the new year of 2020 to discover they had no record whatsoever that I had been assaulted or taken into A&E due to an assault, and I had to chase up the police, crime number, security and police liaison officers to make sure it was reported correctly, and find that the prisoner was not taken to segregation immediately, and the paperwork that was meant to reach the police liaison officer was lying around on a desk somewhere. Surely this should not be the case when I myself was blind in one eye, at this time recovering at home, feeling helpless.”
I will move ahead. Talking about his own work, this man said:
“I was always on time, I worked late, I tried to be proactive and I worked through lunch, yet some people would stroll in 20 minutes late (weekends and mornings), sit in the office, let prisoners get away with basic things…hide within the jail, but would never be pulled up or even spoken to. I made myself ill giving my all to my unit. Yet you have people doing the bare minimum and getting away with it, and this used to drive me crazy.
Also we are trying to tackle drink and drugs as a priority within the jail, yet you clearly have staff taking drugs at weekends and coming into work under the influence. Yet nothing is ever said or done in regards to this. Also, staff who have been given criminal convictions during their employment have been allowed to stay in their jobs.”
I will move ahead again to “evidence handling”, and we must remember that this is a man who has been assaulted during his work:
“Evidence handling is poor. Nothing is ever bagged or tagged correctly. Extra training, I feel, needs to be provided on this. I was assaulted on Christmas day, yet my clothing was not taken from me. This could have been vital evidence. We are always short on prison officer numbers yet we continue to take more prisoners into the jail, and compromise staff safety, and try to make do, rather than lock wings down. We put people onto wings or on key working shift to unlock, then, when it comes to feeding, we are scraping around, looking for a third member of staff rather than just shutting a wing down.
I am reluctant to complete this form, as many times we as officers speak up and nothing ever gets changed. I doubt this form will even get the chance to see the number one governor or senior management team or be looked at, due to negativity. But I can with my hand on heart say I gave my all, 100% all the time… I wear my heart on my sleeve and I take pride in my work, and this can be backed up by anyone you want to ask in the jail. Yet I will make these points to try and help you retain staff, as I can assure you many others are close to leaving and a high percentage of your prison officers (very good ones at that) are currently seeking employment elsewhere and will leave if things do not change.”
The last few things that this man says are really important:
“I really want to see HMP Berwyn do well and be a good place to work, so I have therefore let it all out and given my honest opinions and hope these will be considered and taken into account. I loved working with many people within HMP Berwyn, and you have some great characters, team players and personalities.”
But those people need support.
I have a few specific asks; some of them relate to HMP Berwyn, but I think they are relevant to other prisons too. Can the Minister confirm whether an unused wing in Berwyn might be put into use as an isolation ward to deal with the covid-19 crisis? If that is the case, it could be of support to other prisons. Also, can he confirm that all necessary personal protective equipment and training for staff is being provided?
In these circumstances, and considering the size of the prison, can the Minister commit to reviewing the merits of phasing out the use of double cells at Berwyn, and making it a single-cell prison, as I understand that is what is happening with the new private prisons that are being developed? There is capacity, with the number of prisoners presently there; it will certainly be a lot easier than when we go to full capacity. If this change on single cells could be made, it would facilitate many aspects of the work for prison officers.
I have a question on covid-19; I do not know if it has been asked yet. We have had a request from the unions and from the teaching staff—staff who are not directly employed staff working in prisons. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be no penalties by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service for non-delivery of teaching hours during education shutdown?
Finally, may I reiterate the call that the Minister’s Department adopts the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter, in the spirit of tripartite working between employers, unions and the Health and Safety Executive? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am pleased to participate in this important debate, and I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who is unable to be here today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for his insightful opening remarks in this debate, and I echo the gratitude that we all rightly have for our prison officers, as we have heard across Westminster Hall today.
We have heard much about the kind of environment that can prevail in prisons, where the most dangerous members of society are incarcerated. Being a prison officer is not a job for those of faint heart, but it can be an extremely rewarding career, as was made clear to me when I visited Greenock Prison last year. It is not in my constituency, but it houses some of my constituents, and some of my constituents work there. Prison officers work in a difficult physical environment, with high walls and locked doors. The clientele can be extremely challenging, as we can all imagine.
The undercurrent of violence is something that prison officers just have to learn to cope with, but doing so every day at work must take a toll on mental health, and the impact on staff should not be underestimated. The people whom prison officers deal with have often been convicted of the most heinous crimes. A violent way of life is the way of life for many of the people prison officers have to cope with. Those violent prisoners will not always be welcoming or obliging towards the prison rules and regulations that are disseminated to them by officers. Even those who enter prison for non-violent offences can become violent when in prison, out of sheer frustration—no one likes to be locked up, regardless of the crime they have committed. The company that those people are required to keep must also have an impact.
Prison officers live every day with the threat of assault at the hands of seriously angry and violent prisoners. That should be recognised across the entire prison estate of the United Kingdom. The prisons in Scotland face challenges, as do prisons across the UK. Members have spoken about that in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian, who opened the debate, reminded us that prison officers are the forgotten service. We rely on them, but too often they are out of sight, through the nature of the job they do. They have to master a variety of skills. They are not just guards. They often have to take on such roles as psychiatric support or social worker, which they work hard to carry out but for which they are not properly trained, and certainly not properly paid. All the time, as they carry out that variety of roles, there is an undercurrent of violence. That is the nature of our prisons. No one, as my hon. Friend reminded us, should have to go to work and routinely fear assault; that cannot simply be viewed as part of the job. If prison officers do not feel safe, they cannot keep prisoners safe, and often many prisoners do not feel safe.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) pointed out the need for prisons to be maintained in good repair. The environment matters for the health and wellbeing of prison officers and prisoners. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who has particular insight as a former police officer, reminded us of the importance of rehabilitation. A greater emphasis on that would, in turn, create a better climate, ethos and atmosphere for prison staff and prisoners. The mental health of prison staff requires more attention. I do not think there is any doubt about that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the challenge to prison officers from the rate of suicide in prison. Surely that has an additional impact on the mental wellbeing of prison staff, in addition to all the other challenges they face. We all know that many people in prison suffer from mental health challenges that are not supported to the extent they should be. Prison officers are left to pick up the pieces, which has an undoubted impact on their own mental health. It is incredibly difficult, in the kind of work that prison officers do, to leave the job at the prison gates at the end of a shift.
The challenge of drugs in prison is an additional complication for prison officers. I do not understand, given that if anyone tries to bring the smallest amount of drugs through an airport they are caught at security, how it is that somehow we cannot seem to keep drugs out of prisons. That is a puzzle that I have real difficulty in reconciling in my mind. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I apologise for my pronunciation—pointed out that we cannot separate the mental health of prison officers from that of prisoners. Given that they are in such close confines, that seems a self-evident truth. The prison officer testimony that she introduced was a powerful addition to the debate. We are all worried about the coronavirus. Given the close confines in prisons, that virus must be an additional complication for prison officers, in seeking to keep themselves, and the prisoners they serve, safe.
The criminal justice system and prisons are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I will focus on an important health and safety issue for our prison staff that is reserved, and to which attention must be paid. A number of Members have referred to this really important aspect of the debate. Increasing the retirement age of our prison officers to 68, given what we have heard about the difficulties of their job and the constant threat of violence that too many of them face—if not actual violence, which is also far too common a reality for our prison officers—is cruel and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the important work that they do.
Prison officers, firefighters and police officers are all classified as emergency workers. The work that those groups do is essential to the smooth running of our society, and puts them in harm’s way. Why is it, then, that of those groups of emergency workers only prison officers are required to carry out their jobs well beyond the age of 60, until they are 68? Who on earth thinks that is a good idea?
We have talked about the health and safety of our prison officers. How can it not be as plain as the nose on our face that a prison officer who is, say, 66 years old should not deal with a young, fit, violent, angry prisoner who is aged 25? At 25, that prisoner, as well as being young, fit, violent and angry, is at the peak of his physical fitness. From a health and safety point of view, who on earth would think it acceptable for a 66-year-old prison officer to supervise or instruct that young prisoner, even if he were lucky enough to be ably assisted by his 65-year old colleague? It is completely unacceptable, and places the prison officer at unacceptable risk. Would any Member present seriously be happy with their 66-year-old father being placed in such danger because he was not permitted to retire?
I suspect, based on other debates, that the Minister will tell us, when he gets to his feet, that people are living longer. To that, I have to say, in this context: blah, blah, blah. What I mean by that, in case there is any confusion, is that it is just noise. I does not answer the question about ages. For the UK Government to tell prison officers that, despite decades of dedicated service, they must continue to work until they are 68 years old, knowing that that will directly place those older officers in danger, and potentially in situations for which they are physically unable to cope because of their advanced years, is negligent and not something that anyone present would want for their father or any other relative, because it is too dangerous.
If it is not advisable, desirable or safe for our relatives, or any of our loved ones, to work in such conditions at such an advanced age, it is simply not good enough for the prison officers in our communities who go to work each day. They are part of the emergency services, but they are not treated as such when it comes to retirement age, and apparently nobody can explain why that is the case.
Nobody can overestimate the impact that raising the retirement age to 68 is having on the morale of our prison officers. They feel undervalued, overlooked and forgotten about. When we consider how they are treated relative to other emergency workers, those feelings are perfectly justified, and that has to be addressed. Otherwise, we will exacerbate all the problems in prisons that we have heard about by haemorrhaging good prison officers, who will be a real loss to the service. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian pointed out that we are losing valuable experience from the service that is not easy to replace. Who benefits from that?
If as a society we believe that some people convicted of terrible crimes need to be kept away from society for a period of time, then as part of that we should automatically believe that those who supervise these people need to be treated in a way that reflects the importance of the job they do, and should be given parity with other emergency workers when it comes to retirement. It is quite simple: we do not want people in prison, but sometimes people need to be incarcerated, and that being the case, we need to appreciate and value the important work of our prison officers.
It really is time for this Government to do the right thing and stop deliberately refusing to see how illogical the retirement age of 68 is for prison officers in practical terms. They must give prison officers the ultimate health and safety protection that they need after dedicating their working lives to looking after those who the rest of society simply do not want to see. The UK Government need to deliver that parity, do the right and decent thing, and—to use a favourite phrase of the Prime Minister—just get it done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for having secured this important debate, although he sadly cannot be here today, and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for doing such an excellent job in taking it up in his absence. I also thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken for their excellent contributions to this debate; they have made some outstanding points, which I will touch on in my remarks.
Let us be in no doubt: our prisons are now more dangerous for prison officers, offenders and other staff than they have ever been. Staff working in our prisons now go to work fully expecting to be assaulted. In the latest safety and custody statistics published by the MOJ, we find that there were over 10,000 assaults on staff in the 12 months to December 2019, and close to 1,000 serious assaults on staff over the same period. Those are dramatic increases on the 2010 figures—just under 3,000 assaults on staff and just under 300 serious assaults on staff—which demonstrates a marked decline in both health and safety in our prisons. Nobody should ever have to be fearful of assault when they go to work every day, and it is shameful that this has become such a common occurrence across the prison estate.
There is no doubt that this horrific decline of health and safety in prisons is due to the huge numbers of prison officers who have left the Prison Service since the Government took office. I particularly want to mention the remarks of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) about Berwyn jail, which I have visited; it is a new jail that has huge space. I also visited Cardiff jail with her a year ago, which was very different. Clearly, however, these issues are relevant no matter where a prison is, because as the hon. Lady said so eloquently in her remarks, they are issues of culture and of support for staff.
The 2018-19 annual report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons stated that although
“There had been efforts to recruit and train new prison officers…many prisons still lacked a fully experienced workforce.”
That point has been made by all Members who have contributed. Even the Ministry of Justice’s own permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, has said that the reduction in staff numbers
“has been detrimental to security, stability and good order in prisons”.
Since 2010, the Prison Service has lost close to 3,000 band 3 to band 5 prison officers, who work in frontline roles on the wings and the balconies, and over 6,000 prison officers in total. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, the Government oversaw a situation in which the number of band 3 to band 5 frontline staff fell by over a quarter.
Although there have been some recent signs of positive improvements, the latest statistics show that the overall number of officers is once again falling, demonstrating that the Government have reached the peak of what their existing recruitment strategy can deliver. The number of experienced officers who have left is particularly concerning, with the proportion of officers who have three or more years’ experience having fallen from almost 90% in 2010 to just over 50% in 2019. These are points that have already been made by the hon. Member for East Lothian and by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain).
The role of a prison officer is not an easy one, nor is it one that can be easily taught in the classroom, so they urgently need training in order that they can gain experience. It is hard work, and it takes years of on-the-job training for new officers to learn their trade. The absence of experienced officers to mentor and guide them makes it even more of a challenge; the hon. Member for North East Fife emphasised the fact that it is not just physically demanding, but demanding on mental health, and the need for more support for those officers. The Government must not only redouble their recruitment efforts, but put in place a real retention strategy to stop so many new and experienced officers leaving the service.
The Government will inevitably try to lay the blame on other factors, including the widespread proliferation of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances, as a cause for the rise in violence, and they have set out several measures by which they claim that they will be able to curb the trade in and use of illegal substance behind bars. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both spoke about why drugs are so prevalent in our prison estate.
We support any efforts to clamp down on illegal drug use in prisons, which is putting prison officers’ and offenders’ safety at risk, but we are clear that the situation has been exacerbated by having insufficient prison officers to keep the situation in check, and that the flash technology that the Government seek to introduce is no replacement for experienced prison officers.
The Government must immediately seek to curb the rate at which experienced officers are leaving the prison system, and incentivise those who have left to return. A first step in doing so, in partnership with trade unions representing staff in prisons, would be to sign up to the “Safe Inside Prisons” charter that has been drawn up by staff with first-hand experience of working in dangerous conditions in prisons—all hon. Members in the debate have noted the excellent work that the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance has done on that. Doing so would show the prison workforce the respect they deserve for the work they do, and demonstrate that the Government take their welfare seriously.
On the issue of the prison estate, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who I have served with on the Justice Committee, made some excellent points about the need for leadership and more funding in the prison estate, and also the need for purposeful activity. Those are absolutely essential points that need to be heard by the Minister about what needs to be done to ensure that prisoners have things to do, but in a safe environment.
Under the previous prisons Minister, the Government promised a range of items of personal protective equipment, such as police-style rigid handcuffs and body-worn cameras, but the roll-out of the equipment has been woefully inadequate, with insufficient training provided to officers in their use and many cases where the equipment just has not been provided to their prisons. A body-worn camera would also provide little comfort to a prison officer who has just been assaulted. They want and need the measures to stop such assaults happening in the first place, which is why it is so important to have sufficient experienced prison officers in our prisons.
Finally, the Government must address the huge problems that they have created for themselves by raising the retirement age for prison officers to 68. That point was made forcefully by the hon. Members for East Lothian and for North Ayrshire and Arran, and rightly so. With such a physically demanding role, prison officers must be fully fit and sufficiently able to react in quickly changing environments, as required by the fitness test that they must complete. The public expect nothing less from those keeping them safe.
Yet the Government seem to believe, contrary to the MOJ’s own admission, that prison officers are able to carry out their demanding roles as they get older, ignoring significant concerns over safety in the process. The simple truth is that they cannot and they should not be expected to; 68 is too late as a retirement age for prison officers. The Government should now meet the POA and other staff representatives to resolve the concerns that prison officers have about retirement and their safety in prisons as they get older, and not try to pin the blame for the rise on staff.
With the growing spread of coronavirus across the country, there are also significant concerns for the health of prison officers and prisoners, who are locked up in a closely confined space in which viruses can spread like wildfire if not effectively controlled. I know the Government published a statement on their preparedness for dealing with covid-19 in prisons last Thursday, but I would be grateful if the Minister, in his response, could set out what measures are in place to ensure a safe staff-to-prisoner ratio in prisons if prisoners are hospitalised or forced to isolate, and how many prison officers and prisoners are currently isolated due to covid-19, including how many have tested positive.
With prisons still operating normally as of last Friday, including allowing visitors, do the Government have any plans to change this? If so, by when? What are the contingency plans in place should a significant number of covid-19 cases emerge in prisons? We would also welcome regular updates from the Minister on the number of prisoners, prison officers and other staff who have isolated or tested positive for covid-19, and on how the MOJ is responding to the situation.
For years, we have been warning repeatedly against the savage cuts made to the Prison Service, and about the effect that they would have, and have had, for prison officers forced to work in increasingly dangerous conditions. We have called for the Government to implement a real retention strategy for prison officers, to stop the exodus of experience from the Prison Service and to help protect health and safety, but they have not listened. In light of the testimony of prison officers and of the challenges, abuse and danger they face that we have heard about this morning, it is time they listened.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for leading this debate and for starting it in such a helpful and comprehensive way. I also thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), in his absence, for securing it. I entirely agree that he is doing the right thing, as is the Minister for whom I am standing in, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who is also self-isolating.
The debate has been genuinely excellent. One of the points made early on was this business about “The Shawshank Redemption”—the extent to which in our constituency mailbags the conditions in prisons are not necessarily the No. 1 priority. However, everyone in this House recognises that the state of our prisons is a critically important aspect of a functioning and decent society. I am grateful to all those who have taken the trouble on this most difficult day to make their points as they have.
I will add my own perspective briefly. A meeting with a constituent that I will never forget was with an experienced prison officer from Cheltenham. He had been seriously injured by an inmate at HMP Bristol, and came to speak to me about what had happened. What was so striking was that, despite that ordeal, he remained in post, undaunted, unbowed and utterly committed to his job. He demonstrated the finest values of the Prison Service, to which I pay tribute—not just with the usual platitudes about dedication, but acknowledging the values of courage, compassion, judgment and professionalism. He also demonstrated what everyone in the debate recognises as important: the determination to root out what Winston Churchill referred to many years ago as the
“treasure in the heart of every man”.
As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, being a prison officer can be a rewarding career for that very reason—being able to turn lives around.
Perhaps the most important point that I have taken away from this debate, made by both Government and Opposition Members, is that we need people like my constituent to stay in the Prison Service, because there can be few jobs in which experience is more important. Those senior officers provide leadership to others and set the culture of a successful prison. Equally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, those governors who have been in post will make the difference too. That is just one reason why this debate is so timely and important, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Easington for bringing it before the House.
I will set the context not by way of excuse but as a fact that we have to address. The prison population is more volatile than it was 10 years ago. That is partly down to drugs and partly down to various other social symptoms, I am sure, but that population is more volatile. That is part of the context.
Let me turn, however, to the issue of covid-19, which the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), rightly raised. Covid-19 is testing, and will test further, every part of our national life. Our prisons will not be immune from that. The most careful thought and planning has gone into preparing our prisons. That work does not emerge from a clear blue sky, but is built on existing and well-developed policies and procedures to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Prevention is of course better than cure, and basic hygiene practice has been rolled out in prisons, as one might expect. For those infected, prisons are well prepared to take action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified. Plans include isolating where necessary. Turning to the point about HMP Berwyn made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), the issue of whether specific prison wings can be used is a matter, quite properly, for consultation with the governor. That may be the appropriate thing to do, but it is not a diktat from Whitehall. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising the issue. The governor will need to be looped into any such decision.
I seek from the Minister a response to the concern locally that Berwyn will continue to fill. Its population is currently about 1,800, so it is slightly under capacity. It has been filled slowly, deliberately. At this time, it is even more important that there is not a rush to fill that prison, because it has the potential to do very good work in other ways.
I take that point and leave it where it lies. I thank the right hon. Lady for making it.
There is a long-standing national partnership agreement with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England for healthcare services for prisoners. Under that agreement, people in prison custody who become unwell do, as hon. Members know, have the benefit of on-site NHS healthcare services, which provide the first-line assessment and treatment response.
This second point is really important. We recognise the importance of prisoners maintaining contact with their family during this difficult period. Public Health England supports our desire to maintain normal regimes for as long as we can. If those cannot continue, well-worked-up plans are in place to ensure that that continues by other means, to the fullest extent possible.
Keeping people informed is also essential. We are issuing regular communications to staff and all the individuals in our care to explain the steps that we may need to take to protect them from the virus, to minimise anxiety and ensure maximum understanding and co-operation as the situation develops. That means providing regular updates via National Prison Radio, issuing guidance to staff and governors, providing posters and so on.
Let me turn to the staff impact. Staff have been and will be affected by this disease. We are moving swiftly to make additional staff available to establishments so that if current staff are unable to work because of infection, we can continue to run as normal a regime as possible. Some contingency planning may include the need to ask staff to work in a different place and potentially do different tasks; that will be to ensure that we can maintain frontline operational delivery to protect the public and robustly manage risks. In addition, as and when required, operational staff currently working in headquarters will be redeployed to prisons to support the service to maintain minimum staffing levels. May I take this opportunity to thank the unions, which are engaging proactively and co-operatively in this national endeavour? We are hugely grateful for that support.
The point was made about not penalising non-delivery of teaching hours. That seems to me eminently sensible. I hope that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd understands why I cannot commit to anything, but I take that point in the spirit in which it was intended and I hope that it will be given appropriate consideration.
Let me turn to the fair point that was made that existing safety measures are necessary to tackle a threat that exists, notwithstanding covid-19. There has been significant investment in increasing staff numbers. We recruited more than 4,000 additional full-time equivalent prison officers between October 2016 and December 2019. A fair point was made on pay. In July 2019, the MOJ accepted the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendations in full. The pay award was worth at least 2.2% for all prison staff, and there was a targeted 3% increase for band 3 prison officers on the frontline. It is the second year in a row that we have announced above-inflation pay rises, over 2%.
However, pay is only part of it. I completely recognise that conditions are critically important, too. How do we go about improving conditions so that experience is embedded in the Prison Service and those valuable officers will remain in place, providing the guidance, the culture and the leadership that a successful prison needs?
The first point is about the key worker role. This critically important initiative allows staff dedicated time to provide support to individual prisoners. That will help us to deal with emerging threats and improve safety, and of course it is important for those individuals to feel that they are being listened to and their concerns addressed. That helps them to feel valued, and of course helps the safety and stability of the prison. Key workers have a case load of about six prisoners. They have weekly one-to-one sessions with their prisoners to build constructive relationships and reduce levels of violence. That has started in all 92 prisons in the male closed estate, with 54 now delivering key work as part of their business as usual.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made an excellent point about purposeful activity and gave the useful example of what is happening in Germany and, I think, Denmark as well. That is exactly what we need to be getting to, and I commend him for making that powerful point.
The second point is serious offender intervention. We also have a range of capabilities to manage the risk that the most serious offenders pose in prison, including rehabilitative interventions and separation centres. Mental health was rightly raised. There are mental health facilities, but, as per the entirety of British society, mental health is a bigger issue now than it was in 2010. In fact, one of the bright lights, if I can use that expression, in the prison estate is the improving quality of mental health provision. That needs further strengthening, of course.
The third point is about equipping prison officers. We are committed to providing prison officers with the right support, training and tools. One essential matter is that we have started to roll out PAVA synthetic pepper spray for use by prison officers, but we want to ensure that PAVA defuses tensions, not creates them. All roads lead back to having established and experienced staff, because they will need to use their discretion in a sensible way to operate it.
The association between PAVA and key workers is understandable, but when many staff are away from duty and dependent on bringing staff in on detached duty to another prison, prisons end up, I am told, without that critical number of key workers—there is a vicious circle and PAVA will not be able to be implemented. Will he commit his Department to looking at how PAVA can actually be brought into prisons? The association between key workers and PAVA at present is not working in all prisons.
Time is slipping away. I appreciate all the Minister is saying about what the Government are doing to make prison officers feel more valued and safe, but I must press him on the issue of pension age. A lot of forceful points have been made today and we have little time left to address them. I ask him simply to say whether he is sympathetic.
I absolutely take the point that the hon. Lady and others raised. The reality is that whether a prison officer is 68, 67 or 66, there will be challenging circumstances. If there is a 25 year-old prisoner and a 52 year-old officer, that will present real challenges. I do not have a glib response for the hon. Lady, but I have heard the matters that she has raised. To solve the issue of our prisons we need to ensure that there are enough staff of the right level of experience to deal with these challenges. That will be the most important point and, frankly, that will make more difference than whether somebody is 68 or 67. The reality is that we need enough people of the right calibre and the right experience to manage volatile situations.
Time is against me and I want to leave the hon. Member for East Lothian time to respond. I could talk further about the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, which addresses the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who is no longer in her place, raised. It means that those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers, feel the full force of the law.
We are supporting the emotional and social wellbeing of staff, which is critically important, as well as protecting them from violence. They have access to an occupational health service. We are rolling out TRiM—trauma risk management—that, as hon. Members will know, is being rolled out among police forces as well. There are post-incident care teams, occupational health support, cognitive behavioural therapy, and so much more.
The health and safety of our staff and those in our care remains the top priority for the Ministry of Justice, and we are making significant efforts to ensure that the safety challenges in prisons continue to be addressed. Covid-19 presents a new set of challenges. We are tackling them, informed by the best scientific evidence available, alongside the existing health and safety pressures we are facing in our prisons. I take this opportunity to thank prison staff. They are being tested and they are going to be tested. We value, admire and support them, and we are going to get through this.
Thank you, Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again.
I want to thank everyone here, although time constrains me from thanking each hon. Member individually. There has been a uniformity of purpose and a recognition that the virus is going to cause significant problems in the prison estate. It is but a microcosm of our wider society, and hopefully this will be the catalyst to allow us to address not just that particular issue, but the underlying problems.
I thank the hon. Member for Easington, who cannot be here but who was the initiator of the debate. I repeat my thanks to all who participated and to the Minister for his response, which we take in the spirit in which it was given. Once again, we thank all those who serve in difficult times, because prison officers are an emergency service. The challenges that everybody is facing are being faced by them in greater form and to a greater extent, because of the close proximity of those they work with.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered health and safety of prison staff.
Supermarkets’ Role in Tackling Childhood Obesity
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of supermarkets in tackling childhood obesity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Even as we struggle with the threat of covid-19, I want to stress the importance of this debate, because childhood obesity is a subject whose importance cannot be overestimated. It is without doubt the time bomb that will increasingly affect the lives and wellbeing of our society in the years ahead. We need clear steps to address it. The report, “Healthy Families: The present and future role of the supermarket”, from the all-party parliamentary group on a fit and healthy childhood, sets out to contribute to the debate. It does not seek to cast supermarkets as the villains of the piece; rather, it recognises the influence that they have and how that influence can be used positively to help tackle health issues.
Supermarkets have always occupied a special place in our psyche. It was J. K. Galbraith who told us:
“A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions”,
and Jonathan Sacks who suggested:
“A Martian would think that the English worship at supermarkets, not in churches.”
Supermarkets are now widespread in many countries. This country’s development trailed behind that of the USA. Indeed, by 1947 our self-service sector consisted of a mere 10 shops, but by 1969 supermarkets numbered about 3,500 and were well and truly established as part of our shopping experience. Store layout, daily promotions and sensory cues are all part of a formidable arsenal designed to encourage customer purchases, often regardless of the nutritional value of the product.
Price promotion is a key element in the strategy. A Cancer Research UK report in 2019 argued that three in 10 food and drink purchases are determined by price. The households making the greatest use of price promotion bought more products high in fat, salt and sugar. The upper quartile of promotional purchasers are 43% more likely to be overweight than the lower quartile, irrespective of income and age demographics.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern that supermarkets place chocolates just in front of the tills, so that there is almost a wish to buy them as people make their purchases. Does he feel that supermarkets should move them away from the tills, so that there is not that temptation for mothers and children as they come to pay for goods?
I certainly agree. There is quite a lot of research to show that children, almost irrespective of their age, are influenced by that, and that the placement of products influences purchases.
The Obesity Health Alliance’s 2018 report “Out of Place” focused on the prime locations in stores for selling particular goods—exactly the point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just made. It found that 43% of all food and drink promotions situated in prominent places, such as entrances, checkouts, aisle ends and so on, were for sugary food and drink. Fruit and vegetables amounted to less than 1% of products promoted in high-profile locations.
Diabetes UK reports that one in three children in primary schools in England currently suffer from excess weight, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes. Excess weight or obesity accounts for up to 85% of someone’s overall risk of developing the condition. The Obesity Health Alliance makes a similar point: as well as causing type 2 diabetes, obesity can lead to cancer, heart and liver disease, and associated mental health problems.
I think it is wise to reflect on diabetics. I declare an interest, as I have been a type 2 diabetic for almost 15 years. There are 5 million diabetics in the United Kingdom, and the number is rising. It is one of the greatest health problems for future generations. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a campaign to address the issue across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I do, because we have to educate people who could avoid this condition about to how to do so, not least because, as the Obesity Health Alliance points out, the annual cost of overweight and obesity-related ill health to the NHS is £6.1 billion.
Like other organisations, Diabetes UK acknowledges that products high in sugar are more likely to be promoted through price promotions. It argues that we must have a rebalancing of price promotions to favour healthier products, which would make healthier options cheaper and encourage people to buy such products. Polling conducted by Diabetes UK shows that 82% of adults favour front-of-pack traffic light labelling to help them make a more informed choice. As Britain negotiates new trade arrangements following our EU exit, there is an obvious opportunity to ensure that the UK can introduce legislation to mandate such labelling.
Supermarkets are showing that they have the capacity to reach out to different segments of our society and to play an important social role. In 2014 Sainsbury’s introduced a disability-friendly trolley, designed in conjunction with parents of disabled children. In 2018 Morrisons introduced a quiet hours scheme, with dim lighting and music switched off to help parents with autistic children. There is widespread agreement that the biggest driver of food poverty is lack of money, and that low-income families are therefore nudged by economic factors towards a diet characterised by highly processed, calorie-dependent foods with less fibre and less vitamin and mineral content. The consequent long-term health risks of such a diet can include heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses.
Supermarkets are the sole largest food source for families in England and could support disadvantaged households in making healthy choices. There are good examples in other countries. Denmark, Norway and Sweden use a keyhole label to facilitate healthy choices. Since 2000 there has been a requirement in Finland for a “healthy heart choice” symbol to be displayed on over 11,000 products. In Israel, co-operatives sponsor community physical activity, as does Sainsbury’s in this country—it has helped raise over £186 million for sports equipment through its Active Kids scheme. In the United States, we have seen experiments with stocking healthier products at checkouts. In New York, 170 supermarkets participated in a study that found that displaying low-calorie drinks at eye level increased sales. In Australia, a study found that healthy signs on shopping baskets influence purchases. In New Zealand, supermarkets have co-operated on a health star rating and on programmes to encourage healthy eating.
Supermarkets have a major role to play in the drive to improve the nation’s health, but their potential is as yet untapped. In order to support families to make healthier choices, supermarkets must address the current retail environment by ensuring that healthy foods are available and conveniently located in stores. Snacks are popular across all income groups but tend to comprise a higher proportion of all food consumed by those on lower incomes. Major retailers could improve the availability of higher-quality snacks to low-income families by developing their own brand lines and diverting surplus waste food towards the production of affordable, healthy snacks. They could agree to place high-fat, salt and sugar products alongside like items, rather than supporting out-of-context promotions. Healthy products should be in prime locations, such as the end of aisles, at eye level on shelves and at checkouts.
I acknowledge the good that is done. Tesco’s free fruit for kids and “helpful little swaps” are welcome, as is Sainsbury’s investment in reducing the cost of fruit and vegetables and its measures to end multi-buy promotions. However, we need supermarkets to agree that all customers should have access to clear, accurate nutritional and value-for-money information on all products. Fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods should be positioned in prominent places. Price discounts and multi-buy promotions should be discouraged, or offered on healthy foods.
I do not want the Government to bludgeon supermarkets; I want supermarkets to be partners in this exercise. I want the Government to provide more information, in the context of health and education campaigns, about the psychology of shopping and the importance of lists and meal planning, but I also want the Government to consider legislative measures on price and multi-buy promotions. We can make a real difference here. I want supermarkets to use their influence to play their full part in helping us tackle the problem of childhood obesity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this important debate, and on his work with the all-party parliamentary group on a fit and healthy childhood. I remember responding to him in one my first outings as a then Under-Secretary of State and finding myself, with a slight degree of nervousness for my ministerial career, agreeing with virtually everything he said. However, I am still here, and it has not done me any harm. I fear that I may be in agreement with a number of his points again today, but hopefully at no risk to my ministerial career.
Before turning to the detail of the hon. Gentleman’s points, I thank our supermarkets, particularly at this important time. They are very much in the frontline of our battle with covid-19, and I know that they, and particularly all their staff, in whatever capacity, are doing all they can to keep shelves stocked, deliveries going out and the nation fed. It is a complex job at any time, so I thank them. In parallel, I encourage customers and shoppers to be responsible, to purchase only what they need and to think of others. Working together, I am confident that the supermarkets will ensure that their supply chains remain robust and that shelves will continue to be full.
In its 15th report, “Healthy Families: The present and future role of the supermarket”, alongside the previous reports to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the APPG has provided a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on improving children’s health and reducing childhood obesity—I have a copy here, and I very much enjoyed it as my bedtime reading last night. He is right; with more than one in five children entering primary school overweight or obese, rising to more than one in three by the time they leave, it is right that we take bold action to improve the nation’s diet. There can be no doubting the key role, as he has said, that supermarkets and other retailers play in helping consumers make healthier choices. I know that many supermarkets and businesses get this. They know that their customers want a healthier offer and that it makes business sense.
Although I am not familiar with the group that produced the report, I saw a recent report by ShareAction that highlighted the importance of investors’ decisions in the sector and factors such as those highlighted by the hon. Gentleman. With environmental, social and governance considerations playing an ever more important role in investment decisions by big investors more broadly, it is right that supermarkets recognise that this agenda is good not only for their customers, but for their business.
As the hon. Gentleman alluded to in various examples, many supermarkets have already taken the lead in the UK and feature the voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling on their pre-packaged foods, helping consumers make informed and healthier choices about the food they buy. The UK-wide voluntary front-of-pack traffic light labelling scheme introduced in the summer of 2013 is proving successful, but he makes a good point. It is important to ensure that UK labelling remains effective for UK consumers. We will always be willing to consider a range of measures to build on the success of the current traffic light system to ensure that it keeps up to date and continues to be successful. It is right that people are informed when choosing what they eat and what they buy.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we have seen great work by supermarkets in a range of areas. I will add a few to the list. I hasten to add that if I miss any out, it is not because of any conscious decision; I have merely picked a few examples to illustrate the work that supermarkets do. For example, Aldi and Lidl—a point he touched on—were the first retailers to introduce healthier checkouts in 2015 when they removed all confectionery and sweets from checkouts and replaced them with healthier options, including dried fruit, nuts and water. I have seen that in Waitrose and other supermarket checkouts. It goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the importance of what is in the physical environment as we queue up at the checkout and the influence that can have at the last minute, with young children saying, “Mummy, Daddy, can I have that?” It is therefore important that supermarkets do their bit at least to gently steer people in the direction of healthier options.
Sainsbury’s has removed all multi-buy promotions on food and replaced them with lower regular prices on everyday items. Tesco has reformulated its entire soft drinks portfolio—the first supermarket to do so—to be below the level for the soft drinks industry levy, and has given away 100 million pieces of fruit to children in their free fruit for kids campaign. All supermarkets and many larger retailers have restricted the sale of energy drinks to children. In January, Aldi and Lidl announced that they will remove familiar figures from their own-label cereal boxes. All of that is important and positive and should be welcomed. However, as the report acknowledges, there are areas where supermarkets can go further, including doing more to promote and market a healthier food and drink offer more broadly.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, promotional marketing by price and store location can impact on the food purchases that we all make. Some can increase the amount of food and drink that people buy by around 20%, which can lead to overconsumption of less healthy products and can cost consumers more money in the long run. Obviously, parents want a healthier balance of offers and deals, but they are not helped by the fact that most deals and offers are currently for unhealthier products.
I am conscious that none of us wants to be hectored and lectured about what to eat. I feel strongly that people should have the right to choose freely for themselves and their families as they know best, but they need to do that on the basis of making an informed decision. People need information to make the choices about their and their children’s lives. It is not fair when all the promotions in store are mostly for unhealthy food, so the balance of the promotions needs to shift towards healthier options to make it easier to make healthier choices when shopping.
To respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we hear the frustration of parents about what could be called pester power, particularly when queuing at checkouts. It can be hard to say no, so it is important that supermarkets do what they can to help parents in that situation. Again, rebalancing promotions in prominent locations such as tills and shop entrances towards healthier options can help reduce excess calorie consumption and contribute to reductions in childhood obesity in the long term. Many supermarkets are doing so, and I commend them for that, but there is more to do. I encourage supermarkets to continue down that path.
All of that is why in the second chapter of our childhood obesity plan we committed to consult on our intention to restrict promotions on products high in fat, sugar or salt by location and price in businesses that sell food and drink. The consultation closed last year and we will set out our response as soon as we can. I know that both hon. Members who spoke in the debate and the APPG will want to study the response carefully. They may well revert with their reflections on the adequacy of the Government response and whether it goes as far as they would wish. Indeed, I encourage that; it is part of what the House and debate are for.
We want a fairer deal for everyone wherever they live or shop, and whatever their background or financial situation. We want the healthy option to be an easier option for everyone so that we can help all our children grow up healthier. Indeed, as we look towards the future and the demands on our NHS and social care, we are always conscious of what changing demographic demands might do in the future and what children and young people may be letting themselves in for by virtue of their diet or lack of exercise, which in future may require longer-term care and have an impact not only on them but on the NHS and social care’s ability to meet those needs. It is right that, as well as ensuring that the social care and health system can meet those needs, we do everything we can to prevent long-term conditions coming about in the first place.
I have no desire to bludgeon supermarkets, and I understand the Government’s desire to work with them but, given the Minister’s point about long-term health conditions, I was struck that Public Health England’s report showed how some supermarket’s own food products—I will not name the supermarkets—showed increases in sugar content. An increase was found over the period of the report in sweet confectionary, chocolate spreads and morning goods. While the Government are trying to persuade supermarkets, should they also consider fiscal measures as an incentive to meet sugar reductions?
The hon. Gentleman gently tries to tempt me into an area that is perhaps more properly the remit of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do take the point behind what he says: we need to use multiple means to encourage supermarkets—perhaps that is the best way to phrase it. Again, I encourage him and the all-party parliamentary group to wait for the consultation response and beyond that to engage fully. I am sure that he will. We may well find ourselves here in a few months’ time—or when the report is published—for another debate in the light of the Government’s response.
I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that we will need supermarkets to continue their good work, alongside the out-of-home sector, health professionals, schools, local authorities, families and individuals, who all play an important role. We must also be willing to encourage supermarkets, building on their good work to date, to be ambitious and go that step further. We all have a role to play in what we eat, keeping ourselves healthy and doing the right thing by our long-term health. It is important that supermarkets play their role, and it is important that all of us do as well.
Question put and agreed to.
Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and the Green Belt
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Greater Manchester spatial framework and the green belt.
I am here on behalf of all my constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington who believe that we should do everything possible to protect the green belt. The Greater Manchester spatial framework is described as GM’s
“Plan for Homes, Jobs, and the Environment…to deliver the homes people need up until 2037.”
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority website comments:
“This plan is about providing the right homes, in the right places, for people across our city region. It’s about creating jobs and improving infrastructure to ensure the future prosperity of Greater Manchester.”
In my view, however, talking specifically about my home town of Bury, the GMSF does not deliver that. Instead, it is a charter to build unaffordable homes in the wrong place, without ensuring that the necessary infrastructure will be in place to support such large-scale construction. Furthermore, the plan ensures the destruction of large areas of green belt unnecessarily and the devastation of important wildlife habitats. It is also a guarantee of congestion on our roads, which will increase along with air pollution.
This debate presents an opportunity for Members, specifically from Greater Manchester, to tell the Mayor and the leaders of the 10 metropolitan authorities that the draft GMSF is unacceptable. More must be done to ensure that the green belt is protected within the framework of the plans recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to bring Britain’s planning system into the 21st century.
Next month, the Government will launch a register of brownfield sites that will map out unused land, as part of plans to encourage councils to make the most of such land first, backed by £400 million to bring mostly unused land back into use. Developers will be able to demolish vacant commercial, industrial and residential buildings, and replace them with well-designed homes, without the delay of a lengthy planning process. Crucially, £12 billion of investment is to be ploughed into building more affordable homes.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is of great importance to all our constituents. I apologise; I will have to leave early for another meeting at 3.30 pm. His point about brownfield sites is vital at New Carrington in my constituency. It is a massively contaminated site, but one with great potential. We will need very substantial investment to undertake the necessary remediation.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in urging the Government to ensure that all the funds we need to remediate those brownfield sites are made available to Greater Manchester? Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to build the houses we need in the places where they could be constructed.
I am sure the Minister will comment on the hon. Lady’s intervention when rounding up.
Given the drive to regenerate our town centres—through building beautiful, affordable homes more densely, in part—it is clear that the green belt in towns such as Bury is being sacrificed unnecessarily. The local environment of the residents of Tottington and Walshaw, and in the vicinity of Elton reservoir, is being decimated because the local council is a signatory of a planning document that is not fit for purpose. It has no plan to take advantage of the funding opportunities provided by this Government to reclaim and build truly affordable houses on brownfield sites.
I appreciate the support given by the Government for the development on brownfield sites, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that the plan, the GMSF mark 2, was only to be published for public consultation and public challenge after the local elections? People would not have been able to judge councillors, local authorities and the Mayor on what they are proposing. Even though we want local democracy, this is hardly a good example of it.
My hon. Friend speaks powerfully, and I agree with every point he made.
One of the great faults of the GMSF is that it does not require local authorities to be proactive or innovative in their planning policy. Instead, it allows them to go for the easy option of allowing developers to build three, four and five-bedroom houses all over the green belt—houses that will be totally unaffordable to the vast majority of my constituents.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the nature of the housing being built. My local authority in Rochdale has signalled its intention to build more houses than required, and they will be mostly unaffordable. Does he agree that the strategy should take account of housing need?
I agree with every word of my hon. Friend’s powerful point, which I am sure the Minister will address.
The proposals to build on the green belt come despite the Government’s alterations to the national planning policy framework, which have strengthened green belt protections. Why are local authorities such as Bury Council determined to build on the green belt rather than work innovatively to regenerate brownfield sites and provide truly affordable homes, by which I mean houses and flats with a value of less than £100,000? I believe that they are simply taking the easy option.
The defence to that charge by those who support the GMSF is that the Government are forcing them to build a certain number of homes in line with national guidance, and that to do so they must encroach on the green belt in Bury and elsewhere. That question was put to the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate the week before last, and has been put to Housing Ministers before him. Will the Minister confirm that councils are not mandated to build definitively the number of homes required under 2014 population projection figures? Those figures should be the starting point. Local authorities should conduct their own assessment of the number of homes that need to be built over the length of a local plan, and those homes should be affordable and in the places that people need them.
There is concern that as GMSF mark 1 was torn up, GMSF mark 2 will also be rejected—the Mayor of Greater Manchester should do that—so we will be in limbo. Local authorities should be respected and valued, as should their determination of what their communities need. The planners and developers should follow what the local authority wants.
My hon. Friend speaks very powerfully on this issue and I agree with every word that he said.
I also bring to the Minister’s attention the fact that 2016 Office for National Statistics population forecast figures revised down Bury’s population by 43%, and recently released 2018 provisional figures show a further fall of 13%. On the basis of recent population projections, no homes would have to be built on the green belt in my constituency. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will review the use of projections published six years ago?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The issue of “brownfield first” quite rightly comes up all the time and, as an Opposition MP, I point out that, in fairness, that is the Government’s policy. Certainly, in my constituency and in the Borough of Tameside, almost every bit of brownfield land has been found for use, even if its viability is borderline. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government should find more money to make unviable sites viable, or is he saying that we should build fewer homes in Bury, Tameside, Greater Manchester and so on? Those are two different ways to solve the problem, and I want to understand his approach.
There are three questions in the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I have already commented on the funding that the Government are making available to assist local authorities in remediating brownfield sites—that will be very important. The question comes down to housing need. It is the easiest thing in the world simply to say, “We need to build more houses,” but we need a robust formula that allows each local authority to build the number of houses that they need and where they need them over the course of a local plan. I am making the point that using the most up-to-date population projections reduces the need to build on the green belt, and in my borough—I am sorry, I cannot comment in respect of the borough of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds)—that would allow properties to be built on brownfield sites.
The question, though, is the “brownfield first” policy. “Brownfield first”, again, is a statement, but there is nothing within the GMSF to force councils to build on the brownfield first. If the GMSF was in place, the green belt would undoubtedly be concreted over and no developer would be interested in building truly affordable homes on brownfield sites.
Coming back to the point, we have to build homes for people who need them, at a price that is affordable, in the right place. In the GMSF in respect of Bury, there was virtually no comment regarding building affordable flats in the town centres within my borough. That is one of many reasons why I believe the document is not fit for purpose.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in asking the Minister—this is slightly tangential to the GMSF, but none the less pertinent—to look again at permission in principle? That is also being used in my constituency by developers as a means to try to build on green belt where the planning and obligations that the developers are required to meet are much less rigorous, and both the public and the planning committee have really no say in stopping such applications. Will he join me in asking the Minister to look again at that particular regime and what it might mean for building on the green belt?
Again, I thank the hon. Lady; that it is a very strong point, and I am sure the Minister will address it in his closing remarks.
As you can probably tell, Ms Noakes, I could talk on this subject at great length, but a number of other hon. Members wish to speak. I have been contacted by numerous constituents, so in bringing my contribution to an end I ask the Minister to comment on the following points, which they raised.
First, does the Minister agree that housing occupancy rates should be used to calculate how many houses we require in Bury and elsewhere? The average occupancy rate, I believe, is 2.35 persons per home in Bury, against the national average of 2.4. For example, that would mean 5,733 new homes needed within the metropolitan borough of Bury, rather than the 9,500 currently indicated in the GMSF. That is taking into account the 2,000 current offset, and it would be the case even using 2014 figures.
Secondly, returning to a point that has already been raised, will the “brownfield first” policy be made a legal requirement, which it has to be if it is to have any teeth? How can local authorities access national funding to assist in clearing toxic sites and making them financially viable for development, which they have to be? Those sites are the ones where we can develop truly affordable homes. We must be aiming to build homes that are innovative and green, but that are truly affordable for £40,000, £50,000 or £60,000. We must have a real vision for ensuring that we have the houses our populations need.
Thirdly, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that developers contribute to local public transport and infrastructure requirements? Fourthly, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that there are no further impacts from flooding as a direct consequence of the construction of roads and housing? In my seat, it is proposed to build on fields within Walshaw. Those are areas that flood, and have flooded in recent times. If we build there, that is only going to get worse.
Finally, the Government are committed to protecting, restoring and expanding natural habitats. How can sites in GM gain access to the Nature4Climate fund to ensure the preservation of local mosslands and woodlands?
The one thing that all our areas have is vociferous, committed and passionate community groups, who have been at the forefront of the fight to protect the green belt. I finish off by paying tribute to the Bury folk, numbering in the thousands, who are passionate and determined to protect their environment, to protect their community and to do what they feel is best to ensure that we all have a positive future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) on securing this important and timely debate.
According to the 2019 draft of the Greater Manchester spatial framework—GMSF—Salford is to accommodate 16% of the overall housing requirement for the region. This allocation has risen compared with the 2016 draft, and Salford’s overall housing requirement is now second only to Manchester’s. The adoption of the GMSF in its current form would result in four sites being removed from the green belt in Salford—GM allocations 30, 31, 32 and 33—in order to deliver 2,350 homes and commercial space at Port Salford. All four green-belt sites allocated for development in Salford lie within my constituency, and my constituents have expressed a great deal of anger over plans in the GMSF to develop that green-belt land. I share their concerns and strongly oppose any loss of green-belt land in my constituency. I will briefly lay out why.
In July 2019, I presented a petition to the House signed by more than 1,000 local people objecting to GM allocation 31 in Boothstown. Green-belt land is precious in Salford, as it provides the green lungs for an urban city. It is vital that these green spaces are preserved in a city that has high levels of air pollution, low levels of physical activity and poorer health outcomes. I have objected to the two previous drafts of the GMSF because Salford has enough brownfield sites to satisfy the housing need outlined in the revised GMSF without the development of green-belt land, but today I will talk particularly about GM allocation 32—a proposal to build 1,600 homes on green-belt land north of Irlam station, in an area known locally as Chat Moss.
The 2016 draft of the GMSF recognised that
“the site has significant depths of peat…it still performs an important carbon storage function, and should be retained wherever possible.”
However, the 2019 draft of the GMSF removed that observation. I believe strongly that our mosslands should be managed and restored, to ensure that their carbon sequestration potential is realised. We should not allow pockets of this land to be lost for development.
Given the large sum of money that the Government allocated in the Budget just last week for the protection and restoration of peat mosses, it is surely absurd that we are still looking at building on peat mosses that are still in good condition when money is being allocated to restore ones that need to be improved.
I absolutely agree. That is particularly relevant for Chat Moss because, for those who do not know it, large parts of the moss were destroyed, or nearly destroyed, by peat extraction. I fought that peat extraction and we won on that issue, so we should not be talking about losing any more peat. Some wonderful projects are restoring those lands affected by peat extraction, but let us not go back and do that again.
The land at Chat Moss is peatland, and its designation for development, interestingly, runs counter to certain policies. GM-S 2, on carbon and energy, encourages
“Increasing carbon sequestration through the restoration of peat-based habitats, woodland management and tree planting”.
GM-G 2, on developing a green infrastructure network, says we should
“Reduce carbon emissions, by sequestering and storing carbon, particularly in peat and trees”.
GM-G 10, on seeking a net enhancement of biodiversity and geodiversity, states that we should be
“Safeguarding, restoring and sustainably managing Greater Manchester’s most valuable soil resources, tackling soil degradation/erosion and recovering soil fertility, particularly to ensure protection of peat-based soils and safeguard ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land.”
That last point is key, beyond the fact of the peatlands.
I have stated repeatedly that this land should be used in a sustainable way, but given the need for locally sourced food and fuel, which I think we will see much more of in the coming months, it would be much more productive and efficient to use the land for agriculture. The land has been recognised as grade 1 agricultural land—“best and most versatile”, flexible, productive and efficient, which can deliver food and non-food crops for future generations. That means that it is excellent-quality land with either no, or very minor, limitations for agricultural use. A range of agricultural and horticultural crops can be grown on this land, and yields are very high and less variable than from land of lower quality.
The mossland is also a tract of countryside of great value to those living in surrounding urban communities. In addition to its agricultural importance, it has great potential for informal recreation for those living in Salford, and it is important for nature conservation, particularly for bird life. For Members seeking to walk and maintain social distancing, it is possible to really get away from people when you are walking on Chat Moss. The loss of this land would set a worrying precedent. The framework states that remaining areas of moss land would be protected and preserved, but local people are sceptical of that claim.
The destruction of green-belt land is not the only thing drawing objections to the GM Allocation 32. Irlam is a town with one main access road, the A57, which connects Irlam to Eccles and the M60 in one direction, and Cadishead and the M6 in the other direction. It may no longer be true since I wrote this speech, but traffic is at a standstill on many days—more so when there is an event at the AJ Bell stadium; there may not be one of those for some time to come. If the development goes ahead, there are real fears that it could add at least 2,400 cars to what has been a gridlock in this area for years. Although we encourage people to leave their cars at home and use public transport, the Metrolink network does not get close to Irlam. Constituents describe local train services as appalling and a daily nightmare, and bus services have been severely cut.
It is important to view this alongside GM Allocation 33, the Port Salford extension. That is one mile away on the same A57 road leading in and out of Irlam, and that will in itself add hundreds of HGVs and transit vehicles to the local road network. In addition to the potential 2,400 extra cars each day, I cannot see how all of this works together to create a sustainable and greener environment for those living in Irlam and the neighbouring town of Cadishead. I have objected strongly and repeatedly to these aspects of the Greater Manchester spatial framework, because I have real concerns about these proposals for Salford. The framework earmarks substantial areas of green-belt land for large development and commercial space.
It is also essential that we have clarity from the Government on the basic housing figures that Greater Manchester should be using to calculate the housing need. Currently, there is no clear guidance on whether targets should be based on forecasts made by the Office for National Statistics, or on Government forecasts. Once that has been clarified, there needs to be an explanation on whether local housing need target is a minimum number, a target that the city region must hit, or if that is a buffer within which we can fall. These two issues are vital to my constituents, who face losing four precious areas of green belt.
Like the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), I pay tribute to local campaigners and people who persistently describe and value this wonderful piece of land. The impact of extra traffic and air pollution, which I hope I have outlined, together with the loss of recreation space brought about by any new development will be damaging to the people of Salford. This green-belt land is cherished by our local communities. There would be grave consequences if these four green-belt sites on my constituency were released for development.
I have grave concerns about how my own local authority, Wigan Council, has conducted itself during the Greater Manchester spatial framework process. When the plan’s first draft was announced, many local farmers and landowners were surprised to find that their land was earmarked for development. They had not put forward their land during the “call for sites” process. They had not even been consulted on whether their land should have been included in these plans.
When the landowners attended a public information event to protest the lack of consultation, they were told initially that, should they refuse to sell, the council would rely on the use of compulsory purchase powers to obtain the land. Following a public backlash against this approach, both the leader of Wigan Council and Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, stated that they would not using compulsory purchase powers after all.
The council has still not removed all these sites from the plans, however, which raises two issues: first, the deliverability of these sites and secondly, housing supply if these sites are allocated but not deliverable. Wigan Council’s approach towards the GMSF has generated an unworkable plan because of the lack of due diligence in ensuring site availability, a lack of consultation with the affected landowners, and an unwillingness to compromise when this was highlighted. I hope that measures can be put in place to ensure that this situation does not arise again.
I had not intended to make a speech—but if there is an opportunity, why pass it up? It is good to have this debate with new colleagues who have come in as a result of the election; obviously, that change of composition is not entirely favourable to the Opposition side of the Chamber, but it is good to be having this discussion again.
It makes sense to do this housing plan together. Between the two speeches we have just heard, I could not help but notice that one of the attractions of a GMSF-style plan for boroughs such as Tameside, Oldham, Bolton and Stockport is that it transfers that housing allocation into, in the main, Manchester and Salford. If we are not to have the plan for Bury and we are not to have the plan for Salford, that presumably means fewer houses for Salford, but more for Bury. That has to be acknowledged and admitted.
Of course, we are discussing the Greater Manchester spatial framework in the round, which encompasses the 10 local authorities that would be working with the Mayor of Greater Manchester to put this in place. One problem has been that where there are some pluses—for instance around common ground, which would allow movements between the various areas—that is very much top-down driven, so we are waiting for the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester to tell us what we should have. I have been working with local residents, my constituents and neighbourhood groups, including Woodford Neighbourhood Forum and Save Heald Green Green Belt, and they want to know what is going to be right for their area. That depends on having the right figures, so we really do need guidance on those figures, and to bear in mind that we want a spatial framework or local plans that fit the needs of our local populations.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s statement, and I agree with her. There have been huge problems with process, and I cannot easily see how we correct those, because the honest truth about the way we do housing allocation in this country is that we start with a piece of agricultural land. The minute we make that a piece of housing land, we increase its value tenfold, and that value does not stay in the public sector: it goes to the private sector, despite the fact that there has been no productive capacity increase. It is simply an administrative change that makes people very wealthy, so how and when we release that information to prevent land speculation is clearly a massive issue.
The hon. Lady asked about the figures, which are really what the debate has been about for the past few years. To be honest, sometimes we have had clarification from Ministers, but when the written version has come through, it has been something completely different from what Conservative Back Benchers were told at the time. However, my understanding is this: the Government set a housing target figure for each borough. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said that local areas should do that, which would be a revolutionary change in how the Government approach housing allocation. I am not sure that is where this Government are going, for the simple reason that if that system were to exist, I cannot imagine that the Government’s housing targets would get anywhere near fulfilled. Many parts of the country, particularly in the south-east, would just refuse to build any houses at all, so I cannot imagine a situation in which there is not national Government guidance. If that is going to happen, we would like to know that, because it would be revelatory.
Once that housing target figure is assessed, it is possible to do something like what we are trying to do together in Greater Manchester: work out a different figure for each borough, based on re-organising and re-allocating some of that housing need around Greater Manchester. Once there is a figure for a borough, as we have for Tameside, we look at the housing land supply and try to get everything we can into that, so as to avoid touching the green belt. That is the Government’s policy: we cannot touch the green belt until we have as much of the brownfield land supply in as possible.
There are sites in my constituency that, to be honest, would require tens of millions of pounds to remediate, but we got them in there because building on them is the right thing to do. We presume that central Government will come to help remediate those sites and make them viable, but I am not sure that commitment will be infinite. I know the phrase “whatever it takes” is in vogue right now, but there are surely limits to what the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will give Greater Manchester to remediate all those sites. That is the point at which we get to the green belt.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. One of our issues in Greater Manchester is that these areas have been allocated. I have allocations of green-belt housing of over 2,000 houses, so this is having a huge impact on my area, and people are fearful that the green belt is going to be built on. I have been pushing for “brownfield sites first”, and for a register in Stockport that should be entirely about building on those brownfield sites, but unfortunately, while those allocations are still in the Mayor’s plan, people feel we are going to have this housing there.
I completely agree, but it goes back to the difficulties of the process. There are green-belt sites marked for allocation in my constituency that I oppose; Apethorn Lane, effectively, is the land between Stockport and Tameside. I have nothing against people from Stockport, but I want to maintain that green-belt barrier between us. We are close enough as it is.
I am grateful to my constituency neighbour for giving way. Members might look a little surprised, given that I do not represent a Greater Manchester constituency. However, my constituency is right on the border and homes built in places such as Tameside or Stockport have a big impact on commuters in my seat, particularly on the A6 or through Mottram to try to get on the M67.
A big complaint has always been that we put in houses without the infrastructure to cope with them. To praise the GMSF—slightly unusually—one good thing is the proposal for a Gamesley railway station that is included in it. Will my constituency neighbour have words with his colleague, Andy Burnham, to see whether he can throw his full support behind that station, and will the Minister have words with the rail Minister about getting a train station built in Gamesley?
It is great to see the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) here. To be frank, in Tameside we might say it is houses built in Derbyshire that have put infrastructure burdens on to us, but the fact that it is relevant to his constituency and his towns shows why this debate is so important.
We all agree on the crucial point about infrastructure and about how housing, if it is not organised through a plan like the GMSF, will be developer-led and of a size and scale that we would not necessarily want to see in our constituencies. I often tease Conservative friends about how they believe the market should determine lots of things, but apparently not, in this case, housing allocation.
Development is a huge problem. The speculative aspect—often seen as something that does not meet local needs and is not connected to local transport—is the biggest problem. I could see it coming from the minute I was first elected to Tameside Council. I was a Longdendale councillor on the border with High Peak. When I looked at housing policy, it was clear that we were running out of brownfield land sites. In Hyde we had built on all kinds of former employment sites, which, again, was the right thing to do, but that cannot go on for ever.
When we looked at what would inevitably happen in Tameside, we got to thinking about a garden village, where we would insist that, if were to allow housing to be built, it would come with infrastructure investment up front in schools and in transport—all the things that reflect the only time this country has ever done housing policy well, which is when the new towns were built after the war and then a few decades later. They were built in exchange for the establishment of the green belt. That was the deal. We built houses where the state and society wanted them to be. We demanded the infrastructure that goes with them and we would protect the rest from speculative development, particularly in an age when councils were incentivised to build houses because they got rates comparatively greater than they do now for the more houses that they allowed to be built.
Control is the key issue. I cannot fathom rejecting the GMSF altogether because it would mean more houses being built in places such as Bury. It would mean less control and our not working together. I cannot see the logic in that. Whether houses are built in High Peak or Stockport or anywhere else in Greater Manchester, they will have an impact on my constituency, so we have to start by saying, “Let us have a plan and work on it together. If it is not acceptable in terms of infrastructure or sites, we will work on it.”
If we do nothing, certainly in Tameside, we cannot guarantee the five-year land supply, which, again, goes back to the national planning policy framework that determines much of how planning is developed. If we do not do that, developers will pick the sites and build the things that we do not want. We will get no infrastructure and no contribution to any of the things that we all want to see. If we go forward with this, I can understand why there has to be the permission and consent of every part of Greater Manchester, but the way it is sometimes talked about does not reflect the reality that there are decisions to be made about housing.
If we want to do all the things that all of us say we want to, it comes down to working on a plan together. Even if the Government radically changed their policy on the numbers, I think they would still want the kind of approach that we are all talking about. I understand why this has been such a powerful electoral issue for everyone, but we have to reflect the reality and not promise our constituents things that we cannot deliver. We will need new houses, we will need to work together, and we will need infrastructure. That should be the basis for going forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) on securing the debate. It might seem like a very localised matter, but it will affect 2.5 million people in Greater Manchester, and it is a huge issue for the Members of Parliament who represent them. It has been all-consuming for a few years now. I should probably declare my constituency position on this, which is that I do not support the spatial framework in its current form. The weight of responsibility for housing development is not evenly spread, either across Greater Manchester or within boroughs, and the process has led to mistrust. When I say that, I am just being honest about the weight of feedback that I get from local people.
The principle of a spatial framework is critical, and it was hard-wired into the Greater Manchester devolution deal: it was about Greater Manchester deciding for itself how it wanted to see its future. As to the idea that after being given that responsibility and power Greater Manchester should suddenly say to Government, “Actually, we don’t want to play anymore on this, because it is just too difficult,” I am afraid that that is not a mature way to do politics. We have to take responsibility for finding a way through. Ultimately, when housing development need is identified, it will affect our constituents, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation will be provided for. We need to provide for the right type of housing in the right place in the future. There are no easy answers in this situation, but I think there may be an easier way to get where we want to go than the journey we have taken so far.
I have heard the politicisation of the issue, in terms of Greater Manchester having a Labour Mayor, among other things, but it does not matter what party the Mayor represents. There is a legal responsibility, passed down by central Government, to produce a spatial framework covering the whole of Greater Manchester —and, by the way, without a spatial framework the responsibility would fall on each of the 10 local authorities individually to create a new local plan, which would have a worse impact on most places, in terms of the distribution of development, and probably run a greater risk of a developers’ free-for-all if the plan was not in place at the right time. It is in our collective interest to try to find a way through.
My boss, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), should have been here today, but he is self-isolating. He has been clear from the outset about the balance between making the mature response and planning ahead, because that is the right thing to do, and giving voice to constituents. There are proposals to extend the Bredbury Park industrial estate into the Tame valley but he and local people have worked out that that could be accommodated at Ashton Moss. We have to find a different way of engaging the public, so that together we co-produce the future of Greater Manchester. We cannot have people believing that the future is being done to them or that the future of the places and communities where they live and grew up, and in which they have a stake, is being decided without them.
My first submission went to 70 pages. I have a quite geeky interest in some of the issues—and they are important. It was a call for the development of more neighbourhood plans. I would love people in my constituency to come together to co-produce the development of their area. The evidence from across the country is that when local people have the task of developing neighbourhood plans they come up with greater housing numbers than were originally proposed, because they know the infill sites that could be developed, and they know the community better. However, of course, for a geographical area as large as the one that the spatial framework covers, it is not possible to do those things within the timescale that has been announced.
I remember asking a previous notMinister in this Chamber whether the Government would give way and allow us to develop a new population evidence base. If we are not allowed to use the most up-to-date, bespoke evidence base for our population estimate, we will always provide more, because we will not believe the estimates are correct. I do not think that there is a single MP in the Chamber who believes that the current population estimates proposed by the Government are anywhere near the reality on the ground. They do not even take into account the impact of Brexit and the new immigration system, let alone other issues. There is also a general belief that even the employment land evidence base is not robust enough—and that is before getting on to the type of employment and the nature of the employment structure that we want in Greater Manchester. Time was, for a town such as Oldham, which was built on the mills, that tens of thousands of people came to work in the palaces of industry—to take a rose-tinted view of them. Now, square footage does not equal jobs. The rise of automation means that the huge factories and distribution centres that have been developed do not mean thousands of jobs. For a town such as Oldham, we want to be ambitious—realistic, yes—about the type of employment that we will get.
On infrastructure, as much as we talk about the need for schools, GP practices, hospitals, transport and all the rest, we should also talk about broadband and how the future world of work will be. What type of connectivity will people need? That is where Greater Manchester deserves great credit, because it is trying to connect the 2040 transport plan to ensure that we bring together how our conurbation will develop, in terms of planning, employment and physical development, and how people will get to work and share the area. There is no doubt that Greater Manchester cannot do that by itself.
Every Member of Parliament, regardless of which party we stand for—although I am afraid the weight falls on the Government—has to accept that if our shared belief is that “brownfield first” is a policy that we should pursue, we have to accept that a cost comes with that. It cannot be done on the cheap. It is not just about the cost of remediating a site that might be polluted; there is an issue in towns such as mine, where the end values are so low that the gap is even tighter. We need far more effort on that.
We also need a more radical plan to address the current housing stock, not just one that talks about building new stuff but ignores the substandard housing conditions that many people in Greater Manchester live in. The housing market renewal programme that was cancelled in 2010 intended to remove a lot of substandard accommodation—terraced streets in Oldham that were not fit for purpose—and replace them with decent quality family homes. When that money was taken away, nothing followed it. We have to address the poor quality that exists today and improve the standard across the board. Of course, we have to plan for the future, but that has to be done in partnership.
I genuinely hope that we will work together, not to pass the buck between Westminster and Greater Manchester, or between Conservative and Labour. The community expects us to be mature, to grow up and to work in partnership to find a solution. We need bespoke population data for Greater Manchester, in partnership with the Government and Greater Manchester, a more ambitious fund for brownfield sites in Greater Manchester, so the sites that we identify can be brought to market and developed in a reasonable timeframe, and far more ambition on the infrastructure investment that we need. I genuinely believe that if we work together, we can bring local people with us. But if local people continue to see debates such as this, where we pass the buck between different parties and from central Government to local government, I am afraid that will reflect badly on us all. Let today mark the change that our communities want, and let us begin to work together on it.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Nokes. I should say Ms Nokes—I will get my coat. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) on securing this important and topical debate, and all colleagues across the Chamber on their contributions. I was particularly struck by the doughty defence that my hon. Friend made of his constituents and their concerns. I was also struck, as were all hon. Members, by the, as ever, thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds).
The debate may not be as full as it could have been for a matter of this importance, but I think we all understand why. We may lack in quantity, but we do not lack in quality. As I said, powerful contributions have been made. I look forward to visiting Greater Manchester; my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North put in an early bid for a visit, which I will make as soon as circumstances allow.
I am sure that all colleagues will understand that I cannot make any comment on the contents or the merits of the draft Greater Manchester spatial framework, as that could be seen to prejudice the Secretary of State’s position at a later point in the planning process.
While the Minister cannot comment on the merits of the GMSF, does he accept that it is self-evident that it would be better for it to be based on up-to-date household projections, rather than ones that are six years out of date? Very soon, some projections for 2018 will be produced; can we assume that they will be the projections on which the future draft will be based?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting in so early with that question. A number of hon. Members across the Chamber have raised the question of housing projections. I can understand the reasons why, but we believe that the standard method remains consistent with delivering the homes our communities need, and that means basing our guidance on the 2014 household projections.
However, I would say two further things. The Secretary of State confirmed last week that he will look at reviewing the formula for calculating the local housing need, so that we encourage greater building in or near urban areas, and so that we can meet our target of 300,000 homes built each year.
It is worth noting that the standard method is not mandatory; in exceptional circumstances, an alternative approach can be used, provided that that reflects the current and future demographic trends and market signals. If my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West cares to check paragraph 60 of the NPPF, he will find reassurance in that paragraph.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) makes an important point about housing projections, but it is also a county lines issue. Does the Minister agree that it is important not only that the GMSF has accurate population figures, but that it factors in houses being built just outside Greater Manchester when doing the figures? A large number of houses are being built in places such as Chapel Buxton, which puts a lot of pressure on the A6. I have talked an awful lot to my next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who I am certain would be here today if he was not self-isolating right now, and those numbers also need to be taken into account by the GMSF. We need a lot more joined-up thinking when it comes to county lines.
On a point of clarification, it is not the case that the Government believe that 2014 is the most appropriate evidence base; it is just that they did not have faith in the more recent population data, because of some anomalies that came out of it. For instance, Cambridge showed an under-supply of housing as a result of the more recent population data. It is not the case that 2014 was the point to which we should go because it was more accurate in that sense. It was a mistrust of the more recent data. It makes complete sense to suggest that we now go to the 2018 population data, and that, for me, would seem to be the most appropriate route. The idea that we use data that is now six years old does not make sense.
As I said, we believe it to be the better method. The hon. Gentleman has already pointed out that the more recent analysis has thrown up some anomalies, so we believe the 2014 figure to be the better one, but the Secretary of State has said that he will review the NPPF, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will watch this space.
I would also like to highlight a number of Government priorities, which are reflected in our national policy, such as our protections of the green belt.
Before the Minister moves on to Government policy and while he is still talking about the household projections, much of the argument in Greater Manchester has been based around what set of figures give us what set of outcomes. The ONS website clearly states that its household projections should not be the basis for allocating housing numbers; they are an analysis tool and, for example, do not take into account any policy objectives such as more affordable housing or higher levels of economic growth. Will he confirm that point, from a ministerial point of view? If we get to the position where we in Greater Manchester do not want a more prosperous Greater Manchester—more affordable housing—if we have a set of figures that gives us no room to improve things for our constituents, that is not satisfactory either. We have to get a clear view of that from the Minister.
We want to ensure that we build more appropriate homes. We know that we need those houses and the right sort of houses, with the right quality. Local need needs to be determined locally. The starting point is the minimum, not the maximum figure. The Secretary of State will talk about potential changes to the NPPF in due course, so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to make his further points in his own unique and eloquent way when the time comes.
In a moment, I will speak about our priorities on the green belt—support for prioritising brownfield development and our desire to see plans in place—but my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North also mentioned flooding as an issue of concern. As he knows, in the Budget speech last week, the Chancellor announced £5.2 billion of investment in additional flood defences. That will seek to ensure that communities around the country know that future development will be safe from floods. We will assess whether existing protections in the NPPF are enough, and we will consider options for further reform in our wider ambitions for the planning system. I hope that gives my hon. Friend and other colleagues some reassurance.
My hon. Friend also mentioned housing type as an issue, with large numbers of four or five-bedroomed homes. I draw his attention and that of the Mayor and the local authorities in Greater Manchester to the NPPF, which is very clear that local authorities need to identify homes of the right size, type and tenure, as necessary for local people. That needs to be reflected in their planning priorities, which I am sure is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North will make to the Mayor and his local authority.
Will the Minister ensure that, when we talk about flooding, we do not jump automatically to the issue of sites that historically were flood plains or have the potential to be at risk of flooding in future? We must also consider the wider infrastructure. Much of our existing sewerage infrastructure is Victorian, and was not built to take on the type of capacity that it is now expected to with the developments that keep getting added on to it.
The hon. Gentleman is right that infrastructure needs to be fit and proper for the purposes to which it is put. We recognised that in the housing infrastructure fund made available to local authorities around the country, and will do so in the HIF successor, the SHIF, the single housing infrastructure fund.
A number of colleagues mentioned brownfield sites in their contributions. In last year’s debate on the GMSF, brownfield cropped up again and again. Last week’s “Planning for the future” statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that we will invest £400 million to use brownfield land more productively. We want to work with ambitious Mayors—I suspect that Andy Burnham categorises himself as such—and with local authorities to regenerate local brownfield land and to deliver the homes that their communities need on land that is already developed. That built on our previous work with mayoral areas, such as the £300 million housing investment fund agreed with the devolution deal in 2014. That is entirely devolved to the combined authority, and can be put to good use.
We will also provide local authorities with greater funding for infrastructure, ensuring that those who strive to build enough homes for their local communities and make the most of brownfield land in urban areas are able to access sufficient resources. In Greater Manchester specifically and most recently, we announced £51.6 million of forward funding to unlock more than 5,000 homes and funding for 10 marginal viability schemes worth £62.5 million, unlocking some 6,000 homes.
The Government have a number of other funds that can unlock tricky brownfield sites. They can support small builders and provide necessary infrastructure for development. They include the small sites fund, land assembly fund, land release fund, home building fund and public sector land funding. I hope that addresses some of the points that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston made about her constituents in Carrington. I encourage colleagues of all political stripes and persuasions to encourage the Mayor and their borough leaders to ensure every opportunity is taken to get the funding for the communities that they want and need.
The Government have placed their faith in the people of Greater Manchester and their elected representatives to shape their own future. We have backed that up through the devolution of wide-ranging powers under the leadership of the elected Mayor, who in this case is our former colleague, Andy Burnham. It is his role to work collaboratively across Greater Manchester and the political divide to provide leadership and a coherent vision of what is required. I am sure that colleagues across the Chamber will want to play an important role in nudging the Mayor in what they believe is the right direction for the GMSF.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. The Government do have some overarching policy objectives, with one of them being, as I alluded to earlier, the preservation and restoration of peat mosses, and £640 million was announced at the Budget for that purpose. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be foolhardy to allocate huge sums of public money for the restoration of some peat mosses while allowing development at peat mosses in Carrington or Chat Moss?
I do not want to comment on specific sites in the GMSF simply because that might prejudice my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s position later, but certainly local authorities need to give very careful regard to the areas in which they build. They should look at brownfield sites first, and there are very careful controls, which I shall come on to, about building on the green belt. I hope that gives my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) some more general reassurance, if not on the specifics that he raised.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that we will publish an ambitious planning White Paper in the spring, and we will take a fresh and sensible look at planning rules to support local areas—especially those that have urban areas where housing is most needed—to plan. Our starting position is that we trust local planning authorities—Greater Manchester, in this case—in many parts of the country. We respect them, and the groups of authorities that are working together to produce plans reflect the spirit of co-operation and joint working that we want to see and to which the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde referred.
On the green belt, which I know concerns a number of colleagues, plans are subject to a rigorous examination by the independent inspectors appointed by the Planning Inspectorate. The examination includes testing their consistency with national protections for the green belt. Planning inspectors will assess plans and their soundness against the national planning policy framework and against any other material planning considerations before coming to their conclusions. That includes assessing the plan for its consistency with our policies, which maintain strong protections for the green belt.
The national planning policy framework, which was revised last year, sets a high bar for alterations to green-belt boundaries. A local authority—or a collection of local authorities in the case of the GMSF—can use the plan to secure necessary alterations to its green belt, but only in exceptional circumstances. The planning inspector will check at examination that any changes to green-belt boundaries are fully justified. As a matter of law, plans are subject to a range of engagement and consultation activities with communities and many other organisations. The Government believe that such consultation is a vital element of the plan-making process.
I am aware from the comments made by colleagues that Greater Manchester published feedback from last year’s draft spatial framework public consultation in October. The Mayor is proposing a further consultation this summer, before the plan is submitted for examination by a planning inspector. Although we all accept that the Mayor, local authorities and Members of Parliament have significant and serious distractions now and for some time to come, I trust that the Mayor will move as fast as he can and I hope that he will ensure that consultation is meaningful and delivers a plan that all Greater Manchester can support. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North and other colleagues will work tirelessly in the interests of their constituents to ensure that the Mayor comes up with the best possible plan.
A benefit of strategic planning is that, by looking at housing need across a wider area, it can be met in areas with greater brownfield capacity rather than in those with more green-belt land. That involves the sort of co-operation and collaboration that colleagues have mentioned. I hope the Mayor seeks to minimise green-belt development while meeting housing needs in line with national policy.
The Government fully recognise the need to plan for and build more homes. A crucial first step is ensuring that local authorities plan for the right number of homes. I appreciate that sometimes that means that communities have to make difficult choices about where homes should go. I believe that those decisions are for local communities to make through the plan-making process, so I encourage the Mayor to bring his amended plan forward so that the people of Greater Manchester can respond accordingly. I hope that, in doing so, he pays due regard to the NPPF, the national design guide and the forthcoming national model design code, and that he ensures that excellent quality homes are built, and are appropriate to their surroundings and as beautiful as possible—that should be baked in.
Before I conclude, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan)—the interloper in this Greater Manchester debate—on his ingenuity in shoehorning a transport request into his intervention. If he cares to write to me, I will forward his letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, with what I hope will be a suitably helpful covering letter.
In conclusion, I appreciate that there are likely to be a range of views about the GMSF. We have heard some of them in the Chamber today. That is to be expected and it shows that people care passionately about what happens in their communities, which is a good thing. The current draft of the GMSF received an unprecedented number of consultation responses. So I say again, as I am sure he is watching this debate from his office, I hope that the Mayor has listened to the feedback he has received in the consultation and the words that have been uttered in this Chamber, and that when he puts forward an amended plan for consultation later this year, it reflects the feedback he has received.
There is still a chance to further refine the spatial framework, its policies and proposals, over the coming months. As part of that, we may see some of the important issues highlighted today by colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, considered. I hope the Mayor will not delay before he takes his next steps, because, as a number of colleagues said, the people of Manchester have been left in stasis for several years. It is time they had a plan that worked. I hope the Mayor demonstrates real leadership in the months ahead, as he did when he was a Cabinet member in Government. I know that, based on the contributions that have been made today, many hon. Members will help him along the way.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions and the Minister for commenting on the points that have been raised. This is not a party political issue. I agree with most, if not all, of what Labour Members said. The recent announcement by the Secretary of State that he will review NPPF guidelines is good. We can all play into that, and a number of us in this Chamber will urge him to consider using the most recent population projections from 2018 as a basis for local plans for housing need.
My final comment is that this is not simply a debate about housing projections, but about how we deliver truly affordable houses to the people who need them, in the areas where they need them. The GMSF is a charter to build very expensive houses on the green belt. At present, there is no legal mechanism within the GMSF to stop that happening. We can all unite to fight to ensure that that does not happen and that people get the houses they deserve in our areas.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Greater Manchester spatial framework and the green belt.
Organised Crime in Rural Areas
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered organised crime in rural areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I raise an extremely important issue for my constituents, but one that I fear has not been taken seriously enough by the Government in the past. To many in the UK, when I speak of rural crime, they probably think of fly-tipping or, at a push, young people joyriding farm equipment. At worst, “Midsomer Murders” springs to mind, which, while excellent TV programming, offers a rather idyllic portrayal of crime in rural areas. The settings are pristine, the criminals amateur, the stakes low, and the suspect is usually a relative of the victim.
In fact, in much rural crime the stakes are not low for our farmers, businesses and entrepreneurs. In the last year alone, rural crime has cost rural communities £50 million, the highest amount since 2011. According to the latest figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, more than £39 million of insurance claims were made in 2016 because of crimes in rural areas. That has a real, substantial and enduring human cost. For many rural people, especially farmers, their homes are their businesses, so when they are attacked, they feel that their families, children and livelihoods are under threat. They often live in highly isolated areas, on their own, where feeling under attack can cause long-term mental health issues.
A 2019 NFU Mutual report stated that one in four NFU Mutual agents knew someone who had to change the way they live or farm as a result of rural crime. That is not surprising, given that £10 million-worth of farming equipment and vehicles were stolen in 2018. A farmer who loses a brand new John Deere tractor or combine harvester will not only have high deductibles and massive up-front costs payable before insurance reimbursement, but could go months without being able to harvest their fields or till their land. These are not cheap vehicles; each piece of equipment is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Farmers can often only afford to buy second-hand equipment, let alone the costs of reinstalling security features or upgrading and repairing extensive fencing damage.
Rural crime also has a long and intense effect on mental health. Many rural people feel particularly vulnerable because the emergency services can be a way off. Rurality means that they feel more alone, which is not good for mental health outcomes. That is why 81% of farmers under 40 consider mental health to be the biggest hidden issue that they face, according to a recent survey.
When the costs of rural crime are this substantial, one can bet that it is not the work of amateur criminals—and the Government know that. The Crown Prosecution Service states that rural organised crime is often linked to organised crime groups, which target and exploit rural communities across a range of crime types, such as organised plant theft, livestock theft, burglaries targeting firearms, poaching and hare coursing. The NPCC states that:
“Ongoing livestock theft is raising concerns that stock is being stolen for slaughter and processing outside regulated abattoirs before illegally entering the food chain. Thieves are cloning the identities of large, expensive tractors to make them easier to sell and harder to detect. Small and older tractors are being targeted by organised gangs for export to developing countries.”
I do. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak. I wanted to come down and support the hon. Lady because rural crime is also a massive issue in my constituency, which is urban-cum-rural, and I live on a farm. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. In my constituency, the police and the Ulster Farmers’ Union—in the hon. Lady’s constituency it would be the National Farmers Union—are identifying vehicles, trailers and machinery, and are therefore able to trace where they go. They have been very active and some of the stuff stolen in my constituency has ended up in the Republic of Ireland. Has that been done in the hon. Lady’s constituency?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. In fact, many farmers are doing that, but the organised crime teams behind these thefts—I will get to the organised crux of the issue—find these trackers and identification things and strip them off. That shows that is not an opportunistic crime by people who are driving past and happen to see a highly expensive piece of kit that they can nick. These are organised crime units and they should be considered in the same way as groups involved in terrorism, county lines and child sexual exploitation. We can learn from how those things are handled.
One of my constituents found that his tractor, having started the night in quiet Melton, managed to make it to the shores of Poland by next morning. These are not the actions of small-scale groups but of organised crime units. There is also the example of the farmer who, having left his farm to go to the post office, found his Land Rover being stripped for parts in broad daylight. His livestock trailer was also stolen, as was its replacement a couple of months later, because thieves lay in wait knowing that he would inevitably secure a new trailer. Large flocks are being raided, and a few years ago, animals were being killed to harvest particular organs for cuisine. We found over 900 sheep killed across a couple of counties in just a few months, with their organs shipped abroad to feed particular international cuisines.
Criminal attacks on our farmers, whether on their livestock or their machinery, are targeted, professional and skilled. Given that our farmers and rural businesses know that the people who seek to steal from them are hardened criminals, the NPCC also says:
“Being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside”.
That is unacceptable. Farmers feel under attack and businesses are losing millions every year. Before this debate, I spoke to a representative of the National Farmers Union who said:
“Country people feel that they are under siege.”
We have to take seriously the phraseology they are using—“under siege”—because they do not feel that these are local likely lads who are jumping on opportunities. These are organised crime groups that will hurt them, seek them out, and often come armed when they come to steal from them. Why should farmers not feel under siege? Rural crime is up by 37% in Leicestershire and 74% in Kent, and in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk, crime has more than doubled. It is a crisis.
I speak as a Buckinghamshire Member representing Aylesbury and its surrounding villages. Does my hon. Friend agree that fly-tipping, which she mentioned at the beginning of her speech, can be a very serious issue, because organised criminal gangs frequently bring virtually industrial amounts of waste from cities—often from London, in our case? They dump it in the beautiful villages of the countryside, and it is then left to the local authorities in those areas to clean up, literally and figuratively.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To me, fly-tipping is the absolute rejection of personal responsibility and everything the Conservatives stand for. It is insidious, it is persistent in our communities, and it is happening on an organised level. Companies that do not want to pay to access waste disposal, or just cannot be bothered, repeatedly drop waste at the same sites, leaving farmers to pick up the cost and councils to try to deal with it.
I know too many constituents who do not believe that their real and justified concerns are being taken seriously. In particular, when farmers call the emergency services, they are often dismissed. One farmer, having found his flock of sheep significantly depleted, was asked by the 111 service, “Are you sure you actually marked them all? Are you sure they haven’t just wandered off, or that you haven’t confused them with the other ones?” Another who had agricultural equipment stolen was told, “Are you sure your child hasn’t taken it for a spin?” At best, crimes in these areas are assumed to be the actions of petty criminals; at worst, farmers are assumed to be fools. This response not only insults the intelligence of farmers and rural people, but completely ignores the steps they take to keep them and their livestock safe. Farmers invest in vehicle immobilisers and the latest CCTV technology, drones, remote tracking, five-lever mortice locks on buildings, alarms and keyless fobs. Farmers will keep fuel tanks in secure compounds and use multiple padlocks to lock their equipment, but this is still not enough.
As the NFU notes, these measures were adopted after the 2011 crime spree, because these criminals operate together, they adapt, they change, they are armed, and they get better. Too often, it appears that the emergency services and those meant to keep us safe do not keep up, which brings me to my real purpose today: we need to expand our rural crime-fighting capacity across the country. That means investing not only in services, but in strategies and training that will allow our Government and public services to better address the unique needs of rural communities when it comes to organised crime, because this is truly organised crime. We can bring together experts working in the areas of counter-terrorism—which is my field—county lines and child sexual exploitation to understand how these groups are operating. We can do some concerted research into how they operate, move together, and are able to bring together local people and convince or blackmail them to give them the information they need to undertake these crimes.
First and foremost, I call today for a dedicated rural crime unit and strategy, either within the National Crime Agency or the Home Office, or as a joint effort. It should incorporate the Plant and Agricultural National Intelligence Unit in some form or another, because of the data that it is able to bring to bear on this question. We also need to standardise policy approaches to rural crime across the UK, because responses can be inconsistent and patchy. The UK Border Agency should also review its role in tackling rural crime and what should be considered organised crime. Given that much of the proceeds of crime can end up in mainland Europe—or, as we have heard, Ireland, which is obviously part of Europe—we must ensure that large machinery stolen on a Monday does not end up on the continent on a Tuesday morning. I ask for 111 and 999 operators to receive specific and improved training to ensure that complaints and reports of crime are taken seriously and acted on appropriately. That is a small step that could make a big difference to our rural communities.
In a similar vein, I hope that the Home Office and police will introduce better guidance for the relevant services, so that investigations of the issues in question will be treated with the utmost seriousness. Police and crime commissioners should have to take account of rural crime specifically, and make sure that there is an element of rural crime strategy in their area.
Order. I do not want to be pompous or pedantic, but it is not in order for a Member who was not here for the start of the debate to intervene. However, if the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and the Minister agree, the hon. Lady may intervene.
I apologise, Sir David. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the resources we need. I recently visited a constituent after masked intruders came to their farm with baseball bats. They were physically intimidated and they had no response from the police. Does my hon. Friend agree that police services in rural areas should have more resources so that the necessary support is available?
I could not agree more. There is something I would like introduced in my area: we track police cars and know where they go and where those police spend their time, so why can we not do a review every six months to see how often rural communities get genuine visits from police cars? Having worked in the world of counter-terrorism, I recognise that police do not necessarily need to be on the beat or in the village to help those rural communities, but it is a matter of showing them that there will be an impact. In Cambridgeshire a rural crime team was introduced, which travelled around and made sure that every farm and every village was visited. It made an enormous difference and there was a reduction in rural crime.
There should be more work to address the impact on victims, and particularly the mental health of farmers, which I raised earlier. Many groups have been calling for improved services in that area, and those could include a dedicated mental health line for farmers.
Organised rural crime has a huge negative impact on my constituency and rural communities in every area of the UK. However, as with all crime, we can beat it by working together, creating a strategy and responding to the needs of our constituents. We can stop the fear and start taking their concerns seriously. I hope that the small but practical steps I have suggested may be feasible in the future, and I hope that the Minister will agree.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Sir David, in an oasis of rigour, discipline, etiquette and calm in these troubled times. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing this debate on crime in rural areas. I know that she is passionate about her area in particular and rural communities in general, and puts their needs at the heart of everything she does. She has raised some interesting points this afternoon, which I will study. I am obviously alarmed to hear about the incident in Staffordshire and, indeed, about fly-tipping, and those things are definitely of growing concern to rural communities across the country.
Many forms of crime, such as domestic violence, modern slavery, fraud and theft, know no boundaries and can be found in urban and rural areas alike. However, the Government recognise that certain forms of crime can, by their very nature, be a particular issue for those who live and work in rural communities—crimes such as hare coursing, livestock theft, fly-tipping and, of course, the theft of high-value agricultural machinery. That is very much reflected in the rural affairs strategy published by the National Police Chiefs Council in July 2018. It was developed following consultation with rural stakeholders and sets out operational and organisational policing priorities with respect to tackling crimes that predominantly affect rural communities.
The strategy is clear that tackling organised criminality is key to police success in tackling rural crime. An example would be targeting gangs that use stolen farm vehicles or machinery to rip out ATMs from their locations and then launder the cash through other activities. That is something I have seen in my constituency. It is worth noting that the strategy emphasises the importance of forces developing close partnerships with regional organised crime units, working across force boundaries and increasing intelligence sharing between stakeholders. That seems to me to be the right approach.
In addition, to support the police response, each Crown Prosecution Service area has a Crown prosecutor dedicated to wildlife, rural and heritage crime co-ordination, to ensure that the specialist knowledge needed to prosecute such offending is readily available. Moreover, the Government are committed to providing all police forces in England and Wales with the resources they need to do their crucial work, in rural and urban areas alike. On 22 January, we announced a police funding settlement of up to £15.2 billion for next year—an increase of up to £1.1 billion compared with last year and the biggest increase in funding for the policing system since 2010.
As far as the workforce is concerned, we have committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years; £45 million has already been committed to start the recruitment process and a further £750 million will be invested next year to enable forces across the country to recruit 6,000 additional officers by the end of March 2021. Of that £750 million, £700 million will go directly to police and crime commissioners.
In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service is receiving an extra £85 million to ensure that criminal justice system can support the work of those extra officers—and let us not forget the professionalism, dedication and sacrifice shown by special constables in their work. Special constables, along with a range of other volunteers in policing, make a vital contribution to keeping our communities safe, and over the next few years I hope that their numbers will expand, not least because they are incredibly useful in a rural community. Our ambition surely should be for every village and town across the country to have at least one constable or special constable resident in it; though they may not be in uniform, they are, of course, on duty 24 hours a day and therefore able to enforce the law, should that be needed.
By your leave, Sir David, I will take the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has raised in this debate back to the Home Office and study them, but I hope to reassure everybody in the Chamber that rural crime is one of the areas that we are keen to make progress on.
I am very happy that the Minister has given way to me; I am not sure whether it is traditional or not, but it happens very often. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) gave an example of a tractor that within 24 hours was in Poland. I have examples in my constituency where within 24 hours the machinery has gone to the Republic of Ireland. Has there been an opportunity to discuss with other police forces—An Garda Síochána, for example—those criminal gangs that she referred to, which are operating and taking machinery mainland here and are also going into the Republic of Ireland? Has that been done?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, and he is quite right that our operations at the border are critical to our success in tackling in particular the theft of machinery, which takes place all too frequently. He will know that there is a specialist intelligence organisation, funded partly by the insurance industry, that looks for unexpected plant and machinery movements across the border and tries to identify them on behalf of finance companies. I should declare an interest, as the founder and majority shareholder of a plant and equipment finance company that has employed the services of that intelligence organisation from time to time.
While the hon. Gentleman is right that there will be movements across the border into Ireland, the market for plant is an international one, and left or right-hand drive does not really matter when moving a backhoe loader. The movement of plant and, indeed, other contraband and stolen items across the border is key. He might be interested to know that just this week meet I met the National Police Chiefs Council lead on acquisitive crime to talk specifically about some of those issues, not least ATM thefts in rural areas, the theft of plant and equipment and, indeed, high-value cars, which we are seeing more and more concealed inside containers and then shipped out of the country to other parts of the world.
From my point of view, as a constituency MP who represents 200 square miles of beautiful rolling chalk downland in Hampshire and who has in the past two or three weeks had meetings with members of the farming community to talk about exactly this issue, we have been discussing something close to my heart and on which I think we need to make progress. Hon. Members have my undertaking that we will.
Question put and agreed to.
Bank Branch Closures
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bank branch closures.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will start my comments with a bit of nuancing. This debate was applied for and considered at a time before much of the current advice was put in place encouraging many of those in our communities who would be the natural users of a local bank branch to stay at home. Many of my comments calling for banks to remain open are therefore very much inclined towards the time when we get past the current situation and are returning to something of a more normal environment.
The debate is clearly taking place against the backdrop of an unprecedented public health crisis and grim news. One positive I already see emerging from that, though, is the mobilisation of communities to protect the most vulnerable among them. I hear tales of shops delivering groceries to older customers, of dog walkers dropping off prescriptions and of people sending kind messages to neighbours in isolation just to let them know that they matter. These are all hugely important to keep our communities functioning and working together through challenging times. It would be good to see the banks exhibit that same sense of public spiritedness, show a sense of responsibility to the communities they serve and at the very least call a halt to their closure programmes until we are through the current situation rather than quietly closing down branches never to open them again. I wrote to the Bank of Scotland urging it to consider that action.
The latest tranche of closures announced by Lloyds/Bank of Scotland comes after years of watching the vital network being decimated. Between 2012 and 2019, the UK lost 22% of its bank and building society branches. In 2017, about 10% of the rural population lived at least 10 miles away from their nearest branch. Scotland, with its highly rural population and more challenging demographics, saw a third of branches close in just nine years, with 610 closures between 2010 and 2018. The announcement in January from Lloyds Banking Group of 56 branch closures was still a little surprising as it came just a month after Bank of Scotland managing director Tara Foley was reported to have said at the opening of a hub in Glasgow that the bank was committed to its branch network and that branches were “not going anywhere.” Tell that to my constituents in Loanhead.
For hundreds of years, the Bank of Scotland was a respectable stalwart of the Edinburgh establishment, ahead of the field in finance and in finding innovative solutions to meet customer needs. Founded in July 1695 by an Act of the original Scottish Parliament, the independent one, the bank started opening branches back in 1774. It was the first bank in Europe to offer paper currency and, in 1826, fought a spirited campaign against attempts by the Westminster Parliament to outlaw its notes below £5. The campaign was much aided by the fantastic writer Walter Scott, whose head now adorns the bank’s modern notes, in tribute to that popular and successful campaign. I hope this campaign will be equally successful.
It is therefore disappointing to see the modern incarnation of this once proud brand making life so much harder for those who work with paper notes, wielding the axe so brutally against the communities that helped to build the bank. When the banks crashed in 2008, Lloyds Banking Group was one of the major recipients of the Government bail-out, to the tune of £20.3 billion and a 43% public stake. Now, public shares are paid back, profits are high and big bonuses have made a bit of a comeback. In 2018, Lloyds unveiled a £4 billion pay-out to shareholders, statutory profit before tax was up 13% and £464.5 million was given out in bonuses. Payment protection insurance pay-outs took its toll last year, with pre-tax profits down from £6 billion to a meagre £4.4 billion, so chief executive António Horta-Osório took one for the team, pocketing only £4.7 million, compared with £6.5 million the previous year. That is meagre, and it must be difficult to survive on such limited earnings. The idea that the bank cannot afford to maintain the existing branch network is therefore clearly nonsense.
My particular concern, as the MP for Midlothian, is the looming closure of the last bank in Loanhead. In fact, it affects not just Loanhead; that bank represents the only one in the communities of Loanhead, Bilston, Roslin, Rosewell, Straiton and Damhead. Many of my constituents beyond the town itself are clearly concerned about how they will access banking. The decision is staggering, with dire economic and social consequences for a town with a population of about 7,000 now, but set to rise rapidly with significant new housing developments. The Bank of Scotland has not taken that into account in coming to its conclusion.
Future growth will rely on start-ups and microbusinesses setting up in the area, so access to a banking service remains vital. About 20% of small businesses with turnover below £2 million use branches as their primary source of banking. Being able to get into the bank at a time suitable for them will clearly be critical. The sheer geography of Midlothian does not lend itself to a bank being even two or three miles away—the physical journey might not always be a straight or simple one.
The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, in its 2019 report on access to financial services, stated:
“The impact of losing a bank is particularly is acute when it is the last bank in town”—
as in this situation. Statistics tell the same story. Research mapping branch closures against the British Bankers Association postcode lending data found that growth in lending to small and medium-sized enterprises was dampened by 63% on average in postcodes that lost a bank branch. When it was the last bank in town, that figure shot up to 104%. On average, postcodes that lose their last bank receive almost £1.6 million less in lending over the course of a year.
The Loanhead branch closing will without doubt damage this historic town economically, as it will the nearby communities of Bilston, Damhead and Roslin, all of which rely on that bank.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I recognise that he is talking about the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland groups, but the issue is truly UK-wide. I particularly noted his points about the last bank in town closing, because I am seeing that in Knaresborough, in my constituency. Does he agree that access to financial services and advice, alongside the banking services that he described, is particularly important at a time of great financial uncertainty, when people are anxious about their financial futures because of the coronavirus emergency?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely critical that people have access to the best possible advice, especially now, where none of us really knows what situation we will be facing in a month or two months, never mind next week. It is critical that there is access to information and advice, and that that is easily accessible for all our communities across the country, wherever they happen to be.
Losing the last bank in town will increase the financial exclusion of our older and less mobile residents. Being able to go to the high street to do their finances is an important part of staying independent for many people. It is a lifeline. It is fair to say that banking habits have changed and the Loanhead branch, like most, is certainly less busy than it historically was. The figures in the bank’s own closing branch review found a 4% drop in counter transactions from personal customers over one year and an 8% drop when businesses are included. To me, that appears to be a fairly manageable figure, especially when we consider the town is set to expand significantly in the coming years.
It is also true that the majority of the population will be able to do much more of their business online. I am not denying that, but we do not always want to do business online, and certainly there are a number of people in our communities who cannot do their business online. Most of us appreciate being able to check balances and do transactions whenever we want, although we do not necessarily like it when the IT breaks down or we stumble over the pass codes. Even with that change in behaviour, a significant number of bank customers completely rely on the local branch; they do not even have a digital option.
The bank’s review found that 76% of customers sometimes use other branches, internet or telephone banking. That leaves almost a quarter of their customers who never use those other methods and are solely reliant on the branch. Many of them are in older age groups—44% of customers were over 55, 26% over 65 and 13% over 75. It is quite clearly the older population who will face the worst disruption from the proposed changes. According to Age Scotland, 67% of people over 75 do not use the internet at all. Many older people expressed frustration with phone banking and lack of trust in digital options, and said that the cost of accessing the technology is in itself inhibitive. In some areas, fast enough connections are not even available.
I know that work has been done to improve banking services in our post offices and I welcome that. The post office network is a fantastic resource for our communities and it does whatever it can to pick up the pieces when a bank abandons a town. We are particularly lucky in Loanhead to have a very accommodating postmaster, who I have no doubt at all will do everything in their power to ease the transition for customers seeking another local place to perform day-to-day transactions, but the post office network is under pressure too. As great a job as it does, it does not have the resources, financial expertise or facilities needed to deliver the full range of bank services when the bank leaves town, nor should it be expected to do so.
Concerns were expressed to the Treasury Committee last year about the way the agreement with banks was operating, and that the Post Office would be put under added pressure, as it did not make a profit from those services. More than half of adults were unaware that they could even use it and said when asked that they would prefer to deal directly with their bank. There is a long way to go before that gap can be filled. We must protect for the future both the post offices and the branch networks. That is not just for the vulnerable, although that is a good enough reason to call a halt to this ruthless cull of face-to-face banking. Those who predict the relentless rise of automation sometimes forget another key factor—human nature. Digital banking has convenience on its side but will never replace the human interaction. It was predicted that e-readers, such as the Kindle, would kill off printed books. That did not happen. We see vinyl record sales booming for the younger generation, despite the ridiculous price tags and the simplicity of streaming. Digital and physical formats are finding a happy co-existence in the modern world; they complement each other, as they both have advantages and disadvantages.
The same goes for banking. There are many individuals who sometimes use a branch and sometimes use other means. We need both branch and online banking to thrive in a flexible, inclusive, modern society and we lose them at our peril. When IT goes wrong, as it does, we all return to the bricks and mortar of a branch. We need to protect those branches so that they are there for the future. The Treasury Committee in the previous Parliament warned that
“if no action is taken, the UK risks inadvertently becoming a cashless society. For a large portion of society, including some of the most vulnerable, this would have stark consequences.”
We have seen a rapid drop in free ATMs, as the reduced interchange fee made the business model less viable. Latest figures from LINK, the UK’s largest cash machine network, revealed that 1,300 ATMs were lost between the end of January and the beginning of July 2018. The consumer organisation Which? predicted that free cash machines would become a thing of the past, after it emerged that 1,700 ATMs switched to charging in the first three months of the year alone. We are being pushed towards a cashless society that we are not prepared for and do not want. That is not solely through consumer demand but financial incentives to go cashless, the creation of a cashless deserts and the continued running down of the branch network.
We are asking people to wash their hands a lot more these days, but it is no longer good enough for the UK Government to wash their hands of this serious issue. Like the politics of austerity, the decision to let things slide is a choice, not necessity. The current access to banking standard does not go far enough to protect customers from branch losses, and the alternatives just do not plug the gap. They will show customers how to sign into mobile banking or where to get a bus to the next town, but the loss of a branch is already a done deal.
Where the financial services markets fail, we need the Government to step up to the plate. We could introduce a public service obligation to protect the last branch in town, for example, and ensure that people have a right to a physical bank branch. The Treasury Committee agreed, saying that
“intervention by Government or the FCA may be necessary to force banks to provide a physical network for consumers.”
It suggested they could
“make changes to competition law to allow banks to share facilities”.
I would be keen to see that. For the Government to keep brushing this off as a commercial decision is to neglect their responsibility. There are options to intervene; in fact, they have a duty to do so, for the wellbeing of millions of citizens.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that we will see some action, and that the Bank of Scotland will reverse the decision to close so many branches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this important debate. Like him, I have a sense of déjà vu, having spoken in similar debates a number of times before.
I am aware of the very serious situation that we are dealing with. People at home will be watching and thinking about the difficulties that the covid-19 crisis presents us. We are well aware of that, and I encourage people to follow the most up-to-date advice at every point. Bank closures is quite a pertinent issue at the moment. This is not quite the speech I might have given under different circumstances, but it is possibly even more pressing that banks do not abandon our high streets—goodness knows, they have troubles enough without banks upping sticks and leaving behind all the businesses that are struggling so much.
I am really scunnered on behalf of my constituents; there have been repeated bank closures in towns all over East Renfrewshire over the past few years. When I served a previous term as MP, East Renfrewshire was apparently one of the worst hit areas for bank branch closures, yet here I am again because more closures are planned. When MPs and members of the public are notified of bank closures, there is no acceptance or acknowledgement of the actual impact on local residents and businesses. There is no consultation; it just hard lines, and that makes a difference to people’s lives.
Knowing that I would speak in this debate, somebody told me that after the closure of a bank branch of which they were a customer in East Renfrewshire, they got some text messages asking what they thought about bank branch closures. They could only click the boxes provided—there was no free text option for whatever reason—and the options, to paraphrase, were, “They’re good,” “They’re fine,” and “They’re okay”. They are not okay. That kind of ridiculous box-ticking exercise really does not give people any comfort that they are being listened to, and will come as no surprise to any Member of the House who has had to deal with bank closures. It feels as if there is a disregard for the needs of our communities and often of basic geography.
In East Renfrewshire, we face three additional closures, which is the last thing that people need. According to Virgin Money, it is closing the Giffnock branch because it is shutting up shop in locations where it has duplicate provision. The difficulty is that there is no duplicate provision in Giffnock because Virgin Money closed the other branch three years ago—it is now a bistro, which I wish every success, and which I am sure could use the support of a local bank. Virgin has suggested that people affected by the closure in Giffnock can use the bank in Newton Mearns. The implication was that Newton Mearns is the same as Giffnock, but they are different towns. I wondered, “How might people get there? They could go on the bus.” I checked, and it is a 50-minute round trip on the bus. That is really not a practical solution or a sensible way for people to be told to proceed.
TSB is closing branches in Barrhead and Clarkston. To my surprise, TSB suggested that customers who used the Barrhead branch could use the one in Pollok. That is a round trip of at least an hour by public transport. I can only assume that TSB does not want those customers to remain its customers and anticipates that they will all march across the road to the first-class credit union in Barrhead, Pioneer Mutual, which I have no doubt will not abandon the people of Barrhead and will continue to provide the wide range of fantastic services for which we are grateful.
TSB suggests that when its Clarkston branch closes, people can go to Thornliebank, but they would need to take the half-hourly train or the hourly bus. None of those things are what people need. It is unhelpful in the extreme for banks to suggest that those are somehow substitutions. Like when someone orders teabags in their online shop and the supermarket sends a dishcloth, the solutions are absolutely ludicrous and really quite upsetting to people who are accustomed to banking locally.
The people who need the service most are always the worst affected, as my hon. Friend said. Among them are older people, who are accustomed to dealing in cash and who should not be prevented from doing so; people who are less mobile; people who do not have cars; and of course local businesses, which absolutely rely on high-street banking services. People who run local businesses are genuinely concerned about bank closures, which make a significant difference to what they can do.
As my hon. Friend said, despite the significant difficulties that businesses currently face, they are doing great things, such as delivering things to people and being flexible in their services. They are going above and beyond and being imaginative in the way that they do business, so this is the very time when they need an assurance that the banks are there and will still be there afterwards. They need the banks upping sticks like they need a hole in the head.
Businesses will rely on Government support in the coming weeks and months—that will be so important. If we hope—and we do—that our businesses find ways to sustain themselves, surely that necessitates the availability of banks so that discussions and banking can take place in communities where those businesses are rooted. The Government stepped up when we bailed out the banks, so now it is their turn.
Banks and bank bosses need to step up and recognise that the situation is unique. This is the time for them to reconsider any plans to close bank branches and to think about what they are really for and whether they should be turning away from our constituents. They should not be turning away from our high streets now. We need them to be with us when things are difficult; now is certainly not the time for them to walk away.
Thank you for allowing me to catch your eye, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing forward the debate. I want first to touch on the potential closure of the Bank of Scotland branch in Galston in my constituency. It is not just the last bank in Galston, but actually the last bank in town for nine settlements. Kilmarnock, the major town in my constituency, will be the only one left with banks. That is unacceptable. Settlements with a combined population of more than 40,000 people will be without access to a bank.
The Bank of Scotland always uses the same mode of operation; it sends out a letter to notify its customers and produces statistics that say that the branch has had a drop in numbers and performs less well than the average bank. I pointed out that if it keeps reducing branches and concentrating on big urban centres, the remaining rural branches will clearly have less footfall than the urban branches. They also have less overheads, and possibly less staff. It is not comparing apples with apples.
I agree 100%. The banks are forcing a change in behaviour. In Galston, Bank of Scotland also highlighted that businesses are now using the cash machine to lodge more money. Why is that? It is because the staff have advised businesses to do that. Guess what? It is now taking away that cash machine anyway, so that argument is completely undermined.
It is really frustrating for people when they get a letter with fancy pie charts and statistics that are frankly meaningless. I believe that I have got some analytical skills, so as an MP I contacted the bank to ask a number of questions about the statistics it provided on changing behaviour. I got the most ridiculous, bland response, all dressed up in woolly words and ignoring my questions. I call on the Bank of Scotland at the very least to up its game, increase engagement and answer questions that come from the likes of me and the members of the community who are lobbying hard.
In concluding, I would like to raise another issue that is pertinent to people who have worked for Royal Bank of Scotland. Many women who worked in banks were part-time workers who had less wages. They had to suffer redundancies through bank closures. Some of them might be WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—who will have to wait longer before they access their state pension. Those who were RBS employees discover that, once they access their state pension, RBS initiates a clawback on their private pension. I met constituents on Friday, and one of them loses up to 25% of her pension. It turns out that is legal—it goes back to an agreement that RBS put in place—but it is also immoral.
Royal Bank of Scotland is part of the NatWest group—that is how it is to be rebranded—and NatWest does not employ such a clawback. I urge the Minister to think about that and the impact it is having on people. Given that the Government are the major shareholder in Royal Bank of Scotland, and it is now returning a profit of billions of pounds, the very least they could do is look after those workers who were loyal to Royal Bank of Scotland but got a kick in the teeth when bank closures were implemented.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing forward the debate—I think there has hardly been a banking debate that I have not been at. The Minister is always in his place to respond, and I am sure he knows what we will say before we say it and that he shares our frustration over bank closures. As I mentioned earlier, my constituency has seen one of the largest numbers of bank closures in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been some attempt to fill the gap with credit unions and post offices, which have done so to a certain extent, but not in totality. That is where my concern lies.
I joined in the debate last June—we had another one a few weeks ago—to express my frustration with the banks that were closing branches because they say there is another one just 15 minutes up the road, or 50 minutes up the road, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) explained. That is not very helpful for people who are on their lunch break or reliant on public transport, which is not always available at the time that they need it to get them back to work, as she also suggested, especially in a rural constituency.
Physical branches are important to the consumer, but not to the bottom line, and it would seem that that is the only consideration for some of those at the top of the banks. How annoyed was I, last month, to find that yet another bank closure is planned for Newtownards, the main town in my constituency? This time it was Barclays. I got the obligatory email of intent, as we all do, and an offer to meet, going through the format of a visually arranged meeting. I have arranged it in my diary, by the way, and I will meet them, but the fact is that although the meeting might relieve some of my frustration, it will not make one button of a difference to Barclays.
I mean no disrespect—I try to be respectful to everyone as best I can—but I have no hope at all of persuading them to keep the Barclays bank in Newtownards open. I have sat in too many of those meetings, which is why I have become a bit cynical about meeting the banks. I think I have had some nine bank closures in total in my constituency. I have had a meeting with the banks on every one of those occasions, and with all the persuasion of stats and letters from customers that we had, we were not successful in turning things around.
As those branches have closed one by one, I have sat in too many of those meetings and been shown increases in online activity, as the hon. Lady mentioned. If we take the logic that she referred to, it is true that, if we close all the banks, more people will go online. But it does not suit everybody to go online—that is the point we are making, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. What is not explained is that the increase is because staff members have been pushing this, which they have. There is nothing wrong with pushing the online deal if it suits people, but it does not suit everybody, and the bank customers on whose behalf I went to all those meetings were not able to bank by logging on to the system. It is not always easy, either, when people do not have the broadband access to enable that to happen.
Over the years the bank closures in my constituency have been Kircubbin, Portaferry, Killyleagh and Ballynahinch—all Ulster Bank—Danske Bank in Kircubbin and Portaferry, Barclays bank now imminent, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish. Those banks have all moved to other towns or moved out of the area completely. I remember when we used to have at least four banks on the Ards peninsula, but they have all been closed. There were some sub-banks, which would have been there on certain days a week, but they are away as well.
The hon. Member for Midlothian referred to credit unions, and we have been fortunate that credit unions have grown in my constituency, as they probably have in all our constituencies. They have tried to fill the gap, and they have done so to some extent, but they cannot provide what the banks offer to customers. We have a new credit union in Kircubbin; I am very pleased to see it, and it is very active and very able. The credit union in Portaferry has grown as the banks have closed, as has the credit union in Newtownards. I had the Minister over about a year and a half ago to visit the one in Newtownards, which is doing extremely well. The credit unions are filling the gap.
Then there are post offices. The Minister might say that post offices are able to fill the gap, and in some ways they are, but they cannot provide all the range of support and services that can be given in the banks. Post offices can only fill those in a small way. We need to have all the opportunities that the banks offer. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the banks. I say that not as a socialist—
There is nothing wrong with that.
There is nothing wrong with being a socialist, by the way—I am letting you know that right now. I am not against the banks, but I get immensely frustrated when it seems that they make decisions in order to bring bigger dividends for their shareholders. I suspect that everyone who spoke and the shadow Minister will say the same thing, but to me it is simple: the wee man and wee woman need help, and they deserve to have their banks, yet it is all about the profit at the end of the year. Whenever banks are making a massive profit, in a way it is about getting more profit. Was it Jean Paul Getty who said that the only thing better than having £1 million is having another £1 million? Speaking about Jean Paul Getty probably ages me, but I am just making the point that banks focus only on their profit margin and how much they can make, not on delivering.
The hon. Members for Midlothian and for East Renfrewshire referred to online banking—I know that others will refer to it as well—but it does not suit everybody. I tried to help a number of customers of those banks to do online banking, but it was lost on them. I hope those people took their savings to the post office or the credit union, but I suspect that some did not, and I therefore fear money being stored under the blanket, the pillow or the mattress, or in some tin box somewhere, because those people want to be in control.
My wife’s auntie was in that situation. She had some money in the house, which we did not know about. One day she was out for only half an hour, but the thieves obviously knew, and they came in and stole her life savings—£8,500—which were probably to pay for her funeral. It is soul-destroying. The community came together to help as best they could. That happened to a couple of others in my constituency as well, and again the community reached deep into their pockets and made some of that money available.
I realise that time is flying. I was sitting here almost loth to speak, to again use the same words and rhetoric, because it is not stopping the closures. Then I realised that this is the place where changes need to take place. I have the utmost respect for the Minister, as he knows, but I urge him and his Department to give serious consideration to supporting those banks that support their local community. For Newtownards, that is the Danske Bank, the Ulster Bank—the one that is left—the Santander bank, which has filled some of the gap for some customers, and the Nationwide building society. Those are the last four banks in Newtownards. All pay rates and council tax, provide local employment and are all available for the vulnerable—for me, this debate is about the vulnerable; those who do not have access to banks—to open their first bank account or for those who want face-to-face advice, because we need that from the banks as well.
I ask the Minister what we can do to reward those banks that do right by local communities and keep an online thrust as well. I understand that some people want to go online. I am an old traditionalist; I will probably still write cheques for all my things every week, as I always do, and I will probably still carry cash in my wallet, because that is how I did it when I opened my first bank account at age 18. How can we encourage more banks to be part of local communities, instead of being removed and literally counting their pounds rolling in? I look to the Minister for guidance, because asking, reasoning and pleading with the banks is not working. Maybe rewarding community-minded banks is the way forward.
I echo the thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this important debate. I feel as if I have spent quite a lot of time in the five years since I was elected bemoaning the stampeding of banks out of our communities without so much as a backward glance.
My constituency has several towns where there is no bank at all, and other Members have talked of similar issues. Ardrossan, Stevenston, Kilwinning—a town of 21,000 people—West Kilbride, Dalry and Beith are all without a bank, and Kilbirnie’s last bank has reduced its opening hours. That is the only bank left in the entire Garnock valley, which is three distinct towns with a collective population of more than 19,000 people. Losing the last bank in our towns is a severe blow to our communities. It undermines their commercial stability and has a significant social impact, which we have heard much about today.
My constituency, like that of every Member who has spoken, has been hit particularly hard, and I share all the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). In Scotland, according to research, we have lost more than one third of our bank branches since 2015. The consumer organisation Which? found that banks shut 396 Scottish branches between January 2015 and August 2019, reducing their number by 38%—an alarming rate of closure, by any measure. My hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian, for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have all said similar things.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, it is clear that any consultations are simply window dressing. They are tick-box exercises so that the banks can reassure themselves and the Minister—“Oh yes, Minister, we have undertaken consultation”—when we know that is not true in reality. I remember the same thing happening in 2007 and 2008, when there were mass post office closures in my constituency. That was long before I was elected to this place, and perhaps innocently—perhaps even naively—I, along with other Scottish National party activists, set up street stalls. We went door to door with petitions. We did everything we could to get the post office to reverse those closures, but of course nothing changed, because the consultations were not at all meaningful. We have memories of these consultations from other times, and I say to the Minister that this has to stop.
The Treasury Committee concluded that
“there are still large sections of society who rely on bank branches to carry out their banking needs. A bank branch network, or at the least, a face-to-face banking solution, is still a vital component of the financial services sector, and must be preserved.”
I know that the Minister probably will not agree—I have said this to him before, during one of the countless debates on this topic I have participated in—but I genuinely believe that because there was no UK Government intervention when RBS announced its radical, eye-watering programme of closures, although we as taxpayers owned a significant stake in RBS, the fact that nothing was done emboldened the other banks that have no element of public ownership. If a publicly owned bank can do it, why can a private bank not do the same without any kickback or repercussions from those in the corridors of power?
If the Government are as willing as they have demonstrated to accept closures of bank branches—banks that they owned, in the case of RBS—that is extremely disappointing. Throughout RBS’s entire closure programme, I listened very hard, but I could not hear anybody in Government condemning those closures. All I heard was a distancing from any sense of responsibility, which is really disappointing for our constituents. It seems that other banks felt they could employ the same tactics and close down wherever they felt it was no longer convenient to have a branch, without any consequences or official condemnation from Government. As a result, the people who pay the price are those in our communities who are suffering for want of a bank, and will continue to suffer. We have heard a lot about that today.
Of course, we have these mobile banks, but they really do not answer the question of what we do without a bank. They are not disability compliant, their reliability is questionable at best, and they simply do not fit the bill or take the place of a bank. We also know that the gaps left by banks cannot be properly filled by post offices. That is no reflection on post offices, which work hard to provide a good service to our communities, but they are not banks and they cannot fill the gap. As the Minister will know, the Treasury Committee concluded that post offices
“should not be seen as a replacement for a branch network, but a complementary proposition”.
Other Members have talked about the fact that post offices simply cannot fill that gap.
Along with branch closures we are witnessing the demise of free cash machines, as we have heard. About 10 free-to-use ATMs a week have been shut down in the past year. As far as I can make out—although I hope the Minister will contradict me—the Treasury seems to have been deaf to all pleas for Government intervention to protect free cash. I hope that the Minister is able to offer some comfort today.
It was in the Budget.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is speaking from a sedentary position.
The ATM Industry Association has warned that one fifth of Scotland’s free ATMs will start to charge consumers in the next year. That can be seen only as a cynical move to force us to become a cashless society. Picking up what has been touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, for East Renfrewshire, and for Midlothian, and the hon. Member for Strangford, bank closures have, as we now know—the game is up—been a tool to force people to bank online. As banks have quietly cut the fees that they are willing to pay machine operators to provide bank customers with access to cash, they are forcing us to go cashless and online. Banks are attempting to put pressure on customers who do not act in a way that they—the banks—find convenient. What happened to the customer being king?
Going cashless and banking online may, as we have heard, be the preferred option for some—and good luck to them—but some of us do not want to go down that route, and increasingly aggressive efforts are being made for it to happen, at breakneck speed. I and those of my constituents who do not favour those options will not be forced to bank online. We will not be bullied into doing so or into going cashless. It is a rum do when the service provider is bullying the customer—because that is how it feels. In any case, even among customers who may be interested in banking online there are some who simply are not able to, for a variety of reasons that the Minister will understand, and of which the hon. Member for Strangford reminded us.
I have corresponded with the Treasury about online banking in the past, and it accepted that broadband access is not yet good enough for everyone to rely on digital banking. The Government and the access to banking standard must ensure that banks have a social responsibility to provide banking facilities to all our towns. Such services could be provided relatively easily through the wide rolling-out of banking hubs. Indeed, I met the Minister in his constituency to discuss that very issue last year. I am hoping—I am quite excited about it—that he will be able to update me on progress with that. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong but I cannot see any discernible obstacle to the option except for perhaps a lack of political will and, indeed, the arrogance and intransigence of the banking industry.
Our communities and constituents deserve better than they have had up to this point. Banks have to face up to their social responsibilities, get their heads together and create banking hubs in our towns, across the board. There is no real impediment to that, and I urge the Minister to use his good offices to bang some banking heads together and ensure that customers’ voices are heard. The Government have a role to play when the last bank in town is closed. They have said repeatedly that those are commercial decisions, but it is not just a commercial matter. It is about social responsibility and financial inclusion. I urge the Minister to reflect further on the strong feelings and concerns that have been expressed today. Will he finally bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that banks live up to their responsibilities to our communities?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David.
I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this debate on a topic of vital importance to people across the UK. Today’s debate takes place at a time of unprecedented national crisis, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, the conversations that we are now having about the social and health implications of compulsory isolation show how important our high streets and shared social spaces are. Bank branches play a fundamental part in maintaining contact for vulnerable people. Even in a time of rapid change, when we are shifting a lot of our lives online, we have to make sure that communities that need a physical bank branch are not left behind.
We have had many debates on the issue. We gathered here, by my reckoning, just over a year ago to address it; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was definitely present. In the year since, the matter has become no less pressing. At the time, I shared with colleagues some of the experiences of my constituents and what bank branch closures have meant for them. Too often, we are distracted by the headline numbers and forget the impact of the closures on real people’s lives. I will revisit some of those comments today.
I represent the towns of Hyde, Stalybridge, where I live, Dukinfield, Longdendale and Mossley. They are exactly the kinds of towns that have suffered very badly from the closures in recent years. I have lost branches of RBS, Lloyds and Yorkshire Bank. Here are some direct quotes from constituents about how it has affected them. One constituent said:
“Losing the Lloyds in Stalybridge has been a blow. Yes there is one in Ashton and there is online banking. But there is no substitute for making an appointment you can walk to and talking to an actual human being.”
A constituent just outside of my area said:
“Here in Droylsden we now don’t have a single bank! We’ve gone from having Lloyd’s, NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax to having none!!! Our infrastructure dwindles by the day.”
For businesses in particular the closures have posed challenges. One of my local business owners said:
“You can do banking at the Post Office but, in order to pay things in, you have to get in touch with your bank first and get paying in slips sent out. Santander would only send me 5 and I have run out now. It means I can’t accept cheques for my business easily. I don’t have the time to keep ringing up for paying in slips…It’s a killer for small businesses who have to close their shops to go and stand in a queue for a lengthy period of time just to get change.”
I have also heard moving stories from those who care for others, who have inevitably borne the brunt of closures. One said:
“My mum with Alzheimer’s relied on her Lloyd’s branch in Droylsden before it was shut. The staff knew her well and helped her. They knew her condition and if she was in a bad way they would phone me and give her a cup of tea while they waited for me to arrive. The staff said there were lots of other people like my mum. The closure really affected her.”
The most recent disappointing news that I have had in my constituency is that Barclays will be closing its branch in Hyde, too. When I announced that on my Facebook page, it very quickly attracted more than 100 comments from local people. People really care about this issue, and they are right to do so. A common thread among the feedback that I hear from constituents is that nobody wants their community to become a ghost town.
Equally, no one is saying that they want to halt progress, but we must ensure that technology works for us and not the other way around. Some of the technological advances could be harnessed to include people who historically have had trouble interacting with traditional banking, such as offering remote video appointments or having speaking ATMs. However, the goal must be to strive to ensure that we use technology to benefit bank customers, rather than creating a pared-down automated banking sector that leaves people without the support that they need.
That is also true of access to cash, which many Members have raised. Although habits around cash are changing—when I am at work in London, I tend not to use cash very much—I certainly need it when I go home at the end of the week. Members are correct to say that we must not allow ourselves to sleepwalk into a system that leaves some communities stranded without ATMs. I know that the Government and the Minister are concerned about that, but communities must have the fundamental right to demand an access to cash review in their area, like the access to cash review proposed, so that the power is theirs to ask for a review of their cash arrangements.
Although, as habits change, we would anticipate that some bank branches would have had to close in recent times, the hon. Member for Midlothian is right that the rate at which the branch network is shrinking is accelerating, which is the primary concern. Figures from Which? show that 3,509 branches have closed across the UK since January 2015. That is at a rate of 55 a month. The scale of those closures seems disproportionate and does not necessarily match what people are saying to us about how they want to use their bank branches. Research conducted in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation found that there remains a strong consumer appetite for a physical presence.
Labour’s proposal in our recent manifesto was to change the law regulating banks so that no closure could take place without appropriate local consultation and without FCA approval. I share the concerns that have been raised about the existing nature of consultation. Crucially, a bank should have to consult with not only the customers of that branch but representatives of the local council. Fundamentally, it should have to publish details of the reasons for closure, including financial calculations showing the revenues and costs of the relevant branch.
The share of central costs, such as those for accounting systems, IT, security, personnel and so on, would have to be allocated to the branch and separately identified, especially as many of those costs are relatively fixed and are not proportionate to the number of branches. The FCA’s approval would then be needed for any bank branch closure. I urge the Government to think perhaps not about the specifics of that, but certainly about the transparency of information published by a bank when a branch is to close. In addition, we wanted to see the Post Office evolve from its current banking framework to being a bank in its own right. Many countries operate very successful postal banks, and that could have been the basis for the long-term future of the Post Office, too.
In the next few months, we will be shown the harsh realities of social isolation. This is an important moment to think about how important communities are, and the role that bank branches play in holding high streets and localities together. Regulators, banks and policy makers must work together to improve what we have at the minute and to ensure that we end up with a banking infrastructure that works for all customers, all communities and the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this debate on an enduring concern across this Chamber and the House as a whole. I thank him for our conversation yesterday, following up on his question during business questions at the end of February. Since the start of this year, I have had conversations about similar matters with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney).
In the debate, I listened carefully to the speeches of the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). In my remarks, I will address the points they made.
The hon. Member for Midlothian, in opening, referred to the current context. At this time, obviously, banks will operate using contingency plans. In the light of such circumstances, we expect them to consider what that means for their branch closure programmes.
Customer-facing financial services are undeniably changing, as consumers and businesses opt for the convenience, security and speed of digital payments and banking. In 2018, almost three quarters of UK adults used online banking, half mobile banking and two thirds contactless payments. Meanwhile, branch usage fell by 26%, on average, between 2012 and 2017, with many communities seeing even more drastic declines.
Banks clearly must balance changing customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when they consider their response. Many have proceeded in different ways. Sometimes they take the difficult decision to close branches in order to strike that balance. Although that is disappointing for communities, I have been clear that banks are best suited to know what works for their customers, and these must ultimately be commercial decisions.
That said, in January, I visited Yarm in Stockton to look at what Barclays is doing with its network. It has taken a group of more than 100 branches—102 or 112, I think—that are the last bank in their towns, and is working hard with the communities to secure a future. I encouraged it in that work, because models exist to sustain such branches, if transfers are made into that last bank. Barclays is optimistic about a large proportion of the cohort surviving for a significant time.
The Government cannot reverse changes in the market and in customer behaviour, and nor can we determine the commercial strategies of individual firms. I still believe that it is not for me in Westminster to decide the shape of a branch network or whether a bank should place a branch in Wolverhampton or Wick, but it is important that the impact of closures on communities is understood, considered and mitigated. I will set out some of the ongoing work in that area.
The access to banking standard is a key mechanism to ensure that customers are well informed about branch closures, and that banks set out their reasons for closure and the alternatives available to consumers. Since May 2017, the major high street banks have voluntarily signed up to the standard. However, I acknowledge that hon. Members have made representations to the effect that the application of the standard lacks transparency, is inconsistent and is insufficiently tailored to local conditions.
Last July, therefore, I met representatives of the Lending Standards Board and UK Finance, which enforce and own the standard, to discuss some of these concerns. As a result, they have agreed to two key improvements to the application of the standard. The first is agreement on a common definition of what constitutes an impacted customer when a branch closes, and the second is agreement on a number of common metrics to be used in impact assessments. Both of those will drive greater consistency of information among banks when they are closing branches.
In its recent annual report, the Lending Standards Board reported improved compliance with the standard among firms. It found that firms were providing more local information specific to the branches in question, and strengthening their relationships and engagement with the Post Office. In due course, the Lending Standards Board will publish examples of best practice to highlight positive approaches and provide a standard for under-performing firms to work towards.
Hon. Members will know the important role that the Post Office plays when branches close, and I have noted the comments of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) about the Treasury Committee’s report on this issue. I was therefore pleased by the successful renegotiation of the Post Office’s commercial agreement with the high street banks. That means that for the next three years at least, 99% of personal customers and 95% of small and medium-sized enterprise customers can continue with everyday banking at one of the UK’s 11,500 Post Office branches.
The agreement also ensures that local postmasters will see a considerable increase in fees for processing transactions, which will rise as volumes grow. I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point about this being a complementary activity; I do think we are on a journey when it comes to the functions that post offices can provide, because they clearly cannot provide face-to-face banking services. Those are being aggregated generally across the industry, but these are issues that the banking industry must come to terms with. I will say more about that in a minute.
Post Office figures from between 2018 and 2019 show that overall transactions increased by 15.5%, deposits increased by just under 40%, and withdrawals grew by 16%. Increased income from fees will help the post office network become more financially sustainable and will allow for investment in automation, training and security. As high street entities, post offices face similar challenges when it comes to footfall and the changing behaviour of customers.
Turning to the issue of access to cash, three in 10 payments in the UK are still made in cash, and the Government want to ensure that cash remains available for those who need it. That is why in last week’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government will bring forward legislation to protect access to cash. We will work with regulators and stakeholders as we develop our approach, including with LINK, the Payment Systems Regulator, and people such as Natalie Ceeney, who carried out the “Access to Cash” review last year. That process will also involve stakeholders such as Which?, who have taken a great interest in this issue.
Improving digital access must be an equally important part of our response. The opportunities created by digital and online products should be open to all, which is why we established the digital skills partnership to bring together the public, private and third sectors to address the digital skills gap in a more co-ordinated and collaborative way. Of course, doing so depends on physical connectivity; some 98% of premises in the UK can access decent broadband, but there is more work to be done. That is why the Budget announced a £5 billion commitment to support the roll out of gigabit-capable broadband.
Mobile coverage is also important; as the Chancellor has announced, the shared rural network agreement has been finalised, which will involve an extra £510 million of funding from the Government. That means that 95% of the UK’s landmass will have that connectivity.
Last year, I concluded a Westminster Hall debate on this topic with a call to arms for the industry, which I reiterate and re-emphasise today. We cannot reverse digital innovation—nor should we, given the benefits it brings. However, this House can agree that vulnerable customers must not be left behind or locked out of opportunities. Government, regulators and industry are already acting to ensure cash remains available. I have just come off a call this afternoon in which I discussed mutual banks, credit union reform—which was also announced in the Budget—and hubs and cash access, which is something I am actively pursuing the banks about.
We must keep putting energy into digital inclusion, and not let the process of innovation run out of steam. I will be working with the industry and pushing it to go further. I value all the contributions that have been made today; they reinforce the energy that I will continue to bring to solving some of these difficult problems, which differ across the country.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. The sense of déjà vu among many, most or all Members regarding the situation with banks is certainly of note. It is frustrating that banks’ consultations are so flawed—they are simply box-ticking exercises—and I welcome the innovative thinking that the Minister has outlined. Hopefully, we can press that thinking on banks, but more needs to be done to make sure we maintain that face-to-face connection with our communities.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).