Tuesday 13 October 2020
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Universal Basic Income
[Relevant documents: e-petition 302284, Implement Universal Basic Income to give home & food security through Covid-19, and oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 17 September 2020, Support for individuals and households during Covid-19, HC 754.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them and should respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call list; that applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join a debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, but they are perfectly free to do so if they wish.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the introduction of a universal basic income.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this opportunity. I regret that this sitting is not fully hybrid and that MPs who are isolating or shielding to protect their health and that of others are in effect barred from taking part. That only increases the pressure on Members to travel when they could work from home and forces those who support us to attend the parliamentary estate, too. It was my first time back on the estate for a wee while and I was delighted to see new signs everywhere saying, “Keep left and keep moving”. I am hoping that that is a new sign from the UK Government.
While writing this speech, I noticed that as soon as I typed in the letters “u” and “n”, my iPad prompted me to select “universal”; when I accepted that, it prompted “basic income”. It appears that my iPad has been paying more attention to me than the UK Government have. It also learns quicker.
Universal basic income is an inclusive scheme that protects and recognises everyone. All adults and children receive a set payment on a regular basis. It is fair. It destigmatises the recipient. People are paid regardless of their circumstances. After all, are all people not created equal?
UBI alleviates poverty and reduces inequality. It strengthens a sense of individual citizenship. It empowers people and facilitates civic partnerships. To quote the UBI Lab Northern Ireland working paper,
“A UBI can be understood to be a right of citizenship—a fair share of the assets we and the generations before us have helped create. It recognises each of our stake, or share, in ‘the commons’ of the earth.”
I find that a truly beautiful concept.
A UBI strengthens social bonds and improves mental health. Nobody would deny that economic instability contributes to poor mental health, yet the current system dangles the threat of sanctions over the heads of recipients, going so far as to drive some to suicide. UBI removes that psychological burden. A UBI will not fund the lifestyle of an MP, but it is a platform on which individuals can add other income without fear of financial repercussions.
The current system ties work to welfare. It can make the transition into work more complex. People should be free to take on part-time or occasional work without strings attached. A UBI affords more flexibility to employee and employer, while acknowledging that employees are empowered and less likely to be exploited. It is permanent. It gives security and peace of mind. It cannot be withdrawn or become conditional, unlike the pensions of hundreds of thousands of WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality—who were cheated out of their pensions by the UK Government. That permanency stimulates entrepreneurship, which can lead to the generation of jobs. It is the poorest in society who will directly benefit most; as we know, they are more likely to spend their money on essential items in their own community, which in turn stimulates local growth.
Prior to covid, the upsurge in interest in UBI was attributed to the gig economy, the increase in automation and the creation of a greater number of people described by Guy Standing as “the precariat”. Covid has accelerated the increase in the numbers of the precariat. Many people who once felt safe now feel vulnerable.
It is the duty of any good Government to protect their citizens—not just in the short term, not just by reacting to unfolding circumstances, but by planning for the long term, for future generations. To that end, pilot projects have already been run in Canada, the USA, Kenya, Brazil, Finland, India, Italy, Uganda and Namibia. Versions of cash transfer projects have been run in Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are plans for UBI-type schemes in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Ukraine. I have a simple ask of the Minister: have the UK Government taken any steps to learn anything from any of those countries? And please do not quote the Finnish Finance Minister, who came out against UBI before the results of the Finnish trial were even published.
If the UK Government think it is beneath them to be advised by foreigners, will they back pilot projects in the UK and learn from them? Northern Ireland is asking, Wales is asking, Scotland is asking and England is asking. If ever there was a policy that could be pursued and that would be welcomed across the United Kingdom, UBI is it.
The four pilots proposed in Scotland are all well documented—all we need is the co-operation of the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Those pilots will help us not only to learn about the economics of UBI but to understand the political, strategic, institutional, psychological and ethical feasibility of a UBI.
When we exposed the UK to universal credit, it was plain to see that it had not been thought through fully, and it failed miserably. Ever since then, we have been patching and amending the system. If we had run pilots for universal credit, we would have avoided many of the pitfalls and saved many people from the suffering that it caused.
I claim that UBI reduces crime, gives people more opportunity, improves health and mental wellbeing, improves community relations and contributes to a stronger local economy. Minister, run these pilots across the UK and prove me wrong. I know that the Minister is not a fan of UBI: he will claim that the cost makes it a non-starter. Why even consider it, if we cannot afford it? Why run pilots that might tell us that it is amazing, even magnificent, if we cannot then implement UBI? Well, Minister, let us run the pilots, learn what benefits UBI brings or does not bring, and then we can argue about cost versus outcome. If the Minister is seriously telling me that even if all the benefits of UBI that I am claiming can be proved, he would not move mountains to provide them for the citizens of the United Kingdom, then he is skating on very thin ice.
The NHS did not just materialise out of thin air; it was not dreamt up one wet Wednesday afternoon in the Tea Room or designed on the back of a fag packet. The NHS was introduced on 5 July 1948, but prior to that half of Scotland’s land mass had already been covered by the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, which had been set up in 1913. HIMS acted as a working blueprint for the NHS in Scotland. It was directly funded by the state and it had Ministers centrally in a Scottish Office in Edinburgh. It was a pilot project allowed to develop and grow; it uncovered unforeseen problems and fixed them. It ensured that, on day one of the NHS, the NHS was to all intents and purposes good to go.
There is an interesting aside about HIMS. One of its administrators was from my constituency, a Gourock-born woman called Muriel Ritson. She was the only woman on the Scottish Board of Health in 1919, but by 1942 she was sitting on the Beveridge commission, which helped to establish the NHS. The link is there for us all to see. She had learned her lessons, and she brought that learning to bear many years later. She also attended the school that the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and I both attended.
Mary Breckenridge, an American, visited Scotland in 1924 and later established the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky, based on the HIMS model. But not everyone saw the benefits of HIMS—just like today with UBI, the Conservatives argued against it. Lord Banbury objected to English taxpayers contributing money that would be of medical benefits to Scotland. Here we are, all these years later, with NHS Scotland and the wider UK NHS acting in true UBI-style and supporting us all through the current health crisis. If we had not had the NHS, it would have been too late for us to create it. It was there for us and UBI could have been there for us, too.
If the Minister is not prepared to follow current examples from around the world, then he should be brave—support the pilot projects and lead the world. Yes, it will cost more; it will cost lots of pounds and lots of pence. However, their value will be far higher than that of our current system, and the society that the spending will support is too precious not to exist. Although I do not doubt for one minute that budgets must be balanced, recent times have taught us that when the motivation exists, the purse strings can be loosened.
I will now review quickly the response of the Minister to UBI in a recent Petitions Committee sitting. He had three objections. First, how do we afford it? The Minister explained that the Centre for Social Justice found that giving every working-age adult in the United Kingdom £10,000 per year would cost in the region of £400 billion. He seems to think it is higher, but I question that figure. His argument was that the average universal credit claim was more generous at £16,000 per year, completely ignoring the fact that the UC figure is per household. A household with two parents and two kids do not need £5K per adult and £3K per kid to meet his generous standards. I have just halved his £400 billion in one stroke.
His next question was: how do we deliver it? The simpler the system, the cheaper the delivery—and UBI is simpler. Even if it costs the same as the existing system, we are still no worse off. He went on to boast:
“My Department and HMRC have done exceptional work throughout the pandemic to stand up new services and increase the capacity of existing ones. We have been able to move quickly to support over 9 million people”.
I offer genuine congratulations. That is a job well done. I know my local DWP and the one jobcentre left in my constituency have been superb, but with UBI there would be no need for that. All payments would already be in place. With UBI, the safety net has already been built. We are not building it as we are falling.
Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that at the height of lockdown, although the herculean efforts of the DWP staff ensured that people got paid, many people were getting about £60 a month taken off them owing to advance repayments?
That goes back to my original point: that I do not believe universal credit is the solution we are looking for. It has been patched and amended, but when it is put under pressure and there are changes in circumstances, the system is not fleet of foot and able to cope with people’s day-to-day living.
During the Petitions Committee sitting, the Minister turned to the issue of the impact of UBI. He had the temerity to say:
“this is the fundamental case against UBI.”
It was not the cost or the delivery, but the impact of UBI that he did not like. He stated:
“Unlike our UC system, UBI does not target support at those in greater need”.
Finally, he got it right. We do not need to target it—everybody gets it, with no stigma attached. He went on to say that UBI does not
“take into account additional costs faced by many individuals, such as those with a disability or those with childcare responsibilities.”
If he reads the pilot project’s proposals, he will see that they do take those into account.
Then, in sheer desperation, the Minister went for an old chestnut. To put it into perspective, Chair, UBI would be paid to you, me and all Members of this House. Yes it would—and it would be taken back in tax, thank you very much. In attempting to vindicate the current system, the Minister, without a hint of irony, said in his conclusions that the UK Government were
“providing millions to food charities to help get through to those who are struggling”.
Yet if people had UBI, they would not rely on charity from this one nation conservatism-driven Government. People do not want handouts—they do not want charity or the crumbs from the top table. They deserve a platform on which they can build and that allows them to sit at the top table as equals, not to be beholden to their rich benefactors. For the benefit of all four nations in the United Kingdom, will the Minister please support the plans for UBI pilots and allow us to move forward with a progressive welfare system that is practical, compassionate and fit for this century?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for such an impressive and informative speech about what UBI could bring to this country.
I say to the Minister that I stand here making this speech today as a convert to UBI. Two years ago, as the DWP spokesperson at our party conference, I was not in favour of UBI: I did not think that we should dismantle what we have at the moment and considered that we had enough problems with universal credit without going back to scratch. However, that was before I had heard the word “coronavirus” and seen the impact it was going to have on this country. That was before we arrived at a situation where 4.5 million people in the UK were living in poverty.
Coronavirus has changed everything. It has changed everything in much the same way—this metaphor has been used a lot—as the second world war changed everything for this society. When Beveridge put together his report in 1942, a lot of people said that it simply could not work, that it was not sensible and that the country could not afford it. What on earth was he thinking about? And yet, immediately post-war, the Labour Government set about putting that Beveridge report into action. What I say today is that what this country needs now is that kind of vision, and that kind of willingness to take on a challenge and to change society for the better for the next generation. It is not an opportunity that we asked for; it has come in the form of a challenge—probably the biggest challenge that any of us will face in our lifetimes. But we also have to see it as an opportunity to make progress.
Why UBI? The reason I became a convert, frankly, has been the number of phone calls and the number of people who have come to me since March this year—every day, every phone call, every person who thought they were financially secure, every person who spent decades building up a company, every person who was self-employed but now finds that they are without the support they need for the future: all that has convinced me that the only way to tackle the issue fully and to make sure that everyone gets the support they need is through a universal basic income.
UBI would help the people on whom we rely but we often miss: the carers, the people who are low paid. As the hon. Member for Inverclyde said, there should be no stigma or penalty to taking another job, but at the moment there is. I am thinking of people who have worked long hours to get our food to the supermarket shelves who are not on a huge salary and who could do with some help.
My basic plea to the Minister is this: look at whether we can have a trial, to see whether UBI can work and whether we can have the courage that the Government had immediately after the war. That generation looked to Beveridge and thought, “Here is another way. Here is a way of improving society. Here is a way of making a change, a legacy for future generations.”
We have all gone out on a Thursday night and applauded the NHS, which was part of that bigger vision. We have all, at some point in our lives, looked to the welfare state and thought, “Will it be there to help me?” In this, we have seen that it is not. It was a wonderful vision for the 20th century, but we need something new for the 21st century. We need something that makes sure that nobody falls through the cracks as we have seen in this crisis: the 3 million people who have had no support and who, regardless of the Government schemes we hear about, still have no support, no financial safety net, no way out of this from the Government. UBI could provide that.
At the moment, I would not give the Minister a blueprint and say, “This is the one you must follow” because that would be a mistake. We have to look at how we can do it, how it can be affordable and how we make sure that support gets to the people who need it: as I said, the carers, the stay-at-home parents, the people on a low income. They need our support now more than ever.
Two years ago, perhaps, I did not see it, but now I firmly believe that universal basic income is an idea whose time has come. This time needs something special—it needs us to have the courage that a previous generation had to do something radical and progressive. When people look back at this time 20 to 30 years from now, they could have this as something we tried to do and hopefully succeeded in doing for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Davies. I start by saying to both contributors so far that I wholeheartedly agree with the thesis that they set out while also highlighting the practical realities of what a universal basic income could bring.
We live in such an inequitable society—the second most inequitable society that there is. We have 4.5 million people living in poverty today, in one of the richest countries. We know that many have made their millions out of this crisis, but millions have fallen into very stark circumstances. We have heard about the 3.1 million people who have been excluded from any support whatsoever and are desperate at this time.
The unemployment rate in my constituency last year was 2.8%; next year it will be 27%. This is terrifying—one in four people losing their jobs because of the nature of our local economy. The 2.8% was an incredible feat, in a post-industrial city where the manufacturing base was wiped out, with the loss of the rail and chocolate manufacturing jobs, but we now face an unprecedented precipice, and we are worried—terrified—at what lies ahead. We have to think outside the box at a time like this. That is why I believe that York, because of the nature of the economy and the way our city works, would make an ideal pilot for a UBI, or citizen’s wage, as many call it.
We also know that, at the end of this month, many people on furlough today will fall over tomorrow. The reality is that, while wages are currently at 80%, they will drop in areas of high lockdown to 67% and in many areas to nothing. That will mean a longer and longer queue at the jobcentre—none of us wants to see that—or people simply struggling. UBI is not just about economic circumstances; it is about holistically supporting individuals, which is why I am also a convert to such a mechanism. It does not judge or call out, but it does protect. At a time like this, we have to look at how we protect society.
The Prime Minister talks about putting his arms around our society, yet we are not seeing the evidence of that. Many of the economic packages that have come out have been narrow, too late and too little. They do not look at the real, longer-term solutions that we need to look at in this crisis. The packages are short term and have not grappled with the real economic challenges of our age. We have to look at what will sustain us, and not just in the next six months or year—we are talking decades of recovery from this pandemic.
We have to inject the right solutions. Therefore, we should not rush, but move on this path to look deeper into this situation. We have seen the benefits where universality has been applied. We have the pension scheme—too low, I would argue, but it is a scheme that does not judge—and child benefit. Such a solution removes the issue of the undeserving poor, a narrative that has often sat with this Government. It does not judge; it recognises the real challenges. Of course, it should also sit alongside a progressive taxation system—something we desperately need which challenges those with broader shoulders and supports those without that resilience.
At a time when we see our high streets about to topple over, businesses folding, our whole local economy in York and our national economy spiralling out of control, and pp spiralling down with it, we need that safety net. Universal credit has been a good attempt, but it judges, it sanctions and it has caused harm. People have to wait for weeks before they get any money. At the height of the pandemic, it was not just five weeks, it was eight or nine weeks that people in my constituency waited.
The Minister is shaking his head. I talked to my constituents who were offered a loan, to be paid back. I am telling the Minister about cases in my constituency where people waited that length of time to get their hands on any money. They were absolutely desperate and needed to use the food bank. Why are we doing this to people when we have other tools that we can utilise?
That is why I believe that universal basic income will bring the universality, the collective responsibility of society, and the solidarity to see people through this time. I argued for it at the start of the pandemic, seeing what was ahead. I believe ever more strongly that, as poverty encroaches, we must find proper solutions. At the moment many people are struggling to pay heating bills. A constituent came to me about that this week. People cannot afford to feed their families. Often it is the women in the family—the mothers—who do without to make sure their kids get what they need. It is tough. My city is like many other places in facing that.
One of the benefits of universal basic income comes from the fact that at the moment people are in and out of work, sometimes because they must isolate, and sometimes because of the pace of fluctuations in work. People who are self-employed try to get started or to do more work and then, with levels fluctuating, they fall back. Perhaps they have access to workplaces, or perhaps not. If there was a steady income for the self-employed, what a difference it would make to entrepreneurs who want to start a business but need time to build it up and to build a custom base. That would give them the underpinning they need to grow.
As for people on statutory sick pay—as well as those who do not get it—universal basic income would provide more of an underpinning while people have to move in and out of the economy. People on zero-hours contracts get paid—and then they do not get paid. They do not know, from week to week. Universal credit, whatever the Minister will say, is not agile enough to respond to the real economy that people work in. That would not be the case with a universal basic income. Also, people entering training and skills development may move in and out of it, perhaps with different hours at different times. They may or may not be on full-time courses. Universal basic income provides underpinning and does not discriminate. It does not call out disabled people, those who are shielding, or anyone else. It does not judge in that way, but understands. We need a system that understands people.
Something that came through to me clearly when we debated the Coronavirus Act 2020 was that there were opportunities to volunteer during the pandemic. We saw that from the British people in an incredible way at the start of the pandemic. No doubt as we get through the winter crisis together—and it is going to be a hard winter—many people will put their hand up and say, “I will help.” Universal basic income would give employers flexibility, because they would know that their staff would be out volunteering, moving in and out of those opportunities, as we pull together as a society to get through this impossible situation. We have to have that solidarity that was built. Flexibility, built into our ability to sustain ourselves through the crisis, would be underpinned by a universal basic income.
That is why I say do not push it off the table. A recovery UBI would help the economy to grow and establish itself again. It is interesting that the Mayor of London and even Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, have said that we need to look at UBI. That is my ask of the Minister today: that we look at how to build the foundations of a new, fair economy, which does not discriminate and is built on the principle of recognising that everyone wants to put in, but sometimes people need help. UBI is the fairest way to do that. I ask the Minister whether he will set up a UBI commission to look at how UBI can work in different areas, and at the economic challenges of our age and the flexibility needed to grow a new economy, and to report back to the House on that commission to show how we can build a stronger, better economy and a fairer system for the future.
Yesterday the Prime Minister responded to me when I asked what someone on minimum wage, who will have a third of their wage cut, should do. He said, “Oh, that’s the point of universal credit,” in the way that he does. I think he was getting confused with universal basic income. That would be the point of a universal basic income—so that as wages fluctuated down or there were particular problems, there was an automatism; so that there was always a basic floor and an income stream that people could rely on.
The reality, as we know with universal credit, is that there is an application system that is particularly difficult, and the work component has been re-imposed on universal credit in this country since lockdown. It is not just a payment made to support people unconditionally, and we know that the stress of the waiting period causes huge anguish for many of our communities. People do not see universal credit, or jobseeker’s allowance, or the dole—or whatever name it is given—as something that is their right or that they deserve. They see it as something that they are being judged on to get, and many proud people leave it until it is too late. They leave it, thinking, “I will use my savings; I will do the good thing for society and not go immediately and ask for support.” That means that by the time they are knocking on the jobcentre door, they might have already used up what little resources they had—resources that the Government expect them to live on while they are waiting for an application. How could we avoid a system that is degrading, causes mental health problems and causes people to rely on food banks? Surely we should explore some sort of system of universal basic income. It would, after all, do exactly what the Prime Minister promised; it would actually fulfil that pledge.
Universal basic income is not a replacement for universal basic services. We need the NHS, we probably need a separate way of dealing with housing, we need lifelong learning—we need those things to go along with it. However, it is a liberating factor for those things that the Government really should not be providing. My view is that the Government should not be providing food parcels—neither the Government nor charities. Charities do it in large part. In Brighton, most of those charities are also supported by the local council through cash amounts for them to go to the cash and carry. That is not dignified. It is not dignified that people have to go and get a bag of pre-sorted goods to live on that week. I do not think that is acceptable. That is where a cash transfer is important, because cash has a liberating element in those circumstances. It has a dignifying element in those circumstances, because when a person walks into the supermarket, they are able, on a par with everyone, to engage and purchase the things they may like.
Nor is a universal basic income a substitute for a decent industrial strategy. We need strong trade unions pushing for greater conditions for workers. We need to ensure decent relations between employers and trade unions to make sure we have industrial harmony. We need to make sure that the national minimum wage is being pushed up so that it becomes a real living wage. All those things are needed. However, if we do not deal with the transitions, particularly in a society where we have more transitions and less stability in the job market, we might be helping those fewer and fewer people in full-time and stable work but not enabling people to develop full-time and stable work positively.
I am a universalist. I generally believe that giving things to everyone pushes the quality up, not down, because the pressure is that everyone understands their value. That does not mean that everyone pays in equally. One of the critiques that we hear is that giving all this money to everyone means giving rich people money. I do not know how those people think the pay-as-you-earn system works, but in a person’s payslip for the month they pay x amount of tax—x is given to the Government. If UBI were set at something like £100 a week—I pick that number from the top of my head—that would mean £5,000 a year. Under the current tax system, anyone earning more than £26,000 would be a net contributor. That is an interesting number, because £26,000 is about the average wage in the south-east, although it is slightly higher in Brighton. Actually, that would be very positive, because those earning more would be paying for it. Of course, the tax system would have to be redesigned to make it balance. Those enabling figures are an automatism.
In the ’90s, the Scandinavians developed what was called flexicurity. It was adopted, of course, by the European Union—we can have arguments about our leaving, but that is not why I raise it. I raise it because it was about looking forward and saying that the job market was changing. The Scandinavian countries recognised that they needed a more flexible labour market. Jobs for life were not necessarily going to happen, and were not necessarily desirable. Companies were saying that they needed the ability to be fleet of foot. The pact that was made was that if there was to be a more flexible workforce—the ability to hire and fire more easily—there needed to be greater protections. Some of that was about free lifelong learning. The pillars were a flexible labour market, lifelong learning, labour market policies and a strong trade union-business pact. The final pillar of the European model was a model social security system with adequate minimum support for all.
I know that the Government are slightly allergic to things that come out of Europe, but we should learn from that decent, forward-looking principle of how the labour market needs to look in the future. I do not want creative people to be forced to go into cyber-security, as the latest Government advert suggests, if they want to make ends meet. I want them to be free to develop new creative industries that provide billions of pounds of revenue to our country. If they are not given support to do that in difficult times, there is a danger that we will lose whole sections of our industry. I genuinely think that UBI is an opportunity to put some of that flexicurity model into practice.
UBI will not be perfect—there are problems with all systems—but I believe that it encompasses some of the principles of the failed universal credit system. It encompasses the idea that people can transition. Conditions could be put on it and infrastructure could be put around it, but I am not sure that would be particularly helpful.
UBI also has the ability to rebalance our generational problem. We have the clear problem at the moment that many younger working-age people—people under 30 or even under 40, so not that young in some accounts—feel that they are getting a rum deal. They feel that they will never reach pension age because it will increase on and on. They feel that the state has abandoned them in housing and welfare—under-35s have lower rates in housing, et cetera. They feel almost infantilised by the current system. That generational pact has broken. I think that part of the problem with coronavirus is that a lot of young people are not convinced that there is a generational pact in society, because they do not feel that the state or society has actually bothered to care for their concerns. They feel that huge amounts are given to pensioners. That is not necessarily true—our pension is rather low—but that is the feeling among lots of people.
A universal basic income would of course differentiate between ages. It would be slightly lower for children and would then increase for working-age people and again for pensioners. It would be a continuum, which would rebalance that understanding of a generational pact that everyone gains from. That would really transform our society for the better, which is why I hope the Government will at least explore some real, decent pilot schemes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan)—a fellow Greenockian, as he acknowledged—on securing this important debate.
I agree that the pandemic has made the case for UBI ever more urgent. At the outset of the pandemic, I and others welcomed the Government’s financial support schemes and, I admit, generally accepted that existing HMRC mechanisms were the most efficient way of getting support out quickly and effectively to employers and employees. However, time has passed, and we now need to recognise that millions of people missed out on any support and continue to do so. Many constituents have been in touch—I am sure the same is true of other Members present—to say that they had missed out on support either because they were employed a day after the furlough cut-off or because their old employer would not re-hire them. Others missed out on the self-employment income scheme because they were not able to jump through the Treasury’s hoops. They were, therefore, unable to access the support they desperately needed.
We have all heard these stories, which is why many of us are members of the all-party parliamentary group on gaps in support, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). It is impossible to listen to these stories without feeling a huge amount of empathy towards these people, who have faced an incredibly difficult year and now find further months of restrictions looming. Some 3 million people were excluded, in some cases on an entirely arbitrary basis. Despite the campaigning of many, the Government consciously continued to exclude those people—if they got no support at the start, they are still not getting any now.
Other Members have referred to members of our society who are sadly all too familiar with the challenges involved in engaging with our welfare system. However, without access to the current support schemes, many who thought they would never have to do so have engaged with DWP and universal credit support for the first time. DWP staff have worked incredibly hard at this challenging time. I commend them for that, and acknowledge that, as a Member, I have had direct support from them. I also acknowledge that the Government have temporarily increased the universal credit standard allowance for 2021 and relaxed the minimum income floor for the duration of the crisis. However, that demonstrates that every support mechanism currently available has eligibility conditions, and it is therefore inevitable that people will miss out. That is often why they contact us, as their Members of Parliament, and it is why UBI is such a powerful idea: there are no hoops to jump through and no complicated terms and conditions that exclude people. There is no sense of arbitrariness.
We heard yesterday about further restrictions—more restrictions have already been put in place in Scotland—and I am glad that the Government are bringing forward further economic support. However, I am disappointed that, several months on from the initial lockdown, and facing renewed restrictions and a surge in infections and hospital admissions, we are still no clearer on test and trace or on a job support scheme that actually reflects the reality of operating under the current restrictions and the seasonality of work in constituencies such as mine, which relies on tourism. Indeed, it feels like we are back in emergency measures, calling on the Paymaster General to unblock issues and get responses from Government Departments.
Beyond covid, there has been support for UBI pilots. In Fife, the preparatory work has been done; they just need permission to run the pilot scheme. Instead of relying on evidence from elsewhere, let us develop our own evidence base, then we will be best placed to assess whether UBI will work and the income and infrastructure required to deliver it. This work could arguably start quickly, and report quickly as well. This year, many who assumed that the safety net of our welfare system would be there to catch them have found the holes too big. Exploring UBI is a way of addressing those holes and providing a platform for future prosperity and economic recovery.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for setting the scene and I am pleased to make a contribution. I am also pleased to see the Minister. I believe he will do his best to respond to what we are asking for.
As others have said, covid-19 has been with us over the past few months. I recollect many conversations with constituents about these matters back in March. Never at any point did I honestly think we would end up where we are now, with these restrictions in place. Even as we were fast hurtling towards the changes, I never envisaged us being here.
I thank the Government, Ministers, the Chancellor and everyone who has been forthright and helpful. Others have done so, but I would also like to put it on the record, as it is important to include it in Hansard. Many of my constituents in Strangford have survived until now because of the Government’s commitment and help. To be honest, those people would not be there without that, so I put on the record my thanks to the Minister.
As elected representatives, the nature of our job means that people do not necessarily come to us to tell us how good things are or to say thank you, although many do and we appreciate that. People come to us because they have concerns and worries. Some have come to me—others have referred to this—because they fell outside the scheme.
Even with all the schemes that the Government have brought forward, it is clear that people have missed out, including the 3 million people referred to in a question to the Prime Minister during his statement on covid-19 yesterday, as well as the self-employed and directors. I do not want to labour the point, but they invested their profits and income back into their family businesses, thereby employing 12, 15 or even 20 people. But when it came to helping them, the help was not there.
Why do I look sympathetically on this particular methodology of benefit? It is because universal basic income could be the system to help those who did not receive the income they needed. I am not being critical of the Government, but I want to put that on the record. If we cannot help people, we have to consider different ways of doing things. That is why the hon. Member for Inverclyde has promoted this issue and other Members have supported it.
The experience of my constituency of Strangford is no different from that of the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who said that tourism is important to her constituency. The core economic driver of Ards and North Down Borough Council, which covers the majority of my constituency, is based on tourism. Tourism is vital because it provides income and jobs, thereby keeping the whole thing going.
I am realistic about the system. I understand that the Government do not have bottomless pockets or a money tree at the bottom of their garden. There is no money at the end of the rainbow, so they have to work practically with the moneys that they have. I do believe, however, that the Minister should at least consider a pilot scheme for universal basic income, so that we can judge and consider it. Can we pay for it? That is important. We have to be realistic and honest. Can we reach out and help those people who have missed out, including in my constituency? Those are the people on whose behalf I am speaking today.
There are some 52 million adults aged 18 or over in the United Kingdom, and 12 million children and young people under 12. I understand the economics, the figures and the statistics that mean that some earners are taxed at a higher rate. My life is no different from that of anybody else, and the same is true of the lives of others in this Chamber. Society is judged by how it looks after those who are less well off. When I was a child—that was a long time ago, by the way—we never had much back in those days. It was a fact. We did not have material possessions, because that was the way it was in those days, but it made me more understanding of those who need help. That is why I am here today, to speak up and to support the hon. Member for Inverclyde.
The Minister is a compassionate person as well. I believe in my heart that he understands very well the policy we are putting forward and why it is so important. Can we do better than universal credit? I felt a wee bit embarrassed sometimes whenever people came to me during the covid-19 crisis and I said, “You can get universal credit.” I knew right away, though, that the guy or lady across the table had a business from which they were earning £300 a week—some were earning more—and I had to tell them, “Look, £94.50 is what you get.”
I understand that the Government offered what they could—I am not criticising that—but there must be a way to ensure that those businesses can hold on long enough so that they can then turn the corner and do better. I am really conscious of the issues. We need conditions when it comes to universal basic income. I understand that some of the naysayers are saying that it could reduce the incentive to work. Well, I tell you this: every person who came to me looking for help wanted to work. They wanted to continue to work and they wanted that opportunity. They just needed that wee bit of help to get them over the line. The Government have, in fairness, responded positively, but I wonder exactly what we need to do.
I should perhaps have said this earlier. One complaint about basic income is that it makes people indolent because people are paid for doing nothing. I refer the Minister to all the pilots that have been run throughout the world, which show that there is absolutely no evidence for that whatsoever. People the world over are just like us: they want the opportunity to work and earn a wage. Basic income does not make people indolent.
I wholeheartedly agree. I was sympathetic to the really good question that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) asked the Prime Minister yesterday in the Chamber. I am not saying that because he is sitting across from me; I told him it was a good question at the time. It was about the minimum wage. I understand how it works. There are arguments to reduce the working week to four days and to reduce wages, but if someone on a minimum wage loses wages, they have nowhere to go. This is about every penny they have.
I remember the stories that people in my constituency have told me. They managed everything almost to the last pound for that week. Even a small reduction in what they have will mean that they will not be able to pay their rent or their car off. They may be paying off furniture for their property, too. The whole thing becomes a real difficulty. If somebody takes ill, it becomes a real problem. The hon. Gentleman’s question was pertinent, because I could relate personally to what he was saying. I thank him for that.
In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Inverclyde referred to other schemes. I read in the briefing about the Finnish experiment. It is not all about money. I am conscious of time, so I will come to my conclusion fairly quickly. Those who participated in the Finnish experiment
“were more satisfied with their lives and experienced less mental strain, depression, sadness and loneliness. They also had a more positive perception of their cognitive abilities, i.e. memory…and ability to concentrate.”
Giving people that help improves their quality of life, physically and mentally. We have to look at that, because there is cost otherwise. If the Government or others are not able to help, there are impacts on people’s physical and mental health, which then has to be paid for by the NHS. I suggest that although the Finnish experiment may not be the best example, it did highlight that issue.
As I see every day, those who are under financial pressure and who are worried about their future also face mental stress and difficulty. I meet people every day, every week, in my office—my staff do most of that, to be fair—and recently, when universal credit first came in, I remember that there were great problems. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and I have spoken about these things on a number of occasions, and we understand that.
That brings to mind another aspect of this issue, which is sickness absence from the workplace. We obviously know the impact that has, but if people have the underpinning of a universal basic income, that will help with their rehabilitation and get those people back into work, whatever form of work that is. It may be volunteering experience or it may be through social prescribing, and therefore having a universal basic income could be a real aid to rehabilitation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is another opportunity?
I certainly do. That is why I brought up the issue of people’s physical and mental experiences—because if we can get people into volunteering or get them back to work and moving up, that will make the Minister’s job a lot easier as well.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to the five-week period, which turned out to be an eight-week period in many cases. In a way, with all the experiences we had early on with universal credit, we overcame many of those issues, and the Government did as well. I therefore say gently to the Minister that we should perhaps be looking at a methodology for a universal basic income, at least on the basis of a pilot scheme, because with a pilot scheme the Government can perceive the issue, look over it, challenge it and investigate to see whether it is possible. In Northern Ireland, 16% of people—300,000 people—live in poverty, and that is before housing costs, which are enormous. With that in mind, the Northern Ireland Assembly also asked questions on this matter, although I understand that responsibility for the DWP lies here.
We have always had the greatest respect for the Minister, as he knows, and I believe him to be a compassionate person who can understand why we, the hon. Member for Inverclyde, and others have spoken on this topic. We believe there is a necessity for the universal basic income to be looked at through a pilot scheme. I believe it will help others, and therefore, along with others, I ask for that as well.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Davies. This has been a fantastic debate in which everyone has come to a consensus; we will see if that lasts as the debate goes on. It was led superbly by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), and I very much subscribe to his advice that we should keep left and keep moving—that is something we should all do, and I encourage the Minister to do so. He is shaking his head, for reasons that are beyond understanding. My hon. Friend also said that pilots are being asked for across the UK and should be supported, which is something I will come to later in my remarks.
As someone who sits on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I can say that the Committee will be looking at universal basic income. There have already been 20,000 individual submissions not only asking the Committee to look at universal basic income, but supportive of it and describing its benefits. I am struck by just about everyone’s contributions regarding the disadvantages of universal credit, particularly the five-week wait—something the Select Committee is currently looking at—and, of course, the advance repayments model. It beggars belief that at the height of lockdown in May, advance repayments of £60 a month were taken off people. At least 1.6 million universal credit claimants had money taken off them in May this year, which is something that the Government really do need to look at.
By way of background, the Scottish Government confirmed on 21 May 2018 that they would provide £250,000 over two years to support the undertaking of the feasibility study for a universal basic income pilot in Scotland. In June 2020, a group established to explore the feasibility of a citizens’ basic income pilot concluded that while such a pilot was desirable it was not feasible within the current devolved settlement, as the necessary tax powers remained with the UK Government through the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC. The Scottish Government have written to UK Ministers asking them to engage constructively, and to discuss the next steps in getting the pilots up and running. A petition entitled, “Implement Universal Basic Income to give home & food security through Covid-19”, was considered in an oral evidence session, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde mentioned, on 17 September this year. In response, the UK Government said that a UBI did not target help on those who needed it most, stressing that additional support had been provided during the coronavirus outbreak with the job retention scheme and changes to statutory sick pay and universal credit. I understand that the Welsh Senedd debated universal basic income on 13 September this year, with a motion calling for the Welsh Government to establish a universal basic income trial in Wales.
We want basic income pilots in Scotland, as well as elsewhere in the UK. That is desirable, but it can be done only with full co-operation and collaboration from the Government. Far too many people across the UK were living with the constant pressure of poverty, even before coronavirus. In the period 2016-19, about 1 million people in Scotland were in poverty, living precarious and insecure lives. That includes people in precarious and insecure work, which the Government need to tackle. It is not right in the 21st century that people are being pushed into destitution and homelessness, having to rely on food banks to survive.
The proposed pilot that the Scottish Government want to introduce would run for three years, with a one-year preparation period. Even with a pilot, it should be understood that such a systematic change to the welfare state could take many years to introduce. Commenting on these matters, the SNP social justice and fairness commission produced a discussion paper, “A Secure Income for All”, which explores the principle of the state providing a secure minimum income, with a more in-depth examination of universal basic income.
As many Members have said, the current situation with covid has exposed pre-existing vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the welfare and social security system. That system is an essential public service, like the national health service, and it should be funded properly and designed to support us all in times of need. Instead, it is our view that the Government have eroded the social safety net over the past decade, with brutal cuts and poverty-inducing policies such as the benefit sanctions regime, the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the bedroom tax. Even with the temporary £20-a-week increase in the universal credit standard allowance, which the UK Government have called generous, people who are out of work are £1,000 a year worse off today compared with 2011. We want that £20-a-week increase to be made permanent, and it is disappointing that the UK Government have refused the right to statutory sick pay to all those told to self-isolate as part of contact tracing.
If we look at the figures on statutory sick pay, the UK Government’s current rate is £94.25 a week, compared with £266 a week in Ireland and £287 a week in countries such as Germany and Austria. The UK Government have the second-lowest rate in the European Union for statutory sick pay. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other Members have said, during the covid period, people whom we would consider to have had a comfortable lifestyle before the pandemic no longer have such a lifestyle, which is one reason why a universal basic income could and should be a solution.
It is indefensible for the Government to obstruct potential solutions to poverty such as basic income pilots. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), there was a call by many political parties for an emergency basic payment to be put in place, to go in people’s pockets and support families during the covid crisis. An emergency basic payment would not be a universal basic income, but would go some way towards ensuring that people had a secure income. That is something which we very much believe the Government need to look at. The 3 million who have been excluded have been referred to in this debate. The Government need to consider an emergency payment going to everyone, particularly as local and regional lockdowns are put in place across these islands.
We certainly encourage a universal basic income. We want to encourage the Department for Work and Pensions to engage with all the devolved Administrations and any local authorities that want to put a basic income pilot in place, wherever they are in these islands. We believe the time has come for that to happen.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) and others for securing the debate. We have heard strong contributions from Members who have critiqued the existing social security system and shown how its weaknesses have been exposed during the pandemic. That is absolutely right, for reasons that I will come on to, but we have heard not only about the pandemic, but about a recognition that the current social security system has a number of fundamental problems.
We have rehearsed the problems with the universal credit system on many occasions in the past and will no doubt do so again, 10 years on. Many problems have arisen from the fact that many people have been excluded from receiving help and the restrictions that apply, ranging from the five-week wait to the benefit cap and many other problems.
It is also true that there is a very long-term and fundamental issue with social security that those who support versions of universal basic income recognise. No system stands still. The world has changed fundamentally, particularly the world of work and the extent to which we are increasingly in a world of flexible employment, income volatility and fundamental demographic change.
Even the principles that Beveridge set out as the basis of the post-war social security system, starting with the concept of a flat-rate system, soon had to change as the world changed—as women went into the workplace and different pockets of disability emerged. The interaction between those at work and the nature of the jobs they were doing also changed and increasingly became a system that topped up the basic, flat-rate insurance-based systems, so we have ended up with a complex hybrid.
It is also true—I will come on to this in a minute—that whatever system we end up with will have to accommodate a variety of different approaches. Members have stressed this morning, and I agree, that if we want to build an argument for a form of universal basic income, the Government have done a lot of the work for us by introducing a system that has embraced conditionality and sanctions with vigour in recent years. If we want to convince people of the merits of a basic income, we could not do much better, given that the DWP seeks to micromanage so much of people’s lives, whether they are out of work or in work conditionality, where interaction with job centres often feels like an obstacle course of booby-traps designed to trigger sanctions. Those sanctions are wildly disproportionate including, until last year, cutting people off without support for up to three years. The social outcomes of all those policies include what many refer to as the soaring numbers of people whose destitution is such that they are dependent on food banks.
I do not want to cover all the points that have been made, but I will refer to two areas where the basic income argument is particularly relevant. The first is income volatility and the ability of the social security system to deal effectively with the fluctuations in income that have become characteristic of the labour market. Again, the problem is not new but, as self-employment, sometimes very dubious forms of self-employment, the gig economy and zero-hours contracts have become more prevalent, it is particularly pertinent.
The ability of the social security system to react in a timely manner to sudden drops in income is stretched to the limit. Despite the use of realtime information from the tax system, the monthly cycle of universal credit payments does not correspond to real-life volatility in many household incomes, as John Hills of the London School of Economics has certainly shown. There is a strong case for mitigating that volatility through payments that do not respond to changes in income, which is precisely what child benefit—the nearest thing we have to an element of basic income—does. The stability of child benefit has been shown to be one of the most valued components of the social security system. Whatever happens to earnings from other benefits, child benefit can always be counted on.
The second point concerns the basis on which benefits are awarded, whether to individuals or households. Our personal taxation system is overwhelmingly based on individuals, but our benefits system is increasingly based on the assessment of household income. Universal credit has reinforced that disparity. It is a benefit designed around an out-of-date model of a single breadwinner and it disadvantages second earners in the household, who can find most of their earnings lost to household means-testing. We should not be comfortable about the fact that people in lower-income households face a completely different set of implicit tax rates from the better-off.
I totally accept that security is fundamental to people’s physical and mental wellbeing. That is implicit in the idea of recognising the weaknesses of the existing system and how it responds to volatility, most obviously demonstrated during a crisis such as the pandemic, but consistent over the long term.
Basic income as a fully individual entitlement could go some way towards addressing that problem, although it must be recognised that it is not a complete solution, because most of the proposals for basic income retain large parts of the existing social security system, most critically, housing benefit. Beveridge was defeated by the disparity in housing costs across the country, and that remains now—if anything, it is probably more pronounced than it was. A basic income is not the only imaginable way to improve the current situation, but the argument for it sets out the problem with great clarity.
Some contributions to the basic income debate, however, suggest that the reform could be easily implemented—“oven ready”, to coin a phrase—and that all that is necessary to deliver it is political will and progressive values. I do not want to drown the debate in figures, but it is important to get a sense of the scale of change involved in even modest basic income proposals. I will refer briefly to two important studies that address the issue of how to fund basic income. Both show incredible clarity and are from people who are sympathetic to the idea.
The first is a paper by the late Tony Atkinson, who was a towering figure in the study of inequality. The paper was published after his death in 2017. Tony Atkinson favoured what he called a participation income, which would be conditional on some form of social contribution, but not unpaid work. As those conditions do not influence the modelling, we can take the results as relevant to basic income in general. The adult participation income in his model scheme is £75 a week. Child benefit is raised to £52.60 and £89 for the first child. The scheme prioritises children, and is certainly not extravagantly generous to adults. Other social security benefits would be retained, so it is essentially a partial basic income scheme. The modelling shows that it would not eliminate poverty, but would lead to significant reductions.
How is the model funded? The personal tax allowance is abolished, so income is taxed from the first pound. The basic rate of income tax rises from 20% to 30% from the first pound of earnings, rising to 40% of gross income at £25,000 to 50% at £45,000 and 60% at £90,000 and beyond. An earned income tax discount is introduced to avoid excessive taxes on lower-income groups.
Members will appreciate that those are not trivial changes to the system of personal taxation. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said that a basic income would require a total restructuring of the taxation system. That is not something that we can enter into lightly. The scale of what is needed to accommodate such changes is considerable. A doubling of the marginal tax rate on gross incomes of £25,000 a year would surely make even the most ardent supporter of basic income hesitate.
Any basic income scheme faces the problem that spreading payments out over the entire population will require either cuts to other expenditure programmes or increases in tax revenue. The Compass basic income model, which is widely quoted, does not offer a blueprint for immediate reform. The other scheme is intended as a policy that could be adopted immediately. Therefore, the basic income for adults and children is lower, at £60 and £40 a week respectively. To balance the books, the income tax personal allowance is abolished, as is the primary threshold for national insurance contributions, so all income is subject to tax and national insurance. A new lower rate of 15p in the pound is introduced for the first £12,000 of income to avoid successively disadvantaging the lowest earners. All other marginal rates are increased by three percentage points, so the basic rate would be 23% in England, Wales and so on. That gives an indication of what the implications would be for changes to the tax system. In both cases, marginal rates of income tax increase not just for the rich, but for middle and lower earners, and income that was never taxed before becomes liable for income tax and/or national insurance contributions.
Although I accept a number of the arguments about the positivity of changes to the social security system that give people security, we cannot dismiss the fact that we will either have to find significant additional contributions to make it work or look at how the changes to the taxation system will affect people and ensure that is part of the debate. It is worth pointing out that the pilot studies that have been conducted in other countries do not have the advantage of being able to do all this in realtime, precisely because to make a full basic income work requires social security and tax to be fully integrated as part of the model; it cannot simply be about testing some aspects of the scheme.
I welcome this debate, and I certainly do not dismiss the idea of basic income. I recognise and support the contributions made this morning. People are saying that a basic income can address long-term problems that are poorly handled by existing social security models. As Labour develops our proposals for replacing universal credit with a more generous and less stigmatising system, I hope we will rise to some of those challenges.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this important debate, and all Members who contributed. I will try to address as many of the points that they raised in the time that I have.
This issue ignites passionate debate in many quarters, and I am grateful to be able to come to the House and make the Government’s position crystal clear. Throughout the pandemic, people have faced significant challenges. Many have sadly lost their job or have seen their income reduce. During these challenging times, my priority as Minister with responsibility for welfare delivery remains ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society receive the support and financial assistance that is available to them.
Thankfully, universal credit and the Government’s £9.3 billion investment in the welfare safety net has been there to catch those most affected. It has been vital to the 3 million people who have made a benefit claim since March. We have paid more than 90% of claims in full and on time, and we have got support to millions of families at an incredibly difficult period. We have targeted support, which gets to the people who need it most while maintaining responsible economic policies.
Despite the success of universal credit, some still attempt to deride the system and instead demand what they call a universal basic income, or UBI. The concept, as has been explained today, is that a standard monthly allowance is paid to all working-age adults, regardless of their circumstances. At first glance, it may appear appealingly simple, but in reality it would be a costly mess that would leave the vulnerable in society far worse off. It would disincentivise work in key industries and leave the country’s finances in ruins.
On the flip side, the universal credit system has proven that it is up to the challenge. Replacing universal credit, at potentially astronomical cost, would be of little benefit to anyone, not least those who rely on our welfare safety net the most.
I hope that my clear arguments against UBI, which I will set out today, will make it clear that the Government have no plans to adopt this policy, and for good reasons. It is not in the interests of the taxpayer or of those who rely on our welfare safety net. Rather than continuing to push the unrealistic and damaging idea of a UBI, its supporters would do well to look at the welfare safety net that we already have.
In the short time that I have left, I intend to cover three areas, if possible: cost, delivery and impact. First, I turn to cost. A 2018 report by the CSJ found that giving everyone over the age of 16 in the UK £10,000 a year would cost £500 billion. Despite those staggering sums being paid out, a UBI would be likely to leave the most vulnerable in society worse off. As soon as we think about the people who need more support from the state, the supposedly simple idea of UBI quickly starts to unravel.
The point I am making is that when we even begin to think about introducing a UBI, we see that not only would the cost be astronomical, but the Government would have to increase taxation mercilessly; that is borne out in the feasibility report by the Scottish Parliament’s own commission. Indeed, there would be increased taxation far beyond anything seen in the United Kingdom before. We would be taking thousands of pounds in taxation from hard-working people, often simply to shuffle money around in what could be a costly farce of bureaucracy, before paying it back to people in monthly UBI payments. That would be a decadence of expenditure and a blow to productivity that we can little afford in the throes of one of the most severe economic situations that we have faced.
I turn now to delivery. UBI is indeed a fantasy, in which the practicalities are rarely thought through, and if we interrogate the idea even slightly, it very quickly unravels. Delivering infrastructure schemes of this size is not easy. For all its detractors, who have been proven badly wrong in the face of the pandemic, universal credit is one of the most advanced welfare systems in the world. As with any complex IT system that delivers sweeping reform, it has taken time to implement and it has not been without challenge.
In 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee found that any UBI that attempted to support people’s additional needs would not reduce complexity, and that ultimately it was difficult to see how a UBI would substantially alleviate poverty or provide income security.
As the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) rightly pointed out, other countries have already tested UBI and quickly found that the practice is as bad as the theory. As the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, a UBI test in Finland was abandoned as a flop after two years, with the Finnish Finance Minister saying that the case was closed for UBI. Importantly—
I have given way once already; if I can give way again at the end, I will.
As I was saying, the Finnish Finance Minister concluded that there must be conditionality—that is the important point—in the social security system.
This Government have done brilliant work through the pandemic to stand up and bolster services, and to get money to those who need it in all four nations of our United Kingdom. We have supported more than 9 million people through the coronavirus job retention scheme and we have accepted more than 3 million new claims for universal credit. The universal credit system has proven that it is up to the challenge, and replacing it at potentially astronomical cost would provide little benefit to anyone, not least those who rely most on our welfare safety net.
Finally, I want to discuss impact, which is the fundamental case against UBI. The welfare system is a safety net and should be there for those who need it. Unlike universal credit, UBI does not target support at those in greater need or take into account additional costs faced by many individuals, such as those with disabilities or those with childcare responsibilities. To put things into some kind of perspective, UBI would be paid, as the hon. Member for Inverclyde pointed out, to me and all the other Members in the Chamber today and across Parliament. I would much rather that it be spent on supporting those who need it. To claim, as the hon. Gentleman did, that that would simply be taken back in tax is not a valid argument, as I have set out, because that is simply shuffling money around.
The OECD has also been clear about the broader consequences. For most high-income countries, a UBI could increase poverty and negatively affect the poorest, with middle-income households most likely to gain. That is all before we start discussing real outcomes. Evidence suggests that UBI provides a disincentive to employment, and in the Finnish trial the Government have acknowledged—I repeat this, because it is important—the need for conditionality.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I hear the call that he and other Members across the Chamber make for a UBI pilot, but in rebuttal I say, “Show me the international evidence.” The hon. Member for Inverclyde made reference to numerous pilots that have taken place all over the world, so why does he not demonstrate what he argues for by showing what impact they had, and then showing the evidence of how those countries have gone on to implement UBI?
I will gladly meet the hon. Gentleman at some point in the future and look at that in further detail—but why have those countries not progressed? On the issue of the pilot, not only do we think that the concept is deeply flawed, but it is certainly not currently operable.
The Government remain wholly unconvinced of the case for UBI. We have taken steps to address the financial implications of the pandemic, and that has been possible only against the backdrop of a welfare system that has been technically capable of meeting the challenge of hugely increased demand, and that targets appropriate support for those who need it most. More than 1 million people who needed to access UC quickly have been able to receive funds within 72 hours and more than 90% of all claims have been paid in full and on time. That is a record of which I am proud. The pandemic has shown that universal credit is the right approach for the United Kingdom. It simplifies the benefits system, promotes and incentivises work, and provides targeted support to those who are most in need, in a way that is affordable to the taxpayer—challenges that UBI simply does not and cannot meet.
I thank everyone who has taken the time to come and speak today, and I thank the Minister for his time as well. I have rebutted most of what he said, because it is the same speech he used in the Petitions Committee, about implementation, outcomes and being too costly. I have already dealt with that here.
If anyone really wants to see how the models work—I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said on that—with all the numbers in boxes that we can add up, subtract and play all these games with, Annie Miller wrote an excellent book called “A Basic Income Handbook”, which contains many examples that can be drawn on. She also handily gives calculations to put into a spreadsheet, so that people can build their own and play with it. If the Minister wants evidence from across the world, I am not going to bring it to him. He has the staff behind him. I would have thought someone would have brought him evidence and said, “You want to have a look at that.” That is why I asked in my speech whether he had looked at any evidence from across the world. He comes up with these old canards and arguments that UBI makes people indolent and stops them working. There is no evidence anywhere to show that.
I wonder what the final straw will be that makes the Government wake up to the idea. At one point, a couple of years ago, the gig economy was coming forward, and it brought the discussion back inside the Overton window. Now it is covid-19 that is taking us down the next stage of the path. I fear that if we do nothing now, it will be covid-22, a drop in the economy, or a serious escalation of the gig economy. I am asking that we do something now before it is too late. We do not know what the final straw will be. We need to plan now, to go forward. It is wise to fasten the seatbelt before hitting the wall. The Minister believes that the financial cost is too high to justify UBI. I fear that the cost to society without a UBI will be far higher.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Fiscal Support for Events Industry: Covid-19
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fiscal support for the events industry during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. There are plenty of events happening these days, but unfortunately they are not the kind of events that we want. Ever-changing political events related to the global pandemic have devastatingly disrupted our ability to take part in the more fun kind of events and our ability to mix and gather safely. Usually, the UK has a truly world-beating, year-round programme of cultural activities: music, theatre, arts and outdoor festivals, as well as conferences, ceremonies and shows—events that happen thanks to the collective efforts of a diverse, trained and skilled workforce that employs around 1 million people. Those events bring us together, inspire us and lift our spirits. Sadly, since March 2020, the cultural map of events has been all but wiped out, and those events have been held only via computer screens. This vibrant sector has been brought to its knees.
I support the need to take action to tackle the increasing spread of the virus. Balancing public health against economic damage is clearly very tricky, although there is no single step more important than controlling the virus when it comes to getting things running again properly in the events sector. Not only are professionals in the events industry keen to follow the rules, but they could help to frame future solutions. The British Events Industry Coalition has members who have expertise in planning and running safe events of all shapes and sizes. They would be delighted to lend their health and safety knowledge and industry experience to help frame future regulation. They have innovative ideas, such as a formal BEIC safety kitemark system, by means of which events could demonstrate adherence to standards, boosting public confidence and getting people back through the gates when guidance allows. I hope that the Minister will be willing to work with industry on that, and I look forward to his response.
Last month, I asked the Prime Minister what to tell constituents in successful, viable businesses whose jobs rely on live events, and he said that it was better that they “get back into work”. I am sure that they would all agree; everyone in the events industry is itching to get back to doing what they are so brilliant at doing, and to pursue careers that they worked so hard to achieve. However, I have to say that the Prime Minister’s response was somewhat puzzling, given that my constituents still cannot do what they want under the Government’s restrictions, which either prevent events from running altogether or allow them merely to limp along in a financially unviable way.
Recently, the Chancellor made it clear what the Prime Minister meant by getting back into work: that people from all walks of life should retrain. To press that message, a Government-backed poster is doing the rounds featuring a young ballet dancer and rather gloomy text, which says that her next job could be in cyber but she does not know it yet. Forget the dedication, blood, sweat and tears and years of professional training for a career in the arts, and forget following passions—get stuck behind a computer. It is a worthy job, no doubt, but is that really the message we want to send to our aspiring young talent? Having tried unsuccessfully to get clarity from the Prime Minister on what he meant by “get back into work”, I hope the Minister can perhaps shed some light on this conundrum.
For those who are not sure what to retrain to do, the UK Government provided a handy quiz to help people find a suitable new career. It is a bit like one of those personality quizzes in glossy magazines that might be found in a dentist’s waiting room, and the results are equally ridiculous. On social media, I saw a choir conductor who was not too happy when advised to consider colon hydrotherapy as an alternative career. I had a go myself, and it suggested that I could perhaps be a football referee, although taking a second job that has something to do with football is clearly not something that a serious politician would consider—except, of course, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who clearly has too much time on his hands. My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) suggested to me yesterday that if the Prime Minister were to take the quiz, it might suggest that he retrain as a Prime Minister.
The UK Government’s response to the crisis faced by the events industry has been crass, to say the least. They showed a real lack of understanding of the value of the sector and the far-reaching consequences of letting these jobs simply vanish. These are skilled professionals in viable careers that form the backbone of the UK’s cultural and economic life. Why on earth would the Government give up on them?
In my constituency, and in my council area of Ards and North Down, culture and the arts are vital. It is a core issue for the council, to promote jobs and help things go forward. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, when it comes to events, whether in partnership with the National Trust or events companies, the council has a key role to play?
I absolutely agree. Local government across the islands plays a critical role in making sure events can take place, and in supporting events—particularly community events, which I will come to later.
It may be that, as some have suggested—I could never be so cruel as to do so—those in the Treasury do not actually value the arts, but they must surely respect the billions of pounds the arts bring into the coffers. If they do not understand the value of that income, perhaps they need to take the retraining website quiz themselves. Let us consider outdoor events alone. I thank the incredible volunteers at the “We Make Events” campaign for compiling the figures. Across the UK, 141.5 million people attended outdoor events in 2018, spending £39.5 billion and supporting 589,000 jobs, with a gross value added of £30.4 billion.
We are very good at running events. In these challenging times, we need to look at what we are good at, to support, encourage and protect those jobs. The great thing about this massive economic generator is that it is the opposite of London-centric. It meets the Government’s proclaimed levelling-up agenda and it provides jobs right across these isles, no more so than in my Midlothian constituency, which not only has a proud tradition of community events and gala days, but is home to many businesses and freelancers who work in the world’s most fabulous and famous global events right on our doorstep in Edinburgh.
In Scotland, prior to the pandemic, the creative industry was among the fastest growing sectors, supporting around £9 billion worth of activity in the Scottish economy. With its contribution growing by 62% from 2008 to 2017, across the UK the creative industries were growing at five times the rate of the economy as a whole, contributing £111.7 billion in gross value added, and creating jobs at three times the rate of the UK average in all parts of the country.
These businesses are not just viable; they are essential to the UK’s growth and recovery from the crisis. Culture and events are not frivolous add-ons, or optional luxuries when other more serious jobs are taken care of. They are central to our heritage, happiness and mental health—part of what it means to be a human being. This crisis has surely shown us just how valuable the arts are in creating resilient communities. Hard times have been eased by music, art and creativity, as people look for ways to come together virtually, while we cannot do it face to face.
Nobody in the sector is simply sitting back holding out for handouts. They want to work. Businesses are innovating and finding ways to adapt, and people are taking jobs wherever they can find them to survive. Performers are looking for platforms to share their talent in innovative ways, such as “Stars in their Homes”—run by a constituent of mine—in which performers take to Facebook at the weekend to bring a bit of joy into homes across the country. The fact remains, however, that all sorts of skilled professionals dependent on live events have been left in the cold with very little support: people in staging, lighting, security, audio-visual technology, sound engineers, promoters, planners, hospitality suppliers, photographers, florists, technology manufacturers—the list goes on. All of that is before we get into the associated hospitality links and benefits, but given the time constraints, that is perhaps one for another day.
The decision on what is viable seems to me utterly misguided. There are so many examples of successful businesses, such as the audio-visual technology specialists in my constituency, VisionEvents, which were operating a booming business at the top of their game internationally before covid-19 cut their legs out from under them. These are creative, self-sufficient companies doing fantastic work to adapt to virtual events, but there are limits and constraints on the income gap that can be covered virtually in the absence of live events.
There is and always will be a demand for events, but if we allow these jobs to be lost now, it will be very difficult to pick up again where we left off and we will lose the competitive advantage that the UK currently enjoys. The Minister will no doubt draw attention to the job support scheme extension, albeit limited, and the fiscal support for the arts. That is welcome; I make no bones about that. There are clearly details still to come, but the question remains whether that goes far enough to protect the industry and support those on the brink. These funds may help venues and organisations to plan and adapt, but huge networks of individuals and support services, such as those in the hire and supply sector, are making huge losses every day.
Sadly, so far the announcement does not look like it will stave off mass redundancies. Crucially, it still misses all those freelancers who fell through the gaps in the job retention and self-employed support schemes. An estimated 3 million people have been excluded, many in the arts, in jobs that do not quite fit the spreadsheets—Excel or not. Individuals who lost their income overnight could lose their home or be left to struggle in poverty if they are not given support until the sector can get back on its feet.
No doubt the Minister will point to the £1.5 billion culture recovery fund. That is essential and will be crucial for much of the infrastructure and keeping many venues alive, but a comparison with the billions that the arts generates each year really puts it into perspective. Also, it does little for boots on the ground. As the We Make Events survey that was published today shows, the vast majority in the live events sector do not benefit from the fund. I understand it is not fully allocated yet, so I hope the Government will consider extending its remit to cover the full range of the live events supply chain.
Like the furlough replacement, the fund appears to be targeted at regional lockdowns. Sadly, it will not reach many of the businesses that we have discussed today. The Chancellor famously said he will do whatever it takes, but he is falling short when it comes to the live events sector and the specific challenges that need to be addressed. I invite the Minister to commit to a meeting with industry representatives from the We Make Events campaign, which would be more than happy to work with him to find a solution to help the industry move forward. It has set out its asks that are vital to the sector in a way that will work, and it has a realistic financial plan supported by the CBI. Its campaign, like the industry itself, is a global leader, having spread to 28 countries around the world. Are we going to let such expertise wither as other countries recognise the need for support, or can we actually recognise the benefits that the arts and culture bring to society?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate. It is the second or third occasion that we have encountered each other in this forum. He raises significant issues that I will try to deal with forensically. I draw attention to the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who has responsibility for sport, heritage and tourism, which also covers the events industry. We are working with my colleague the Exchequer Secretary to deal forensically with the challenges that the hon. Member for Midlothian set out in his excellent speech.
As the hon. Gentleman powerfully highlighted, the past months have been intensely difficult for the businesses and workers in the events industry. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the challenges in his local authority area, which are mirrored across the country. Local authorities are trying to work constructively with the sector in a very difficult set of circumstances. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Chancellor both recognise the energy that the industry devoted to the pilot tests in early September to explore how individual events could be run safely. I acknowledge how frustrating it must be that, despite the success of those tests, they have been overtaken by circumstances.
The hon. Member for Midlothian mentioned the We Make Events campaign a couple of times. I am sure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be keen to engage with that campaign, if he has not done so already. I recognise the innovative work that different sectors of the economy are doing to try to overcome the different challenges and how they affect different sectors.
Last month, in the light of rising covid-19 cases, the Prime Minister had to pause the reopening of business events, and yesterday he set out how we will further simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three-tiered system of local covid alert levels in England. Given the challenges facing the sector, it is imperative that we fully understand the long-term impact of covid-19 upon it. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s prompts, I will not reiterate all the Government support schemes for the arts, but I will say that, as a former Arts Minister, I still communicate a lot with the arts sector. Indeed, I received a message at the weekend from Darren Henley, the chief executive of the Arts Council, and I feel passionate about the sector’s concerns. We are committed to continuing to reappraise what has happened so far. That is why the Treasury has been working intensively with employers, delivery partners, industry groups and other Departments to gain a deeper insight into the conditions that would make it financially viable for the events industry to reopen in a covid-secure way.
Some of the sector has benefited from the Government support packages to safeguard the economy during the pandemic. That includes the broader measures of deferral of VAT payments and a year-long rates holiday for eligible businesses, although I acknowledge that for some, whose rateable value falls below the threshold, that has not been something that they have been able to use. I am not presenting all these interventions as fully comprehensive for every business, and the Chancellor, as the hon. Member for Midlothian acknowledged, has said that.
Some businesses have benefited from a range of Government-backed and guaranteed loan schemes, the retail, hospitality and leisure grant fund and the discretionary grant. In addition, 94% of events venues have been able to make use of the coronavirus job retention scheme. Last month, we committed to helping viable businesses facing lower demand due to covid-19 through the new job support scheme. All small and medium-sized businesses, including thousands in the events sector, are eligible. On Friday, the Chancellor announced a further extension to that scheme, which will provide temporary help to businesses that have been legally required to close as a direct result of the covid-19 restrictions. We intend that extension to cover those directly employed by business conference venues and exhibition centres that have been unable to open as a result of the further measures to address the rising cases of covid-19 announced on 22 September.
We will be setting out more detail in due course. I recognise that it would be ideal for me to announce that now, but a lot of work is going on to clarify it. It is important that we have clarity in the communications, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very closely to ensure that that is clear and is made available as urgently as possible. Sadly, we cannot promise to save every job or every business, but I can commit that we will continue to listen to representations from across the House and monitor the impact of our economic support, and we stand ready to evolve our policies as required.
This is an extremely challenging time for a sector that I grew very close to and have great affection for, and I empathise with it very clearly and strongly in the challenges that it faces. I can assure the hon. Member for Midlothian that his representations in his very fair and balanced speech will be taken account of, and I can assure the wider audience this morning that we will do everything we can to bring clarity as soon as possible. Indeed, I shall be talking to the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for this sector, after this debate has concluded. That concludes my remarks. I hope that I have responded in some way effectively to the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made.
Question put and agreed to.
RNLI and Independent Lifeboats: Covid-19
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice, to support social distancing. Please sanitise the microphones using the cleaning materials provided before you use them. Respect the one-way system in the Chamber. That means going in one door, and walking this way, and leaving by the other door. Members can speak only from the horseshoe. There is no requirement to stay after speaking, although Members may wish to do so. In an oversubscribed debate, if there are Members waiting to speak in what used to be the Public Gallery, please make way for them after you have spoken. I think that that covers it. Finally, this is quite a busy debate, with 10 or 11 additional Members down to speak. If Members stick to four minutes each, everyone will be called.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the RNLI and independent lifeboats after the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank you for being here. Across the United Kingdom, there are 60 independent lifeboat stations and 238 Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat stations, covering more than 19,000 miles of our coastline. Each of those stations protects and serves coastal communities and those who choose to visit our spectacular coastline. Any Member of Parliament who is fortunate enough to represent a coastal community has become well accustomed to the sight of lifeboat crews on training exercises or responding to an emergency call-out. We should all be aware of the important work that the RNLI and our independent lifeboats do, and comprehend how incredibly difficult 2020 has been for that frontline emergency service. There can be no more emotive sight than witnessing the launching of a lifeboat with its crew of volunteers responding at speed from their day jobs, and heading at pace to an emergency situation of almost unknown proportions. A single call from the coastguard operations centre puts into action months and years of training. Crews are mustered, boats are launched in record time, and victims are reached at eye-watering speed. That rapid response system, delivered by volunteers who are on call 24/7, 365 days of the year, is supported by a comprehensive lifesaving network of stations covering the whole United Kingdom.
The purpose of the debate is to recognise the challenges that covid-19 has placed before independent lifeboats and the RNLI, but also to celebrate the important and extraordinary work done by our lifeboat crews across the country. I have a number of suggestions for the Government, and for Members of Parliament, and I hope that we shall be able to build on today’s debate to give further support, and act to ensure that our lifesaving coastal coverage is never compromised.
I should probably start by highlighting the differences between the RNLI and our independent lifeboats. As we all know, the RNLI is a long-standing organisation founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. Its establishment has led to the saving of more than 143,000 lives, the creation of an international arm that seeks to prevent drowning, and the setting up of 238 lifeboat stations comprising 445 lifeboats, including 164 all-weather lifeboats, 274 inshore lifeboats, and seven hovercraft. According to its latest statistics, in 2020, up to July, the RNLI had launched its lifeboat crews 3,143 times—equivalent to 16 times a day—saved 95 lives and assisted 584 people at sea.
Remarkably, those results come at absolutely no cost to the taxpayer. The RNLI, as a charitable body, is reliant on donations from members of the public, and generous legacies. In 2019, it raised £52.4 million through donations, and £126.5 million through legacies, while it has an expenditure of £181.5 million. However, the RNLI expects a 20% decline in annual income by the end of 2020. As a result of covid, fundraising activities have been restricted. RNLI shops have been closed, and the legacies that make a significant proportion of its budget are expected to decline. Alongside that, there has been a significant fall in expenditure—17%—with the temporary closure of the RNLI college, and reduced lifeguard cover on beaches because of a shorter season. Thirty per cent. of RNLI staff have been put on furlough or other wage subsidy schemes, and there has been a halt to building development, and a pause in boat construction. The RNLI has, as an organisation, been able to build up healthy reserves over the years. While it is fiercely independent without Government funding, I would like to make it clear that the purpose of this debate is not to change any part of the RNLI’s funding structure. My concern is not the provision of the services that the RNLI is able to roll out this year, but what will be the impact of 2020 in 2021, and what lessons we have learned from this period over 2020. Expenditure will have to rise again, as training, infrastructure development and new equipment purchases cannot be put off indefinitely. Ensuring that the RNLI continues to benefit from strong public support will be essential in maintaining those services.
The Government can play their part. By bringing the RNLI into the fold and upgrading the channels of communication, we can improve its ability to respond rapidly to situations. I propose that the RNLI be included in the fold with the four paid emergency services regarding the level of information and communication it receives. That information and communication must come before policy implementation. An example over the summer could not be more clearcut: the RNLI came under sustained attack by the media for not being able to provide 100% lifeguard coverage on our beaches. The Government were at fault, because they failed to give significant advance warning to the RNLI about changes to lockdown measures. The RNLI was not at fault, and responded in an extraordinary way. Fortunately for all of us, its response ensured that 177 beaches had lifeguard coverage: a remarkable achievement that shows not only the RNLI’s resilience but its flexibility in responding at times of crisis.
My hon. Friend is making a most excellent speech, and will know that my home coastal community of Eastbourne has one of the oldest and busiest stations in the United Kingdom. Does he share my dismay that, when the RNLI was challenged over the summer period in maintaining that secure presence on the beaches and out at sea, it came in for criticism for picking up those who had become stranded or distressed in small boats? The RNLI has a policy of preservation of life at sea. We would want it to be recognised as the hero that it is, and in no way come in for any public criticism for its work in that area.
My hon. Friend says it better than I could, and I will only say that I wholeheartedly agree with her. Perhaps in the near future I can come on a visit to her lifeboat station. Excluding an emergency service from information that is likely to increase the demand on its services is not only inexplicable, it is dangerous to members of the British public. Before I come on to independent lifeboats, it is particularly welcome to hear that the RNLI recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. After hundreds of years of working together, that official step formally affirms the collective aspiration to save lives at sea, and emphasises the dedication and determination to provide the UK and its people with another century of coastal coverage.
This year has seen an incredible rise in domestic tourism. My own constituency has never felt better. The town of Salcombe in my constituency saw a turnover of 35,000 people per week, and the figure for Dartmouth was only slightly lower. The dramatic increase in coastline visitors undoubtedly heaps pressure and demand on our independent lifeboats and the RNLI. The whole House will agree with me that they have responded in a manner that is a credit to their professionalism, training and structure. Our independent lifeboats are derived from the RNLI and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As the RNLI and the MCA have changed their structures, communities have often stepped forward and maintained their lifeboat stations and crews as independent, self-funding entities. My own constituency is home to the Hope Cove Life Boat, one of the UK’s 60 independent lifeboats. I joined it this summer to discuss the impact of covid on its operations, and committed to holding a Westminster Hall debate. I am delighted to be able to deliver on that promise. That said, I am now acutely aware of the challenges faced by our independent lifeboats: the lack of recognition for lifeboats independent from the RNLI, organisational issues, lower levels of funding with the phasing-out of the Government’s grant scheme and, of course, the impact of covid. I will address each of those points. Identity is key, and identity challenges are just that: challenging. Our independent lifeboats have great difficulty stepping out of the shadow of the RNLI. More often than not, those who donate to the RNLI think they are contributing to all lifeboat stations across the United Kingdom. This is not the case. Today’s debate is, I hope, the first in many steps in helping to raise awareness about our independent lifeboat stations and to inform members of the public about the difference between independent lifeboats and the RNLI.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) held an event in Parliament a few years ago that was attended by many members of the independent lifeboat community. I understand that at that meeting proposals for an independent lifeboat association were raised. I would like to build on this idea, but rather than create another bureaucratic body that ties down hard-working volunteers, I would respectfully ask that each Member of Parliament whose constituency is home to an independent lifeboat meets me and other representatives from independent lifeboats, to discuss how we might ably and effectively embolden the voice of our independent lifeboats.
Such an association might initially just record the data of each station from the operating expense to the capital expense cost, from budget submission to call-out information and response times. From there, the information could be collated, documented and centralised, to create a clearer picture of the work done by our incredible independent lifeboats.
That association—which, for brevity’s sake, we shall call the ILA—would create an informal organisational structure around independent lifeboats and help to ensure that their voice is heard by the UK Government and members of the public. We could go one step further and encourage the nomination of a representative from one of the 60 independent lifeboats, so as to be able to educate, inform and engage members of the public and Members of Parliament. Such a representation could then represent all independent lifeboats on the UK search and rescue body, rather than the current system where the representation of independent lifeboats is made through the RNLI. I hope everyone is keeping up with this.
I hope the Minister will consider supporting these proposals. I am conscious of the time and I know that a number of hon. Members want to contribute to this debate. I have two quick final points. First, we have all recognised that fundraising efforts have been significantly curtailed due to covid-19, and for small, independent lifeboats fundraising is a lifeline, year on year. Coupled with the expensive cost of personal protective equipment, which has to be more durable at sea, they have suffered huge impacts on their budgets.
I wrote to the Minister on this matter over the summer, with a great deal of support from hon. Members attending this debate. I thank him for his response. The letter raised my concern around PPE costs for independent lifeboats and the RNLI. The RNLI is not calling for any form of reimbursement, but many of the independent lifeboat stations are. I ask the Minister to look again at that letter and to set up a fund that can be made available to independent lifeboat stations, so that they can recoup their costs around PPE. A temporary fund would not only be a significant step in the right direction but would be widely welcomed.
Secondly, the rescue boat grant scheme was set up in 2014 as a five-year scheme of £5 million. The last phase of bidding ended last year. If my information is correct—or my spies are correct—I understand there is a possibility that the scheme could be reintroduced. I hope the Minister will recognise, given the attendance today, that our lifeboat stations are of significant importance to many hon. Members, and reintroducing that rescue boat grant scheme would be welcomed on both sides of the House and across the country. Groups such as the Severn Area Rescue Association have told me that another five years of that grant would provide the breathing space for independent lifeboats to recover from 2020 and plan long into the future.
Of course, the work of independent lifeboat stations and the RNLI would not be possible without the extraordinary help of the National Coastwatch Institution. With 57 stations and over 2,500 watchkeepers, it works intimately with lifeboat stations to maintain a watchful eye across our coastline. If any Member of Parliament finds themselves walking along the south west coastal path, as I did this summer, I urge them to visit Prawle Point Coastguard station. Not only will they be greeted by a magnificent view, but they will see the extraordinary work done by the NCI. I hope that any decision made today and in the future will consider how integral these networks are and why we need to maintain them.
I have spoken at length about the value of the RNLI and our independent lifeboats. I hope the Minister will recognise the necessity of ensuring clear channels of communication with the RNLI and to bring it into the fold with the four other paid emergency services. As for the independent lifeboats, there is a great deal of work that we can do as Members of Parliament. The Government should support our steps to create this new ILA, renew the rescue boat grant scheme and, of course, cover the costs of PPE.
As one Twitter user said to me in response to Parliament’s digital engagement on this topic, we should always support those who risk their lives to save others. I am in awe of the volunteers who brave the harshest elements to rescue those who find themselves in trouble at sea. These key-sector workers need our support, our applause and our commitment. I hope this will be the first of many debates, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Before we continue the debate, I will say two things. First, if the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) wants to take a seat in the horseshoe, she is more than welcome. Secondly, 11 Members are due to speak before the summing up, which will begin at 3.30 pm, so if everyone could speak for just shy of four minutes, everything will be perfect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate. We are all probably going to agree; this is fairly uncontroversial. However, I will highlight a number of points.
In Northern Ireland, every bit of politics is local. We have the largest inland waterway in the United Kingdom, Lough Neagh, and Lough Neagh Rescue, an independent lifeboat service, which does a fantastic job. We also have Foyle Search and Rescue and Lagan Search and Rescue, both of which are independent. We really do rely heavily upon them. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would usually be here, so it would be remiss of me not to mention something relating to Strangford on his behalf: we also have Portaferry lifeboat station, an RNLI service that does a fantastic job.
This year has been extremely difficult. Many of the events that would have been organised to raise funds for these services, including on-street collections, could not take place. Their finances are critical at the present time. Some of them really are finding it difficult to respond. I put on the record my thanks to those who have donated and have made a sacrifice for them. Mention has been made of a 20% reduction within the RNLI, but some of the independents are seeing an even greater reduction in the funding that they have been able to get. These men and women put their lives at risk to respond; when everybody else wants to get inside the house, they go out to sea. The Northern Ireland fishing industry regularly requires the use of the lifeboat service and puts on the record its thanks to those who put their lives on the line to save fishermen.
We deal with what I call our 999 response in very different ways. People lift the phone whenever they have a fire and they know that the fire service will respond with no thought about what is happening—they know that the fire service will be there. We should put the RNLI and those independents on the same platform as the fire service. Let us be truthful: they respond to the need to save life. An island nation surrounded by sea, this summer has been probably very typical of what is happening. Many people did not go away but bought pieces of equipment, whether a bodyboard or surfboard, jet skis or whatever, and used our own local resources rather than going abroad. Unfortunately, many of those people came into difficulties, and the coastguard, the RNLI and our independent life services were the people they called upon to help. On many occasions, they have not been able to recover somebody and have had to go back the next day, giving of their time voluntarily to do so.
I support totally what has been put forward here this afternoon, and I hope that we can achieve some sustainable future funding for our emergency services at sea.
As I said earlier in an intervention, Eastbourne has one of the oldest lifeboat stations in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was established in 1822, and the very first boat was donated by the MP “Mad Jack”. So began its story, and over the last 200 years, 700 lives have been saved by the local lifeboat. As I am sure other Members will also say, those saved include holidaymakers, visitors and would-be paddlers, kayakers and sailors. Sadly, our RNLI station in Eastbourne also performs a service that is perhaps unique to our area—recovery at the foot of Beachy Head. What our crew experience is truly challenging, and their bravery and fortitude are quite incredible.
Indeed, the Eastbourne crewmen must be made of something extraordinary, because each year their service to our town and its visitors is celebrated by the Salvation Army. The relationship between the two might seem curious, but it extends back many years in our local history, to a time when brave crewmen stepped up to support the bandsmen, who were under attack by local people for having the temerity to play their music on a Sunday. Ever since, that relationship has been remembered, and the gratitude the whole town feels for our crewmen is expressed by the Salvation Army in the very important services that take place. On those occasions, we hear of the lives saved, the rescue attempts made and the generosity of local people.
However, many of my constituents and those of other Members will be surprised that 94% of the service provided by the RNLI is powered by the public, and in all sorts of ways. That is something that we would not want to change or challenge, because there is something truly of value in that giving, over and above pounds and pence. It says, “We support you, we value you and we have regard for the work you do.” The RNLI crews are high-profile and vital.
Although lockdown meant that the seas were quieter than before, it was still generally business as usual. In the aftermath, the issues around being covid-secure have been hugely challenging. However, that challenge has been met. I therefore support my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) in his championing of those who save lives at sea, and I put on record my own gratitude and that of everyone in my town for the work of the Eastbourne RNLI.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Hosie. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate and on the positive suggestions he put forward.
Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is a largely landlocked constituency, apart from one small enclave along the lower Tywi and Gwendraeth estuaries, encompassing the villages of Ferryside and Llansaint. It is an area of outstanding beauty. I used to visit it often as a child; my parents used to take me to the other side of the Tywi, to Llansteffan. Every time I go down to that part of the world, it takes my breath away.
Ferryside is an incredibly close-knit community, and at the heart of the community is the independent lifeboat, which has served the Tywi, Taff and Gwendraeth estuaries, and Carmarthen bay, since 1835. At the start, until the inter-war period, the lifeboat’s main area of business was commercial shipping associated with the port of Carmarthen. Captains would say that entering the bay area—and leaving it—was by far the most treacherous part of the journey.
Today, the Ferryside lifeboat is an integral part of the Saint John Cymru marine division, and call-outs relate mostly to leisure activity in the area. In May 2019, I had the pleasure of launching the new Llansteffan ferry, and I am proud to say that it is probably the safest ferry journey in the British isles, because of the lifeboat in Ferryside.
Carmarthen bay is of course part of the Bristol channel, which has the second largest tidal rise and fall in the world. That gives an indication of the challenging environment that the crew operate in and of the dangers that they face. The lifeboat offers a 24/7 service and is wholly manned by local people working closely with the coastguard. Considering that it is a voluntary service, it is absolutely incredible that their average launch time is only eight minutes.
I have had the honour and privilege of working with the team since my election, and I am always impressed by the dedication and commitment of everybody involved with the lifeboat. Soon after getting elected in 2010, I was offered the opportunity to experience a trip on the new lifeboat. It was a perfectly calm day, so I had absolutely no anxiety when I was donning my kit and taking my place on the boat. It was not long, however, before the water got very choppy out in the bay, and we were speeding among white horses in a new boat powered by two Suzuki 90 hp engines.
Exhilarating would certainly be one word to explain the experience, but on looking at my pale complexion, I think the crew decided quickly to return to the safer and calmer waters of the Tywi river and to head upstream, which was a much more pleasurable experience. The benign—or relatively benign—conditions that day gave me an indication and appreciation of the dangers faced by the lifeboat crew, who not only race towards danger in far worse conditions, but perform search-and-rescue operations in extremely hostile environments.
As the lifeboat is independent, the crew are wholly reliant on their own funding activity. One of the consequences of the pandemic, as has been mentioned in the debate, has been the reduced income faced by search-and-rescue operations. Last year, the lifeboat in Ferryside raised more than £110,000, mostly as a result of substantial grants from the Charities Aid Foundation and the Department for Transport. The lifeboat was also able to raise substantial sums from local fundraising activity. So far this year, I am informed, they have been able to raise only £3,000.
The incredible fall in income is clearly not sustainable. My key ask of the British Government in this debate is that they recognise the importance of the rescue boat grant fund, under which they have successfully issued about £6 million to lifeboats such as Ferryside since the scheme was set up in 2014. It is regrettable that there has been no grant for this financial year. Were the Minister to get to his feet to say that the grant would be available next year, I am sure that that would go a long way to bringing a smile to all our great lifeboats across the British isles.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I, too, commend the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate and for the way in which he constructed his opening remarks, and I think his views will be shared across the Chamber.
Like many other Members, I represent a coastal community and a constituency where people have for generations gone to sea for work, secure in the knowledge that, should anything ever happen to them, they would be supported by independent lifeboats or the RNLI. For close to 200 years, crews have gone out and put their lives at risk to protect and save others who come into unfortunate situations.
RNLI Buckie in my constituency is a station that I have visited on many occasions in my time as an elected representative. I will use today’s debate, if I may, to make some remarks about Adam Robertson, who died suddenly just days before his 70th birthday. Adam was an integral part of the Buckie RNLI station and its operations for more than 30 years. As with many RNLI or independent lifeboat volunteers, Adam’s professional life was not at sea, but on the land. For 30 years, he had a career in building control with Moray Council. When I was a councillor for a decade, I often met Adam in the corridors of council headquarters. We would stop to have a blether, and he was always well informed, but also generous with his time. He was someone I respected a lot.
Adam initially became involved with the RNLI at Buckie when he helped to organise its annual gala days as part of its fundraising efforts. He rose through the ranks to become responsible for ensuring that the Buckie lifeboat was always ready to go to sea and for arranging ambulance support on land when it was required. He was a genuine stalwart of the RNLI and the local community for decades. He was also an officer with the Boys’ Brigade, and for many years he helped to organise the annual fireworks display in Portgordon, which draws thousands of people to the coastal village every year. As a councillor, an MSP and an MP, I always helped with the stewarding at Portgordon fireworks, and every year Adam was there to do the security briefing to ensure that everyone knew where they had to go and what they had to do. He did that in a purposeful and powerful, but always respectful, manner. Although we will not be having Portgordon fireworks this year, when we meet again we will remember Adam and all the help he gave that organisation and many others throughout his near 70 years.
Adam’s wife said:
“He was a family man who would do anything for anyone, his love for the community was exactly the same.”
That is what the RNLI and our independent lifeboats are all about at heart. Groups like the Buckie lifeboat team are filled with community volunteers who sacrifice their time to help others. We thank them for their dedication and the work that they do.
I also want to mention the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation, based at Findhorn, which is an independent lifeboat organisation that does so much. We are indebted in Moray for the work that our independent lifeboat and the RNLI do day in, day out. They work both at sea and on land, educating our young people about the dangers and the safety that they need to bear in mind. Their community work right the way through our towns and villages is something that we all respect and congratulate them on, and it is something we can all get behind.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for giving us this opportunity to pay tribute to our independent lifeboats and the RNLI and for allowing me to put on record my thanks to and admiration of Adam Robertson for everything he did for Buckie RNLI for more than 30 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to speak in a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who is a doughty champion for his constituency, as we have seen this afternoon. I welcome this debate.
I want briefly to raise awareness of Hamble independent lifeboat station in my constituency. Like lifeboat stations in all coastal constituencies, it provides a vital service to constituents. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. It is based on the river Hamble, which has some of the most difficult navigational circumstances, due to the tides and channels. It serves a major yachting area and the entrance of the UK’s busiest waterway—Southampton Water and the Solent.
In 2019, the RNLI saved 220 lives and aided an average of 26 people a day. My local crew aided people in 100 incidents last year. On average, Hamble has three times more lifeboat launches than any other lifeboat station in the UK. We saw the good work that it does in August when, unfortunately, Emily Lewis, who was 15 years old, suffered a tragic boating accident in the Solent. Our heartfelt condolences should be sent to her family.
I pay tribute to the work that independent lifeboat stations and the RNLI do across the UK voluntarily on behalf of our communities and residents. I want to make two brief points—you will be glad to hear, Mr Hosie, that I will not take up the full five minutes. It is concerning that, in the current pandemic, independent lifeboat stations are facing a triple whammy of difficulty. As hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned, fundraising efforts have been hampered by the pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, the RNLI has seen a 20% reduction in its income, but independent lifeboat stations have seen much more of a reduction than the RNLI. Hamble lifeboat station is no different: its fundraising efforts for most of 2020 have been completely hampered, and its income has reduced.
That has been exacerbated by the Government’s stopping of the inshore grant and by a lack of clarity about the rescue boat grant fund, which they have been asked to continue and reintroduce next year. The amount of money given to independent lifeboat stations across the country was not enough to help them cope with the impact of the pandemic on their operations. Operations have had to continue during the past year, but with generally reduced income. With the same number of incidents happening on the Solent and across the UK, the RNLI and independent lifeboat stations have had to deal with an awful lot. The Government have rightly put their hands in their pockets to help the emergency services, but more needs to be done to assist independent lifeboat stations across the UK.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned PPE. It is not desirable that the associated costs—especially high at the beginning of the pandemic—have not been covered by the Government. I therefore have two main asks. First, will the Minister work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to come to an arrangement whereby equipment can be provided by local authorities, but claimed back as an additional cost due to covid, as we have seen in other areas of the UK, where local authorities can reclaim from central Government any extra expenditure they have faced owing to the pandemic? Will the Minister, as other hon. Members have asked, also accept that the grant my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned needs to be reintroduced?
On both sides of the House today we have heard examples of how lifeboat stations work tirelessly for our communities and our residents on a voluntary basis. Given what we have heard and what we will hear across the House, the time has come to reward such selflessness and bravery with a little more help as we face the pandemic going forward.
I welcome the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). Earlier this summer, two young boys were caught out by the surf on the coast of Hastings. They were carried several hundred metres out to sea, and one of them could not swim. It could easily have turned into a tragedy if not for two brave young men who were on lifeguard duty that day: Oliver Veness and James Blything. They acted swiftly, got the boys back to shore and saved their lives. Oliver’s and James’s actions were nothing short of heroic.
In our everyday lives, such heroism might be rare, but, for those serving in the RNLI, heroism is an everyday occurrence. This past year, it is estimated that almost 8,000 lives have been saved by RNLI boats and lifeguards. Likewise, it is important to pay tribute to independent lifeboats. Recently I visited the crew and volunteers at the Pett Level independent rescue boat, where the brave men and women risk their lives to save those in distress at sea in the Pett area. They rely completely on fundraising and donations to support their rescue efforts, and they rely on volunteers to man their boats. That vital utility is provided to residents at no cost because of the generosity of the public and the bravery of volunteers.
The RNLI and independent boats have kept the British public safe for centuries, and now they need our help. As with many charities, the coronavirus pandemic has hampered their ability to fundraise, and they have struggled to gain access to Government grants. These British institutions need easier access to different kinds of support in order to—no pun intended—stay afloat. However, that support cannot come at the cost of their independence. I am a strong believer that decision making should be in the hands of the most qualified, and the most qualified people to make decisions about rescue at sea are the people who have been doing it for almost 200 years.
Accessing Government funding might risk decision calls being made from Whitehall rather than locally, and that would be a loss not just for the lifeboats, but for the people of this country. Any support the Government provide to the lifeboat services must protect the independence of the crews, who are in the business of saving lives.
If someone is in distress at sea, someone will come to save them no matter their background, income or station in life. The fact that that person will often be a volunteer is further testament to the heroic spirit that has pushed forward the lifeboats for centuries and represents some of the best of this country. We need to protect this institution from not just the financial hardship wrought by the pandemic, but any force that wishes to challenge its independence. At the very least, we owe those heroes that. For those reasons, I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is putting forward today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, in my first speech in Westminster Hall. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate and for making his case so eloquently. It is a useful opportunity for us all to pay tribute to our local lifeboat stations, including my local RNLI station in Redcar, which does such an amazing job in the most difficult of circumstances. I also wish to extend my congratulations to Redcar’s Bob O’Neill, who today has received his 50 years’ service award from the RNLI—an incredible achievement.
As has been said, there is no doubt that fundraising has been completely curtailed this year. The annual Redcar lifeboat fundraising day usually raises about £4,000. This year, just £600 was raised through a virtual event held online. I commend Redcar RNLI for that £600, because it is not easy to raise money online only. That was an incredible achievement. However, it does not take a mathematician to realise that £600 is a long way from £4,000. On top of that, a lot of fundraising comes through the Redcar lifeboat ladies guild, and, unfortunately, most of the women in the guild are in the vulnerable category and have been shielding throughout the pandemic, so they have also been unable to raise money as they usually would.
The annual cost of running my local lifeboat station, which goes up and down depending on the number of shouts, is in the order of £50,000, excluding any out-of-the-ordinary maintenance that might have to be done to some of the equipment. We can, therefore, begin to see the problems that may arise if the lifeboat station is unable to fundraise in its usual way.
Nationally, the RNLI faces a predicted shortfall of between £20 million and £45 million this year. That is unsustainable for any organisation, not least a charity such as the RNLI. I want to be clear that I do not support any form of nationalisation of the RNLI, and I am glad that no one else present does, either. It is in troubled waters, and in those circumstances we do not need a new captain; we need a lifeboat. That is what I think we should be aiming to provide: a helping hand at this difficult time, whether requested or not. Personnel at the Redcar lifeboat station tell me that they are incredibly proud of their history as a charity that is funded by the community to support the community. Last week marked a birthday celebration, it being 218 years since the first launch of a lifeboat in Redcar. The Redcar lifeboats predate the RNLI by about 20 years and we are home to the oldest lifeboat in the UK, the Zetland, which successfully completed its first rescue in December 1802, saving 15 souls.
We are incredibly proud of the Redcar lifeboats. As I have said, the cost of running our station is in the order of £50,000, which goes up and down depending on the number of shouts. The lifeboat station personnel tell me that during the period of lockdown until now has been their busiest summer on record. This is attributed to the fact that this year was the year of the staycation—the UKation—where more and more people are staying at home and enjoying the sun on the beaches in the UK rather than abroad.
Another, much more harrowing aspect is the mental health crisis we face. A growing number of people are choosing to end their lives at sea due to mental ill health. We need to have an honest conversation—perhaps not in this debate—about the obvious link between the mental health crisis and covid-19. We need to be realistic about the risks to mental health of lockdown, in the same way as we are realistic about the risks to physical health of allowing the virus to spread. That, however, is for another debate.
To finish, I would like to say a big thank you to the Redcar lifeboat station for the tireless dedication of its volunteers, who have gone through all the same personal difficulties as the rest of us, arguably more so as a result of seeing the effects of potential loss of life at sea. Each one of those volunteers gets the shout and they respond without hesitation. No matter what they are going through at that particular time, they put themselves at risk to serve others. They deserve our thanks, they deserve our praise, and most of all they deserve our support.
I will not take up too much time. I am just going to thank the many lifeboat crews we have on the Island and then reiterate some of the concerns, which I am sure the Minister is listening to. I congratulate him on his reasonably new role, which is incredibly well deserved.
The Island is in part defined by our coastline. Indeed, the south-west of the Isle of Wight was a centre for shipwrecks. There were nearly 50 shipwrecks from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, so we were something of a ship graveyard. Many ships sank off the south-west of the Isle of Wight, sadly leading to loss of life, and lifeboats were developed on the south-west of the Island from the 1840s and 1850s onwards to address the situation. A great-great-uncle was the coxswain of the Brooke lifeboat well over a century ago, and I am very proud of that connection to the lifeboats.
For the work they have done this summer, I thank Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboat and Freshwater Independent Lifeboat; the RNLI lifeboats in Cowes, Yarmouth and Bembridge; the coastguard rescue teams in Needles, Bembridge and Ventnor; and Ryde Inshore Rescue. There is a common-sense theme: a lot of people are engaged in helping sailors, swimmers and others who get into trouble at sea, and we on the Island are very grateful to them. Feedback from Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboat indicates that it was one of the busiest summers on record—possibly the busiest, as many people flocked to the beaches from June onwards. People got out and about while the covid pandemic was at its height, and the Island was absolutely packed from August onwards. That meant that many people were out on the water and the lifeboats were busier than ever.
Combined with that busier-than-ever period, significant fundraising has been impossible this year, so I hope very much that the Minister will take on board what I and other right hon. and hon. Members have said about the need to provide some slight additional support. That could mean reintroducing the rescue boat grant fund, which was an exceptionally good idea brought in by a previous Government in 2014. Is there any way in which we can bring that back into being, or at least provide funding for the protective equipment that both the independent and the RNLI lifeboats have had to buy? Most of the independent lifeboats in my constituency have funding for the year ahead, but, depending on what happens next year, they might start to get nervous about their cash flow and their ability to raise funds in order to continue doing the incredibly important work to which we have all paid tribute.
The Island is at the centre of global sailing and it has many beaches. We know of the vulnerabilities faced by people at sea, and everyone involved in rescuing them is very important to my constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for having brought such an important debate to Westminster Hall. Much like everybody else, I will begin by paying tribute to the volunteers, and particularly to the six lifeboat stations in my constituency: the RNLI crews at Wells, Sheringham, Cromer and Happisburgh, and the independent lifeboat stations in the picturesque villages of Mundesley and Sea Palling. My coastline—as most MPs will realise, because they visited my constituency for their summer recess—is a stunning 50 miles, with six blue flag beaches. To myself, who grew up there, it is the best coastline in the country—[Interruption.] We can be controversial, occasionally.
The year 2020 has been very challenging. Tried and tested lifesaving procedures have had to be adapted to take account of covid-19, and additional personal protective equipment has been required. Life-changing decisions have had to be made about whether the risks of administering CPR outweigh the risks to the crew, and personnel have had to engage in time-consuming cleansing and disinfecting routines for all equipment. There has also, as we have heard, been a rise in demand for services this year. Although a staycation culture has provided a welcome boost to the local economy, it has also meant vast increases in numbers of visitors to the coast, and a much higher number of incidents to respond to. All of this is happening in a climate where the break in regular training regimes has risked skill fade—the gradual loss of the highly practised and rehearsed mechanisms that lifeboat crews put into operation every time they launch—and at a time when traditional methods of fundraising, through shop events, normal events and face-to-face appeals, have reduced greatly, or even stopped entirely.
Carrying a pager 24/7 is a heavy responsibility and a great imposition on the everyday lives of our volunteers. That they continue to give so much of themselves, in spite of these challenges, is inspirational. They deserve all the support that we can give them.
As we have heard, the RNLI faces a shortfall in funding of about £20 million this year. Independent lifeboat stations typically have operating costs of about £30,000 to £40,000 and are in a similarly precarious position. In considering how we might help, we need to bear in mind that the RNLI and independent stations have traditionally resisted asking for or accepting Government funding. For instance, the RNLI has been self-sufficient for the entirety of its 196-year history.
Although there have been huge technological and technical advances in life saving, the business of saving lives at sea is much the same as it always was. Lifeboat organisations are cautious about accepting money from Government because they do not want their work to be influenced or adversely affected by external changes in policy, politics or funding that might put their vital work at risk. Put simply, they want the freedom to do what they do best, in the way that they know best—and it is the best. Britain’s lifeboat crews lead the world and, increasingly, are responsible for training lifesaving operations and organisations in other countries.
If we are to provide meaningful forms of financial support, we must first establish the strong principle that there are no strings attached to it and that the Government will not seek, as we have heard time and again today, to influence those organisations. We must also consider not just lifeboats, but all voluntary lifesaving organisations around the country that are in similar positions to the RNLI and independent lifeboat stations. What about mountain rescue teams, dog search and rescue, and drone piloting groups assisting with coastal and inland search? All those organisations have had to bear the additional cost of PPE, cleaning fluids and equipment, which have been a necessary part of lifesaving during covid-19. None would have been able to anticipate these costs, or build them into its fundraising plans for 2020.
Some kind of grant fund—possibly, as we have heard, the rescue boat fund—to reimburse those costs would be fair and reasonable, but only if it is open to all voluntary lifesaving organisations, recognising the fact that it is not only lifeboat crews that have had to incur this kind of expenditure.
In conclusion, we owe all our life savers an immense debt of gratitude. Not only do they save lives at sea and elsewhere, but they do so at enormous personal cost.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. Like everybody else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on bringing forward this debate. We call it a debate, but it is not a debate in its truest sense, because everyone here agrees on the good work that is done by the RNLI and the independent lifeboat stations.
Not for the first time, I am a bit of an oddity speaking in this debate. I am the only one who has spoken so far who does not have a coastal community, so I cannot refer to a local station that I have visited or with which I have close links. It is, however, a testament to the work of these organisations and their importance to their local communities that so many MPs have wanted to pay tribute to them and stick up for them.
A common theme of the debate has been to point out that lifeboat stations are manned by volunteers. They are the ones who put their lives at risk when others are in danger. Clearly, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said, they go to sea in conditions that make us want to shelter in our houses away from the weather. I want to put on the record my own testament to the work that these guys do.
Another common theme is fundraising and the impact that covid has had on those activities that cannot now go ahead. For the RNLI, that will leave a shortfall of up to £45 million. We have also heard that it is much harder for independents to undergo their fundraising activities. I hope that the Minister was listening. Another issue is the additional cost of PPE associated with covid. If the Government could do something about that, there would be a lot of happy MPs in this Chamber.
The hon. Member for Totnes set out the case well. Even at the outset, he spoke about the emotive sight of the launch of a lifeboat, because we know what is at stake for the crew and the people being rescued. The fact is that these people are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. The bare statistics about the RNLI show that 143,000 lives have been saved over the years. What better testament could be paid? The hon. Gentleman highlighted the organisation’s expenditure of £181.5 million, which shows how much it has to rely on volunteers to raise that money and how significant a shortfall can be. We are talking about a shortfall of up to £45 million, which is a huge percentage. I reiterate my plea to the Government to do something.
The hon. Gentleman had another key ask about bringing these organisations into the fold, in terms of communications and emergency services. That is a valid point. We all know the stories of what happened when the covid restrictions were lifted. Many hon. Members have spoken about the fact that people flocked to the beaches in huge numbers, which put a strain on the RNLI in terms of lifeguards and manual stations, and on getting the PPE in time. It is important that cognisance is taken of that.
It was good that the hon. Gentleman set out the problems of independent stations as well. The bare fact is that, unfortunately, they tend to live in the shadow of the RNLI in terms of fundraising. People sometimes mix up where their donations have gone and do not realise that the independent stations have to be funded separately. I hope the Minister will take that on board.
We heard from the hon. Member for South Antrim. As a wee aside, he is the only Member with the same name of a lifeboat station. A town in Scotland has a lifeboat station that has been there for 140 years, and it shares his surname. He highlighted that Northern Ireland has the largest inland body of water, at Lough Neagh, which is also reliant on volunteers to do the important work of rescuing people.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) said that she has one of the oldest lifeboat stations and that the original boat was donated by an MP. I think she was throwing down the gauntlet to youse guys in the Chamber. As I have a landlocked constituency, I do not feel the same pressure as everyone else.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) spoke about Ferryside independent lifeboat. He highlighted the fact that the average launch time is eight minutes, which illustrates how vital the work these guys do—the training, the preparation and getting out to sea in that time—is for saving lives. It was also interesting to hear him talk about taking a boat trip in what he thought were benign conditions, but which made him seasick and he had to turn around. That is a salutary lesson about the actual conditions in which these guys go out to sea.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) paid personal tribute to Adam Robertson, illustrating how organisations can rely and depend on certain key individuals. Someone who donated 30 years to Buckie RNLI certainly deserves to have that tribute paid to him. Obviously, my best wishes go to his family. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the work of the Moray independent inshore organisation. It is important to acknowledge that these organisations also do education and preventive work. Ideally, people would never have to be rescued, but we never quite get there, so education is certainly important.
That brings me back to another important thing that the hon. Member for Eastbourne said. She spoke about having to deal with trauma of Beachy Head. We are discussing saving lives, but these crews also have to deal with the trauma of recovering dead bodies. What they have to deal with can lead to mental health pressures and trauma, so that is another reason to pay tribute to them.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) paid tribute to Hamble station, which is having its 50th anniversary. He highlighted the effect on fundraising locally and the need for the Government to reconsider on the rescue boat fund, which other hon. Members also suggested, so I hope that the Minister will say something positive about that grant fund in summing up the debate.
We heard from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), who paid tribute to Oliver and James, lifeguards who, crucially, saved two young boys who had got into difficulties. Again, that type of personal story is testament to the importance of what these guys do. Funding has become critical, and we heard the first pun of the day—stay afloat. Fortunately, the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) was hot on her heels with a pun about troubled waters. But again, these things illustrate the fact that funding is so important. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted his local station having the busiest summer on record. A recurring theme has been that staycations and local tourism are putting additional pressures on these volunteer organisations.
We heard from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). There are several crews on the Island. They were too many for me to list; I could not write them down fast enough, but again, that is indicative of island life and the level of tourism on the Isle of Wight. Again, the plea was about fundraising. That was repeated by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who spoke at the end of the Back-Bench speeches and paid tribute to his six local stations. I did notice a wee bit of groaning around the room when he started to go over the top and brag about having the best coastline and how every MP will have visited his constituency. For the record, I have not visited his constituency, but I will bear it in mind as a recommendation.
As I said, this has been a debate in which everybody pretty much agrees on the importance of what these organisations do. I repeat the calls from other hon. Members for the Government to try to help out with funding, particularly for PPE issues.
To finish, I want to mention a wee story that I have picked up on. It is of a woman who has been described as a “fundraising phenomenon” for the RNLI and has been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours. Audrey Wood, whom I do not know, from Newmachar in Aberdeenshire, was recently given a British Empire Medal after raising more than £235,000 for lifeboat stations across the north-east of Scotland following the death of her son. Sadly, Stuart “Woody” Wood was one of 16 men who died in the Flight 85N helicopter tragedy in 2009. Aberdeen RNLI’s D-class inshore lifeboat has been named “Buoy Woody – 85N” in his memory. Mrs Wood has described her fundraising efforts as
“a distraction therapy for us in this lifelong grieving journey of losing our only son”.
That brings things together in a circular way. This is somebody who, in the face of adversity and tragedy, has decided to go out and do good work for the community and try to prevent that tragedy from happening to somebody else, so I pay tribute to her. I pay tribute to all the fundraisers who work for the RNLI and independent stations. And of course I pay a massive tribute to the volunteers who staff these vital rescue craft.
We should form a website after this—CoastalCommunitiesRUs.com. Being a Mancunian, I can say that we do not have a beach; that is the one thing that we do not have in Manchester, so I will not compete on the territory of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) about who here today has the best beach. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and it is great to be back in Westminster Hall. I agree with the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) that this is an opportunity to celebrate the work of the RNLI and independent lifeboat associations, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. What was really good was the powerful personal testimonies of people in the room today. I will point out just a few of them.
The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) referred to Adam and a lifetime’s dedication of work to the RNLI. He is a stalwart of the community. I bet Members know Adams in coastal communities up and down our land, and we could not do without them. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) talked about the very sad death of Emily Lewis. May I say, on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench, that we send our condolences to the family?
I join the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) in paying tribute to Oliver and James, who saved two young boys out at sea. I think she referred to there being heroism every day, and that is true. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on his first Westminster Hall speech, and Bob on the 50 years of his life that he has given to the RNLI. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) spoke about Stuart “Woody” Wood. It is great that the boat was named after him.
The RNLI is an institution indelibly ingrained on the psyche of the British nation, and we give thanks to all the souls who down the years have risked their lives to keep those of us in peril on the sea safe. Those brave men and women are on standby 24 hours a day, every day of the year, launching in minutes, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) said, with the equipment, skills and expertise that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last 200 years. I pay tribute not just to the RNLI but to the independent lifeboat stations as well, as many Members have done.
The coronavirus pandemic has not prevented the operation of the continuous maritime and coastal search and rescue service that the RNLI and many independent lifeboat stations provide to HM Coastguard and to people in and around British waters. As has been pointed out, it is of great credit to the voluntary crews that they have maintained that provision even in the midst of a national lockdown this spring. Since the inception of voluntary lifeboats in the 18th century and the subsequent foundation of the RNLI in 1824, voluntary crews, and those they have rescued, have relied on voluntary donations to keep them going, as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said.
Many of us—even the landlubbers such as myself, the Minister and the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, who are far from the sea—are touched by the courageous actions of boat crews, although I can point out that, unlike the constituencies of the two Members I mentioned, Manchester has a ship canal, built by Daniel Adamson in 1890, and therefore has access to the Atlantic. I point that out on every occasion. In a testament to the positive impact of lifeboat crews, one of my best friends was rescued by the RNLI on a cliff as a youngster, and five decades later he is still raising money for it, even though he is a constituent of mine.
The RNLI’s 248 lifeboat stations aided more than 9,000 people last year, saving 220 lives. That is more than four lives saved every week. Lifeboat crews depend on well maintained rescue craft, equipment and facilities. Regular training is also essential. Those costs add up. Personal equipment costs £2,500 per crew member. Lifeboats vary from £50,000 to up to £2.2 million. Even an inshore rescue boat costs more than £10,000. According to the RNLI, it cost it more than £181 million to operate last year, with 94% of its income coming from donations. The RNLI tells us that this year it has received reduced income—an outlook reflected across much of the charity sector during the virus and the national lockdown.
Despite the lowered income, lifeboat crews have continued to provide an around-the-clock service throughout the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this summer may have been one of the busiest for British lifeboat crews. That is probably linked to the greater number of “staycations” as was mentioned by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and others—particularly as the country came out of lockdown. On top of that increased demand, the RNLI has spent an additional £1.3 million this year on the PPE required to follow public health guidance and maintain safety for crews, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). Steve, my parliamentary assistant, who is a former mountain rescue operative, asked me to mention the skill of the work, particularly at Beachy Head, where it is necessary to rescue people from the cliffs. It is time-consuming work, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned.
The RNLI has made it clear that it has not sought financial support for the additional costs of the pandemic. Nor has it sought wider Government funding. I nevertheless ask the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that that truly vital service remains effective. I will end with one simple request to the Minister. Will he review voluntary lifeboat funding and ensure that those courageous crews can continue their lifesaving operations?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hosie. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate. The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) is quite right: it is very good to be back in Westminster Hall. Like him, I will not attempt to find a local coastal link to my constituency, given that it is landlocked—I would be pushing my luck with the River Thames, although I note that the RNLI has a station on the River Thames at this end of the river. This is an extremely important issue, which highlights the impact that covid-19 has had on all our frontline services.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the brave people, often volunteers, who risk their lives to save others. The RNLI is an incredible organisation. Since its foundation in 1824, its lifeboats have saved over 143,000 lives—143,000—an astonishing number that is worth repeating and celebrating. That the phrase “worse things happen at sea” has entered our national lexicon is not surprising. It is thanks to those brave individuals that the lists of those lost at sea are not far longer. Those individuals include people such as Adam Robertson from Buckie RNLI, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who said that they sacrifice their time to help others. He is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) said that she would like to see these people recognised as the heroes that they are. I agree, and I do so now.
The challenge of saving lives at sea cannot be overestimated. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) rightly said that they go into conditions from which the rest of us wish to shelter. He is quite right. Their decision to do so often comes at great personal cost. Hon. Members may be familiar with the story of the Penlee disaster, which I have always found particularly moving. The lifeboat Solomon Browne went to the aid of the vessel Union Star when it suffered engine failure in heavy seas. Both vessels were lost with all hands—16 people, including the eight volunteers of the lifeboat crew.
Many people are also surprised to learn that there are many independent lifeboats. There are 60 inshore teams around our coasts, such as the Hamble lifeboat, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) mentioned, which has had its 50th anniversary, and the Sandown and Shanklin lifeboat, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) mentioned. These teams have proud histories, stretching back in some cases even further than the RNLI itself. As a result of the very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes today, the star of independent lifeboats will shine all the brighter at the end of this debate.
Together, independent lifeboats have been launched over 23,000 times—not since last year, but just since the start of the covid-19 pandemic: 23,000 situations where lives have been at risk and were saved. Today there will undoubtedly be more. One example of an independent lifeboat charity is Hope Cove in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Hope Cove has had a lifeboat protecting the waters around Bigbury Bay since 1878, with brave local teams serving their community over many generations. Only this year, since covid-19 reached our shores, the current crew from Hope Cove has responded to no less than 23 incidents in its area, including responding to seven incidents over the late spring bank holiday where multiple persons were assisted. The crew were continuing that longstanding and proud tradition for the community they protect.
It is in large part due to the personal commitment and skill of these teams that the UK has one of the best records for water safety in the world. The founder of the RNLI, Sir William Hillary, once said:
“With courage, nothing is impossible.”
These brave individuals continue to personify the British tradition of altruism and selflessness in the face of adversity. I know that all hon. Members will join me in offering our heartfelt gratitude for their service to the nation. That they have all found a way to continue operating with the additional impact, strain and implications of coivd-19 only further increases my admiration.
The impact of the pandemic cannot be overestimated. The Government have responded with an unprecedented £330 billion of financial measures to support businesses of all kinds across all parts of our United Kingdom, including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. Our charities are playing a crucial role in the national fight against covid-19, backed by an army of volunteers, who continue to deliver these vital key services. As hon. Members have highlighted today, the search and rescue sector has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Operational costs have increased, while at the same time fundraising opportunities have declined. In common with many other charities, search and rescue organisations have reduced income this year, and they will need to address and assess their operational capabilities and outputs, as our country recovers from this global crisis.
I recognise that easing lockdown measures and restrictions earlier this year also resulted in significant spikes in the number of operations, as the public flocked to the coast in places such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, as he quite rightly said. The increase in staycations has also increased pressure on our search and rescue charities, as people have chosen to holiday in the UK in places such as—but not exclusively—North Norfolk. They have also undertaken more adventurous activities outside. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) quite rightly pointed out the very moving story of Oliver Veness and James Blything, who saved lives this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) also made a significant point about the impact on people suffering from poor mental health. That is a factor that we should consider as well, because these charities assist those people too.
We have already initiated discussions with search and rescue charities to understand the impacts on their operations, as part of the recovery from covid-19, and we have provided assistance where we can. For instance, Her Majesty’s Coastguard, which has a close relationship with the RNLI and independent lifeboats in any event, has increased the support it provides through its search and rescue aircraft, to reduce the burden on charities such as air ambulances, and it has provided additional assistance to other emergency services.
We continue to assess the impact of the pandemic on the provision of search and rescue services. As part of this process, we have considered alternative options to provide a service to anyone who may need help. For example, HM Coastguard has instigated additional safety patrols through its coastguard rescue service, which has its own volunteers, to ensure that assistance can be provided more swiftly in high-risk areas. It has also introduced additional patrol activity, by using its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to increase its visibility and reduce response times.
Recent formal agreements with the RNLI and Surf Life Saving Great Britain will also ensure even closer working relationships, and enable vital information about beach activities to be passed to HM Coastguard, to further improve mission planning, asset availability and asset usage. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes quite rightly made a point about information sharing. We are dealing, of course, with unprecedented circumstances, but I know that the lessons that need to be learned will be learned.
Let me turn to the additional costs of operating under pandemic conditions. I entirely recognise that all search and rescue charities have been required to assess their operations and PPE needs, and to decide how best to support their services. In some cases, as my hon. Friend so powerfully outlined, this has involved significant additional costs outside of normal operational requirements. Through the UK Search and Rescue Medical Group, we have provided advice and guidance, which is publicly available on gov.uk, to balance the provision of PPE against the risks to both rescuers and those being rescued. That guidance does not set any requirements on search and rescue services. Operational decisions, such as requirements for specific PPE or deciding whether to accept a launch request, always ultimately rest with the individual charity.
If a lifeboat charity is advised that it is unable to respond in these unprecedented times, HM Coastguard will entirely respect that decision and seek to request alternative assets. However, in recognition of the importance of the charity sector to the delivery of these frontline services, the Government announced £750 million of new funding in April this year. That announcement was accompanied by new guidance, which provided best practice advice and assistance on how services could be provided safely.
My Department has also recently provided significant financial support to the search and rescue sector, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members. The rescue boat grant fund has provided nearly £6 million of funding over the past six years to assist charities of all kinds with the purchase of large capital items and everything down to and including PPE. Grants have bought nearly 100 new rescue boats and other craft, many more launch vehicles and trailers, and thousands of items of equipment, including PPE items.
A number of Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), have asked that the importance of that fund be recognised, and I can say today that the future of the fund is part of the wider review of Government spending that is currently under way. The fund was complemented with a further £4 million, which was made available to search and rescue charities to provide funding for the training of their volunteers. Those combined funding measures available to charities during the Government’s unprecedented financial package of covid-19 response measures have left the sector in a much stronger position to weather the current storm. We will of course continue to work in partnership with the RNLI and independent rescue boat charities to ensure that the impact of the pandemic on our search and rescue services can be mitigated as far as possible.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for raising this important issue and for providing the opportunity for us to debate the additional challenges that covid-19 has introduced for lifeboats. As my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for Hastings and Rye, and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) have all pointed out, when we are in trouble at sea, those services will be there for us, and the House has made it clear today that it will be there for them.
I do not need long to sum up, because every single word uttered by Members in this Chamber today shows the strength of feeling that we all have for the RNLI and our independent lifeboats.
I thank the Minister for his response. It is extremely reassuring to hear about the coverage from Her Majesty’s coastguard, and extremely gratifying to know that lessons will be learned and that information sharing can be developed with regards to the RNLI and how it functions alongside the emergency services.
Many of us were aware of the £750 million available for the charities. I hope that we might be able to find something tailored more specifically for the lifeboats, on the basis of the complaints that came through. It is fair to say that these are no ordinary charities; they are part of our emergency services, one way or another, and they have to have a special position as a result.
With regard to the rescue boat grant fund, I am glad that it is under review. I have a willing group of volunteers in this Chamber to push on that and to make the case to the Minister and to the Chancellor—I certainly have form on doing that.
One of the most important parts of our RNLI and independent lifeboats is the volunteers. By standing up today to speak about the need to support those vital lifeboat stations across the country, and their crews, I hope that we have the opportunity to encourage more volunteers in the years to come.
Given the words of all Members, this debate has been a wonderful opportunity to say how much we appreciate what those volunteers do for us. I heard Members calling them heroes, and telling us about them braving the elements and doing the things that none of us would do—they were undeniably right. With work on this in future, we can create a network for a steady flow of volunteers to come through to support such sectors.
I should add that two Members were unable to attend the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Mrs Elphicke)—and Deal—and for East Devon (Simon Jupp). They send their apologies. They have been strong advocates in their respective communities, and I will work with them as part of the group.
As I said at the beginning, the idea of what we can do for our independent lifeboats is to create an independent lifeboat association, and that is something that we as Members of Parliament should lead on. We should not take up the time of volunteers, but engage in creating that structure so that they can come to us. We can help in the formation of such an association. In the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, “I’ve got a little list”, and it has all of our names on it. I will contact Members individually about what we can do to ensure that we build this structure.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the RNLI and independent lifeboats after the covid-19 outbreak.
Equality Act 2010: Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered ensuring that the Equality Act 2010 protects children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I raise this matter today because, in truth, I am not convinced that it does. In fact, my view is that the misapplication and misinterpretation of the Equality Act 2010 has led to the exclusion of some of our country’s poorest people. Whether by flaw of design or subsequent false interpretation, the Act does not deliver what was intended. That is not something we should shy away from just because it is difficult or because it cuts against the popular narrative on diversity. It is important. If we listened to that narrative—the one that holds sway in the media and on Twitter—we would be forgiven for believing that protected characteristics in the Act are things such as black, Asian and minority ethnic, female, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. That is how usually it is put across, even by our institutions, by businesses and even by Government Ministers and Departments on the odd occasion. In truth, that is not correct. The characteristics listed, in fact, are race, sex, sexuality, among others. In fact, a white heterosexual male has just as much protection under the Act as a black, gay female. It is equal, hence the name.
Sometimes it seems like nobody knows this. It is actually quite mad. Rather than the Equality Act 2010 existing to prevent discrimination, an awful lot of people in influential positions—even in our national institutions—seem to be under the impression that the Act and its provisions on positive action give them the right to actively discriminate in favour of certain groups. Discrimination on the basis of those characteristics is, of course, illegal, whether it has “positive” as a prefix or not, but it seems commonplace. For example, there are countless scholarships and bursaries for higher levels of study offered only to BAME students. That is not positive action, I am afraid; that is discrimination. There is a difference. Encouraging under-represented BAME students to apply for scholarships, yes; excluding all white students from a scholarship on the basis of their race should be a no. That is the very definition of discrimination, and it is even worse when, without the lens of identity politics, it is actually the disadvantaged white children who struggle most to access higher education, not BAME children. That positive discrimination favours a group that already does better statistically, and at the expense of the most under-represented. But as I have said, that is commonplace. The Act, or at least its interpretation and implementation, is fundamentally flawed.
According to research by the writer and commentator Douglas Murray, the Act has, in the main, tended to support and promote those who are already closest to their destination, rather than digging down into supporting those in genuine need, perhaps due to the lack of provision around socioeconomic circumstances. There is a socioeconomic duty in the Act, in section 1, which puts a duty on public bodies to exercise their duties in a way that is designed to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. However, that section has never been enacted. I am not a legal expert and I am sure there is a reason for that: perhaps some unintended consequences that would occur if it were enacted, or perhaps a perception that it is unnecessary—a public body should already be doing that. I know that is not directly in the Minister’s brief but, following the debate, can she ask the Equalities Minister to write to me on the issue?
It seems clear that socioeconomic status or social class is, in fact, the greatest indicator of life chances, but that is not a protected characteristic nor is it enacted in section 1. I am sure that there is a reason.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a very good case, not just on the specific points he has mentioned, but on the wider principle of making sure that the Equality Act actually works. I wish to add to his list the issue of geographical disadvantage. Often, where a person is born in this country—not just the family they are born into but the geographical disadvantages—is a key factor that very often gets overlooked and does not get addressed.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A person’s access to services, for example, can be limited or decided by where they are lucky enough to be born. A key point I am making throughout this speech is that those differences in equality of opportunity exist outside of the protected characteristics enshrined in the Act and that there are other reasons people might not have that same opportunity that we should be addressing.
A lack of provision around socioeconomic equality in the Act and the perverse consequences of the misinterpretation of protected characteristics and positive action means that it can often seem like every other group in society has support and is protected by the Act apart from the most disadvantaged white children, and white boys and men in particular. Recently, UCAS statistics showed that only 9% of white boys on free school meals go to university. The second lowest was white girls on free school meals at 14%. White boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to drop out of school with no qualifications and have the lowest rate of achieving GCSEs, followed by disadvantaged white girls. In contrast, black or Asian girls have the highest chances of going to university. If those statistics were reversed, I guarantee that there would be an uproar. In BAME groups too, boys tend to do worse than girls.
Rates of grammar school entry is another area in which results differ based on ethnic background. Disadvantaged white British children enter grammar school at the lowest rate of any major ethnic group. Disadvantaged Indian pupils are four times more likely to attend, and Chinese pupils are 15 times more likely. Again, across all races and ethnicities, boys are lower in the rankings than girls.
In education at least, the constant false interpretation of the Act, which promotes positive action for BAME and female pupils, seems entirely backwards. Disadvantaged white boys are statistically faring the worst. They are under-represented at universities and in our public institutions, and their life chances are most limited because they are most likely to have no qualifications.
The popular narrative of white privilege is regularly wheeled out, and it is assumed that those poorest white children do not face discrimination on that basis, but in fact they do. If we step outside the Twitter bubble, we are faced with the stark reality that, through that kind of rhetoric, our society is ignoring what is statistically one of its most vulnerable demographics. As it happens, those lads are more likely than anyone to chuck themselves under a train, and that is not a coincidence.
It could be argued, if one were so inclined, that the Act, or at least the unfettered misapplication of it, has played a part in exacerbating this problem. I have long argued that identity politics is divisive and unhelpful, and the Act enshrines it in our law. It does not recognise the individual needs of the most disadvantaged people, and it actively supports the advancement of others through so-called positive action based not on their actual individual needs or disadvantage, and not on any actual discrimination or barriers they face as individuals, but on the basis of broad assumptions based on their physical characteristics.
The identity politics—the lumping of people into boxes, rather than considering their individual circumstances—that is enshrined in the Act is deeply troubling. We have seen it manifest itself in other ways that have become part of the popular narrative recently. But it is surely the case that privilege or hardship are not based on which of these characteristic boxes a person ticks but are down to their wider individual circumstances—things such as socioeconomic background or geography, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned. Socioeconomic status and social class are more indicative of a person’s life chances than their physical characteristics. Physical characteristics play a part, of course. Discrimination, racism, misogyny and homophobia exist, but they are one part of a more complex picture—one segment of an individual’s life experience and opportunity. We should help people based on their actual needs, not on guesswork based on flawed metrics. The interpretation and implementation of the Act is deeply flawed.
I am fed up to the back teeth with identity politics. I do not want to be stood here saying, “White kids this,” and, “White kids that.” I value all kids and their futures, and the support they get should be based on what they need, not on the colour of their skin, their gender or any other grand narrative that we concoct to make ourselves feel better. Separating black and white, gay and straight, male and female in that way is combative and unhelpful, but it sometimes feels like I have to highlight white disadvantaged kids and their plight, because otherwise they do not seem to get a look in.
If we talk generally about disadvantage, the system and our legislation—this misinterpretation of the Equality Act—always seem to bring the discussion back around to the BAME, female and other misinterpretations that we have enshrined in law. If we do not say “white kids”, the popular narrative and the system seem to leave them behind—and have done so in many cases—in favour of a fundamentally flawed diversity agenda, which is hugely frustrating and, in many ways, wrong.
In closing, I want to ask the Minister some questions. I do not know the answers, and I do not expect her to know the answers, but I hope they will be taken away for consideration. As an Education Minister, she will no doubt have some remarks about the points I have made about education, which I would welcome. The Secretary of State has been clear about his wish to support more disadvantaged white working-class boys into university, for example, if that is their aspiration, and that is very welcome.
I have some questions about the Equality Act itself, and I wonder whether the Minister can take them away and perhaps raise them with colleagues in the Government Equalities Office. First, why has the socioeconomic provision within the Act not been enacted? If it is flawed or inappropriate in its detail, how can we fix it? What protections can the Act offer to those who face barriers and discrimination based on being poor, being in care or other hardships that are not recognised in this law? Secondly, if the answer is “none”, will the Government look closely at the implications of that section of the Act and seek to amend it in a way that offers such support?
Thirdly, will the Government review the implications of amending the Act to remove or change any damaging positive action elements that go way beyond preventing discrimination and, due to the constant misinterpretation of those who claim ownership of it, appear in practice to condone positive discrimination to the exclusion of some of our country’s poorest people?
Finally, at the very least, the Government should consider clearly restating the actual aims and nature of the provisions of the Act, laying out the reality, challenging the false rhetoric around it and requiring their own officers and institutions to implement it in a fair and balanced way. There are fundamental flaws in the way the Act is implemented, whether owing to poor design or poor interpretation. Left unchallenged, that has made things worse for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. This narrative has led, for example, to fee-paying schools rejecting charitable support for disadvantaged children based on their race, and we have heard in recent weeks that it has led to racial segregation in UK businesses, such as Sainsbury’s. It is unhealthy and a backward step. Something needs to change.
It is a pleasure to speak in this short but important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who has done a tremendous amount of work to raise important issues about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is particularly white working-class boys in the north of England and the midlands who are falling behind, as we see from the statistics. We could do so much more to solve the problem.
Fortunately, standards in Warrington South schools have risen dramatically over the past 10 years. Evelyn Street Primary School in Sankey Bridges, which is in one of the town’s pockets of high deprivation, has gone from failing to proudly being one of the top schools in England. I have seen at first hand how the academy trust’s chief executive officer, Mrs Smith, approached the school’s transformation, changing the culture and pushing for improvements at every turn. We have seen the same thing in all the academies in her trust. It is fair to say, looking back at the data, that many of the children who were most at risk of being failed in that school when she first arrived in 2004 were white working-class boys with hard-working parents, many of them on low incomes or struggling to find employment. A key part of the school’s success has been educating parents to have high expectations for their children.
Sadly, not all school experiences are as good as that of Evelyn Street. In towns across the north and the midlands, white working-class boys are falling behind, and they have been for some time. More than a dozen times in recent years, they have been ranked the lowest or second-lowest performing ethnic group in the country. As the chair of the all-party group for school exclusion and alternative provision, I am greatly concerned by that, as is the rest of the group. By the age of five, white working-class boys are 13% behind disadvantaged black boys and 23% behind disadvantaged Asian girls in phonics, and they are 40% less likely to go into higher education than their black counterparts.
The events of recent months have shone some light on why we need a review of the system to give everyone equal opportunities to succeed while providing children, parents and teachers with the tools to do so, and supporting children like those at Evelyn Street Primary School. I am particularly pleased to see the £1 billion catch-up fund to help children to recover some of the learning that they lost when schools were closed. Although that funding is hugely welcome, it is critical that it is focused on disadvantaged cohorts such as white working-class boys.
This short debate is about the Equality Act 2010. It is interesting that the Act introduced many protected characteristics, including age, disability and sex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned, whereas one key determinant of success in school is socioeconomic background, which is not a protected characteristic. There are many arguments for and against making socioeconomic circumstances—including where someone was born—a protected characteristic. Given that white working-class boys are clearly identifiable as being more at risk of exclusion and failure in the system than almost any other group, perhaps it is time to review that. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the data on exclusions outside London. I also ask her to commit to looking into whether making socioeconomic background a protected characteristic could be a way to protect the forgotten group that is white working-class boys, or whether the Act could be amended in some other way. Part 1 of the Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned, puts a duty on public authorities to have regard to socioeconomic inequalities when exercising their functions, but that section of the Act is not in force.
To conclude, hon. Members will find nobody who is more supportive than I am of the Government’s commitment to levelling up across our country and investing in communities that need it most. The fastest way to help people out of poverty is to help them to get a job, and the best way to make sure that young people have a fighting chance when they enter the workforce is to make the most of their talents and ensure that they get a great start in life with a first-class education.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this really important debate. As he knows, ensuring equality of opportunity is a topic that is close to my heart. I feel privileged to be part of a Government that holds this important issue as a real priority.
The Equality Act provides protection to all children, as well as to adults. We must get away from the perception that protected characteristics in the Act are there only to protect certain groups and exclude others. For example, a white boy at school is covered by the Act in the same way, and to the same extent, as his BAME classmates or schoolgirls of any race. If a white boy from a disadvantaged background feels he has been treated less fairly in educational work compared with his female or BAME peers, he has a means of redress available to him, initially through informal routes, but ultimately at a tribunal if it is felt to be necessary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield asked about the elements of the Act that relate to positive action. The Act enables positive action to help to ensure that all groups of society are fairly represented, but that is not the same as positive discrimination, where one group might be unfairly favoured over another. Positive action is designed to enable the promotion of a level playing field. An example of positive action is when an employer wants to address the fact that it does not have any disabled apprentices; the employer can favour the recruitment of a disabled applicant over a non-disabled one, provided that their applications are broadly of equal merit. That is positive action.
Positive discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act, however. If people have evidence of positive discrimination, they should take such cases to the courts or tribunals and call out breaches, to help to ensure that the positive action provisions are used only as intended. The provisions were supported across Parliament when the legislation was brought in in 2010. We support them as a means of levelling up the playing field for disadvantaged groups, but it is really important that the public and private sectors understand the lawful use of positive action. The code of practice and guidance exist for that purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield also asked, most perceptively, about the socioeconomic provisions in the Act. Social status is not one of the characteristics protected by the Act, and we need to be careful not to use it as a vehicle for social engineering rather than as a shield against discrimination. A duty of that kind would more likely result in public bodies trying to retrofit a levelling-down agenda, rather than offering better opportunities for all disadvantaged groups and levelling up.
Positive action is designed to enable opportunities to be given, as opposed to positive discrimination, which is unlawful. That is why it is so important that the guidance is clear on the subject. We need to promote the level playing field and enable levelling up, and not encourage behaviour that could constitute levelling down.
We need to avoid taking a tick-box approach. Amending part 1 of the Equality Act would not necessarily lead to what my hon. Friend seeks, because there is a real danger that it could create a tick-box mentality, which might be seen as an acceptable substitute for meaningful action. We want to avoid such distractions and concentrate on real help. I assure him that the action he has taken today has ensured that the Government will keep both the legislation and the guidance under review.
We are also improving our approach to equalities. We are reshaping the Government Equalities Office, bringing it closer together with the race disparity unit and the disability unit to create an equality hub. We need to move away from the idea that we are simply dealing with groups that already enjoy Equality Act protection, and instead ensure that we are looking at individuals across the country and identifying those who are most in need, what their biggest barriers to success are and where there is unequal delivery of public services. We want to examine issues such as geography, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, where communities in certain areas risk being held back. We also should be focusing on analysing the data, looking closely at individual dignity and opportunity and also at areas such as income and background, so that we have a more holistic view.
We understand, however, that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, including boys, may face greater challenges at every stage of education. We are committed to addressing those challenges, levelling up education standards and improving outcomes.
Absolutely. One of my passions is the early years of development, and too many children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are falling behind in those early years. It is then so hard to close the gaps once they have emerged, and evidence shows us that what happens in a child’s pre-school years—those very early years—are the most important and have a huge influence on later outcomes. That is why the Government have been making record investments in early education, including 15 hours of free education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds as well as three and four-year-olds. It is also why we have doubled the amount of free childcare available to three and four-year-olds for working parents.
These investments have led to a real improvement. The latest early years foundation profile shows that the proportion of all children reaching a good stage of development by the time they start school—year 1—has gone up from 51%, or one in two children, in 2013 to nearly 72%, or two in three children, in 2019. Furthermore, over the same period, the gap between the children who are eligible for free school meals and their peers at age five has narrowed from 19 percentage points to just under 18 percentage points. Indeed, the same is true in school: because of the education reforms that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), 86% of schools are now judged to be good or outstanding, compared with only 68% of schools in 2010. As a result, the disadvantage attainment gap has narrowed by 13% at age 11 and by 9% at age 16, and it has narrowed at every stage from early years to age 16 since 2011. However, we know there are still issues in other areas, so we have committed an extra £18 million to the £72 million opportunity areas programme to transform the life chances of young people in 12 of the most disadvantaged areas of the country—those with particularly low social mobility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South also mentioned the very important issue of exclusions. It used to be the case that looked-after children—children in care—had the very highest rates of permanent exclusion, and we are making sure that those children in care, who often have the worst life outcomes, are supported to succeed in education. For example, we have put in place virtual school heads, designated teachers for looked-after children, and extra funding through the pupil premium plus for this group. The virtual school heads, in particular, have made a significant impact since they were introduced in 2014. Data shows progress across maths, reading and writing for looked-after children, and today, looked-after children are less likely to be permanently excluded from school than all other children. Interventions of this nature are making a real impact on some really disadvantaged groups.
However, we know that the disadvantage gap is at risk of widening because of the pandemic. Lack of digital access is of particular concern, and that is why we have committed over £160 million to support remote education access and provided nearly half a million laptops and tablets to those most in need. We have also announced the £1 billion covid catch-up fund, of which £350 million is going into the national tutoring programme. That will particularly focus support from high-quality tutors on disadvantaged and vulnerable children who are most at risk of falling further behind. The first group of tutors starts on 1 November, and I strongly urge all my hon. Friends to ensure that schools in their constituencies are aware of that element of the catch-up programme and ensure that the vulnerable students in their area receive support.
I do not expect an answer to this, but I want to highlight a challenge. The poorest school in my constituency in the poorest catchment is very keen to access support for IT, tutoring and everything else, but 25% of parents within the school are illiterate and they do not want to take laptops home because they fear that the laptops will be stolen, or that they will targeted by gangs involved in drugs on the estate where they live. There are children on free school meals, and then there is another group of children who have this huge disadvantage. Will the Government consider that group, who will not be able to engage with laptops and tutors? Is there something else we can do to help them?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. This is why the national tutoring programme will bring extra resources into schools to help young people. That will be on top of the £650 million catch-up fund that has gone to all schools. It will provide extra tutoring and support—one on one, or in small groups—for those individuals, for whom it is so important. This is a deeply challenging time, and we absolutely understand that we need to make sure that the attainment gap does not unnecessarily widen any more. We have spent a decade trying to close it, and we need to make sure that it does not spring apart again, particularly for the cohorts of children that my hon. Friend mentions.
I am enormously grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for this agenda. He has raised important concerns. I particularly note his questions, which we will take up with the Equalities Office. I hope I have helped to explain the difference between positive action, which is allowed, and positive discrimination, which is not. I point him again to the need for continual work on the guidance on this subject, and I will make sure that I continue to raise these points with the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch). I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is happy that the Government’s response today echoes his concerns. We have taken steps to underline the importance of supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, and to make sure that all children from all backgrounds, including the most disadvantaged, have the best opportunities in life.
Question put and agreed to.
Chinese and East Asian Communities: Racism during Covid-19
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Chinese and East Asian communities’ experience of racism during the covid-19 pandemic.
I thank Members for joining this debate, which is the first parliamentary debate to look specifically at racism against the Chinese, East Asians and South-East Asians. I will use those terms throughout my speech, because it is vital to get the language right. Chinese, East Asians and South-East Asians have been subjected to horrific hate crimes, especially recently due to the pandemic. I wish we did not have to have this debate, but it is particularly fitting that this is National Hate Crime Awareness Week. Given the sharp rise in hate crime against British East and South-East Asians and the trebling of racist attacks since the covid pandemic, it is absolutely necessary.
I am proud of my roots and my mixed heritage, both Asian and British. It allows me the best of both worlds but, unfortunately, it also allows me to experience some of the worst. Racism against Chinese and South-East Asians is absolutely nothing new. An undercurrent of anti-Asian racism plagued this country before the pandemic started, but now the lid has been lifted and the far right has wrongly been given legitimacy to air its derision, violence and hatred.
From an early age, it was made clear to me that I was seen as different. Sitting backstage at the age of about seven or eight, waiting to perform in a play set in a Chinese courtroom, the person doing our make-up pointed at me and said, “Make the other kids look like her.” The other children had their hair covered in black tights, their eyes coated in exaggerated black eyeliner and I remember sitting there thinking, “Do I really look like that?” Thirty years later, sadly, we still see examples of yellow face all over western culture, whether it is Ting Tong in “Little Britain”, productions of “Madame Butterfly”, Scarlett Johansson or countless examples on Amazon, which has yet to take down its offensive adverts.
Only in my teens, though, did I feel that my racial identity meant that my safety was threatened, when a student brought a knife into school to stab me with because she did not like it when races mixed. I therefore understand the fear and frustration that many British East and South-East Asians are feeling right now, as racists add another powerful tool to their arsenal: coronavirus. A month ago, police chiefs warned that the far right is using covid-19 as an excuse to attack what the Metropolitan police describe as “oriental people”. We do not have enough time in this debate to unpack what is wrong with that term, but it is 2020, not 1920.
The figures obtained by the organisation End the Virus of Racism showed that there were 261 hate crimes against Asians in April, 323 in May and 395 in June, rising each time as lockdown eased. Those do not include the number of hate crimes that have gone under-reported, so I expect the real figures to be much higher, and they are rising across the board: covid-related racism has increased for the Jewish and Muslim communities as well. Protection Approaches reported that this July saw the highest ever numbers of recorded hate crime against protected groups—40% higher than even after 7/7.
In March, Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old student from Singapore, was punched and kicked in the face on Oxford Street by a group of men. He heard shouts of “Coronavirus!” and was told, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country!” British-Chinese filmmaker Lucy Sheen was on her way to rehearsals on a bus, when a white male passenger whispered in her ear—forgive me for the unparliamentary language: “Why don’t you f-off back to China and take your filth with you?” In Hitchin, just down the road from my constituency, a takeaway owner was spat at and repeatedly asked if he had coronavirus. In Luton, people have been shouted at from cars. One woman wrote to me to say that she no longer feels safe, and walks about with her mask on and a hood up to cover her face.
That is all without looking at the cesspit of social media. During the pandemic, blatant racism and conspiracy theories have been allowed to spread, unchecked and unaccountable. I report racist videos I am sent of people eating live animals or claiming that I am some part of a global conspiracy, but it is exhausting and the onus is on the wrong person. I hope that the Government will address that in the forthcoming online harms Bill. Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook should be held responsible for what is published on their sites.
Coronavirus has been given the face of a Chinese Asian person. This sort of racism punches up as well as it punches down. Asians are equally dehumanised, to the extent that we are all the same and all eat live animals, as well as somehow being part of a global conspiracy. The mainstream media have added fuel to the fire. The petition started by the fantastic Viv Yau, Mai-anh Peterson, Amy Phung, Charley Wong and Karlie Wu called for media outlets to stop using East and South-East Asian-related imagery when discussing covid-19. Their work has revealed that some 33% of images used to report covid-19 in the British media have used the image of someone who looks like me, completely unnecessarily and unrelated to the story. The problem has been compounded by our under-representation in the UK media, so the negative coverage has no balance by positive representation.
I am grateful to the Minister for Digital and Culture, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), for her recent meeting with us to find a way forward on the Government’s own advertising around covid-19. But political leadership, standing up for and standing alongside British East Asians and South-East Asians has been virtually non-existent, and at its worst it has incited further hatred.
Donald Trump this week called covid-19 the “China plague”. We have seen Tory Ministers sharing covid-19 jokes with caricatures of a person in a Chinese pointy hat, bucked teeth and slanting eyes, yet this was not addressed by the party. A Tory council leader said in a meeting that this was all because someone was eating undercooked bat soup in China. Again, that was not addressed by the party.
A couple of weeks ago, two MPs sat in the same room as me and referred to the Chinese—I will quote this unparliamentary language—as “those evil bastards”, and “oh, you know how they look.” They were rightly discussing the awful human rights abuses being carried out by the Chinese state, but this is an othering of an entire ethnicity, which should have no place in society, let alone this House. We need to lead by example. We should absolutely criticise the Chinese state for its appalling abuses against the Uyghur people and actions in Hong Kong, but we need to find a way that does not fuel racism or make Chinese-British East Asians even more vulnerable or fair game to racists. I believe that we can and must do better.
First, we need a clear statement from the Minister that she condemns anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism. It is a basic ask but it is a start, and something that we have yet to hear officially. Secondly, our community must be supported to tackle this unprecedented rise in hate crime. We need targeted support for anti-racism organisations working with the British East and South-East Asian communities. Thirdly, the Government need to work with media outlets to stop the lazy overuse of East Asian imagery in their reporting of covid-19, especially when it bears no relation to the story, and to hold social media companies to account when it comes to ridding their sites of racism and conspiracy theories. Fourthly, include our community in the conversation—give us a seat at the table. Whether it is about financial support, health or messaging on covid-19, the black, Asian and minority ethnic community has been left out of the conversation altogether.
Lastly, I ask the Minister not just to tell us that she is grateful for our contributions, our culture, our skills, our healthcare workers and our businesses. Please act on it. Act on it and let us end the virus of racism for good.
May I say what a delight it is to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and how great it is to have a rugby league champion in the Chair?
That was a powerful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who found the time and the passion to secure the debate. It is fitting that the debate is taking place this week, not just because it is looking at hate crime but in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the last couple of years we can all admit that bigotry has been emboldened, whether against the Jewish community, Muslim communities or the East Asian community here in the UK, who are the subject of today’s debate. This is not just about the UK; we have heard first hand from my hon. Friend about her experiences, but we know that the issue goes across many different cultures. She mentioned Mr Trump, and I want to touch on the background to the current trade war between China and the US. There are legitimate issues to be debated about trade and commerce, but that must never be confused with racism against Chinese people.
Some of the debate turns into the “Chinese Communist party.” We know that some Chinese people based in the People’s Republic of China do not have a choice about whether they are party members or not. It is not good enough to say the “Chinese Communist party”—we should just say “the Government”, in the same way that we might criticise another Government for other things. My hon. Friend mentioned some of the issues we are currently worried about in the People’s Republic of China—about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet—but equally we need to talk today about the fact that many East Asians are under so much pressure.
I was delighted to go and see the chairman of our local mental health trust, Mr Mark Lam, an experienced computer technician at the height of his career who is giving his time and energy to lead the mental health trust at a challenging time. As a result of covid, there is a 20% increase in demand. At the end of the meeting I said that I was going to participate in today’s debate. He said that he has experienced anti-Chinese feeling a number of times. Many Chinese people in our communities, when they are asked, say that they have experienced a terrible sense of discrimination.
I am afraid it is not just words. There have been physical attacks, spitting, trying to run people over and a number of very violent and despicable acts. Today is our opportunity in Parliament to say that we do not stand for it, that we want equality and that we want the bigotry to stop.
My second point is about the lack of role models. I would love to see more Chinese people in our media, being our anchors and newsreaders, and in our soaps. Our soaps do an amazing job; I am thinking about “Hollyoaks,” as we have some Liverpudlians with us today. They tackle difficult social issues and I wonder whether this might be something for one of our dramas to take up, to try to challenge views and teach our community in a real way, showing the hurt and how the issue is holding back community cohesion.
My final point is about the local picture. One of the terrible results of the global financial crash was the cuts to local government. Local government used to provide a small amount of funding for a number of different services—a meals on wheels service or a day centre, for example. It was a way of mixing everyone up—“Come and have a meal together. Come and have a game of mah-jong or chess. Let’s talk to each other and get to know each other.”
Since the cutbacks to local government, I have noticed how lonely people are and how they are not experiencing the fun things about their neighbours. They are not trying each other’s food or going shopping as much. It is heartbreaking to see older people in particular sitting on their own outside a supermarket or in a café, when they could be with other people and getting to know one another.
I hope that some of the money coming out of the Treasury now can go towards local government and community cohesion and, in particular, that we will look at ways within the political parties to promote role models. We obviously have a role model here, in my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North—and the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) is a Minister in the Government, I believe. I am sure that there are others whom I have not remembered today. We have a few councillors, but we should be looking much more carefully at how we in politics can promote role models. It is the way we learned about Black Lives Matter: by listening to others. It is the way we have learned about racism against other Asian communities: by having role models in politics or other fields.
I hope that we can look not just at the geopolitics of covid and the role that important leaders such as the President of the US play. I hope that we can also look at the local picture, the fragmentation of our society, and the lack of services to bring people together. Finally, I hope that we can look at role models within politics so that we can promote diversity and in particular make a study of why we do not have more Chinese role models within our politics. I will conclude there because I am keen to hear other contributions. I thank everyone for taking part in the debate and I just wish a few more had joined us today from the Conservatives. Maybe next time.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on hate crime faced by Chinese and East Asian communities since the start of the pandemic—hatred stoked, as we have just heard, by people who should know better: Tory politicians and Donald Trump.
I am honoured to represent Liverpool, Riverside, which includes Chinatown, one of the oldest established Chinese communities across Europe. The trade links between China and Britain via the ports of Shanghai and Liverpool were instrumental in the establishment of a Chinese community in the city. The first ship arrived in Liverpool direct from China in 1834 and the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in 1866, with the establishment of the Blue Funnel shipping line, which ran a line of steamers directly from Liverpool to China.
Chinese sailors decided to stay in Liverpool and worked from a settled area in the city that was close to the docks. Boarding houses were first opened by the shipping company to accommodate its workers. It was there that the first Chinese settlers started their own businesses supplying services to their community. The British merchant navy recruited sailors from its allies across the world, and Liverpool became a reserve pool for Chinese merchant sailors, with up to 20,000 registered.
In 1906 Liverpool City Council commissioned a report on Chinese settlement. There were 49 laundries, 13 boarding houses and seven shops owned by members of the Chinese community. However, the Chinese community remains invisible in Liverpool, like so many others among our long-established diverse communities—lacking political representation, and neither being seen in shops in the city centre nor gaining access to key services such as adult health and social care.
The far right has used the coronavirus as an excuse to attack Chinese and East Asian communities, with hate crime increasing by a third since the lockdown was eased in May and figures significantly higher than in previous years. In Liverpool, community associations have expressed concern about the increased levels of bullying and intimidation and have started a low-level helpline, because unfortunately members of the community are very unlikely to report those incidents.
The Chinese community in Liverpool has been subject to racism dating back to the 1940s. In 1946, after the war, when so many Chinese seamen put their lives on the line to keep this country going and maintain the war effort, more than 1,300 Chinese sailors were forcibly repatriated to China. Over 48 hours the Liverpool constabulary implemented orders from the British Government to deport Chinese sailors in Liverpool who had travelled to England as part of the war effort. Liverpool families were never told what happened to those Chinese sailors. Their wives and children believed they had been deserted until the release of the declassified records 50 years later revealed the shocking truth. Surviving descendants, now in their 70s, felt cheated out of a relationship with their fathers and unable to connect with their Chinese roots; they felt abandoned, only finding out too late the horrendous events that led to their separation. It is important to raise awareness of the issue and educate the wider community about the shocking events of 1946. It is part of British history. I also call on the Government to make an unreserved apology for their part in destroying so many Liverpool Chinese family lives and to look at the racism that has increased as a result of the pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, on what I believe to be your first occasion in the Chair. I want to congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for securing this important debate on Chinese and East Asian communities’ experience of racism during the covid-19 pandemic, particularly this week, during National Hate Crime Awareness Week. It is important to take the opportunity to raise the importance of reporting incidents of hate crime when they happen, as that will help prevent them happening to others and help the police and other agencies better understand the extent of hate crime in a local area and, therefore, better respond to it. I hasten to add that all public services must also be properly resourced to do so.
A 2019 House of Commons Library briefing shows that police-recorded hate crime offences have continually risen since 2012-13. The rate of hate crimes against Chinese people between January and March this year was nearly three times that of the previous two years, according to data released by UK police forces to Sky News. The far right is constantly seeking to normalise racist attitudes and behaviours, and we have seen legitimate criticisms of the actions of the Chinese Government being hijacked by those people who want to sow division in society. Moonshot, which specialises in monitoring extremist content online, found that between February and April there was a 300% increase in racist and violent hashtags against China and Chinese people. They analysed more than 600 million tweets, of which 200,000 contained hate speech or anti-Chinese conspiracy theories. I urge the Government to address the horrendous abuse online in the upcoming online harms Bill. Facebook and Twitter must be accountable for what is published on their websites.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. With the University of Bedfordshire in my constituency of Luton South, we welcome many international students from China and other East Asian countries. They are welcome in our town and we do not want the rise in hate crime towards East Asian and Chinese people to deter them from coming to the UK to study. It is a great opportunity, so I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point.
We are also increasingly, and sadly, seeing hard-right politicians and movements across the world using racist language. That has been mentioned already. It is a disgrace to hear Donald Trump call coronavirus the Chinese virus or the Chinese plague. However, racism towards East Asian, South-East Asian and Chinese people is not restricted to politicians abroad. It is a disgrace that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), the International Development Secretary, shared a racist meme. Racism is never a joke, and sharing that meme shows the judgment of the individuals running our country.
The Chinese state must be held accountable for its failings and human rights abuses, but the far right is being encouraged by media reporting that has provided ammunition to far-right activists seeking to normalise racism. In Germany, Der Spiegel magazine ran a cover image of a person in a protective red suit and gas mask, under the headline “Made in China”. In the UK, The Economist also ran a front page with an image of the earth wrapped in a face mask adorned with a Chinese flag. The Government must tackle hate crime by making social media and media outlets accountable for how they spread hate or fuel division. We need accurate health messaging that does not discriminate against a community.
Finally, building on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) about role models for young people, my final comments are on the importance of anti-racist education. I am a supporter of the UK’s leading anti-racist education charity Show Racism the Red Card and a member of the all-party parliamentary group for showing racism the red card. This Friday is Wear Red Day and I encourage everybody to show their commitment to anti-racism education and to tackling all forms of racism by wearing red on Friday.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and it is good to be here.
I start by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate. She spoke powerfully in what has been an excellent, if short, discussion. I echo the comment that it would have been nice if more of us were here. I do not say that to be party political. I have been in this place since 2017, and I actually think that Westminster Hall is probably one of the better places for discussing policy. It is a bit of a shame that numbers are limited, but none the less, what we have not had in quantity we have certainly had in quality.
I also place on the record my thanks to the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who all made passionate speeches from the Back Benches. Their constituents can be incredibly proud that they came here today to stand up for social justice and against racism.
The covid-19 crisis has had untold consequences on all our lives, from the vast redundancies across the UK to the many families facing poverty and, of course, to the huge loss of life. However, another consequence has been the rampant and utterly unacceptable racism against Chinese and East Asian communities. In the first few months of the covid-19 crisis, racist offences against Chinese and East Asian people rose rapidly, including assaults, robberies, harassment and criminal damage. The hon. Member for Luton South rightly brought some of those numbers to the attention of the House, and it was right that, in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, she focused on international students. My own city of Glasgow is blessed with three universities, and in the past few weeks a number of people have arrived in our city. I have some anecdotal concerns from what I see on social media and the comments that people have overheard in the city centre. As we go into a new academic year, that could be a real problem. There is an onus on us all, as community leaders, to call that out for what it is: utterly unacceptable.
Members of the Chinese and the East Asian community have described the attacks against them, with restaurants and take-outs being vandalised and boycotted and victims being punched, spat at and coughed on in the street and even verbally abused and blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. With even the President of the United States dubbing covid-19 the Chinese virus, and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, calling it the Wuhan virus, I make it clear that no one race or ethnic group is responsible for the outbreak of coronavirus, and that absolutely everybody has a right to be protected from targeted abuse. Indeed, President Trump’s foolish remarks are a total insult to the families of the 4,634 people in China who to date have lost their life as a result of coronavirus.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that Governments adopt national action plans against racial discrimination, laying out specific approaches to combat racism and discrimination, from enhanced policing of hate crimes to public messaging and education programming encouraging tolerance. Like others, I encourage the Government to take action and adopt new action plans to address the wave of racism and xenophobia that has occurred as a result of the covid-19 crisis. I also echo the calls made by End the Virus of Racism urging the Government to condemn the growing hate crime and to give extra protections to targeted communities.
As was touched on by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, the UK must acknowledge its painful history of racism, from the slave trade that originated at our ports, to Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, to the hostile environment created by the current UK Government. That racism still exists in the UK. It is nuanced, it is striking, but it is still, none the less, completely intolerable.
Racism will not disappear overnight. We must all work actively to stamp it out from our society. The vile xenophobia against the Chinese and East Asian people is completely unacceptable, and I hope that all parties in the House will come together in unity to condemn racism in all its forms and to work towards tackling the issue head-on. One simple way of doing that, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, is to wear red on Friday, to at least make the point that we stand united on the most fundamental issue of humanity.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this very important debate and on her passionate, thought-provoking and groundbreaking speech, and I thank her for sharing her shocking childhood experiences of racism. That was a telling and very poignant part of the debate.
As hon. Members have so eloquently highlighted, one of the social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic has been the alarming rise in online hate speech against the Chinese and East Asian community. The pandemic has provided fertile ground for extremists. Conspiracy theorists have fuelled hatred and are exploiting people’s fears. Left unchecked, fake news about minority communities has circulated online, sowing the seeds of hatred. That causes division and damages community relations in our society and it has been allowed to grow to such an extent that some are emboldened to abuse and attack the Chinese and East Asian community. Those in positions of responsibility have done very little to call out the racism or to challenge the fake news and hate speech.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point on an issue that I will come to later in my speech. Training is absolutely essential so that people recognise and treat seriously any forms of racism, so that it is dealt with swiftly and so that people are not frightened to report it.
It is deeply disappointing to hear the President of the United States, Donald Trump, call coronavirus the China virus and give legitimacy to this racist trope. It is also deeply regrettable that nothing has been done to challenge this view by our Government. Nobody has spoken out against it, and that desperately needs to happen. I hope that the Minister will deal with that in her remarks.
The Government have a moral duty to keep our communities safe, and that includes speaking out against hate speech and dispelling falsehoods no matter where they come from. The explosion of hate speech on social media has been alarming. I know that the most mainstream platforms are taking steps to remove false information and hateful content. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) mentioned the 200,000 hashtags of hate speech and conspiracy theories against the Chinese and East Asian communities, which was quite alarming. Recently, the Select Committee on Home Affairs had a session in which it heard that Facebook had deleted 9.6 million hate speech posts in the first quarter of 2020; 9.6 million is an alarming number, and that is just the ones that it has removed.
The issue is not just content removal. That is not enough on its own. More needs to be done to dismantle the microtargeting of ads and the algorithms that recommend the next piece of visible content, which may be just as harmful. This rabbit hole is compounding the effects of online hate speech and fake news. The ads and algorithms make decisions for users about what they can see online, and essentially that amplifies the content, so that is an issue that also needs to be addressed.
We need wider regulation of social media platforms to tackle hate speech and its wider distribution. Although I appreciate that the online harms Bill will come before Parliament next year, action is needed now. I highly recommend the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s impressive report, “The First 100 Days: Coronavirus and Crisis Management on Social Media Platforms”. That goes into detail as to how hate crime and hate speech are spread on social media platforms.
I mentioned earlier in my speech that online hate speech has evolved into physical hate crime, and we heard a number of examples from hon. Members in today’s debate. Figures from police forces across England and Wales have revealed that at least 267 offences against, I quote, “Chinese people” were recorded between January and March during the covid-19 crisis. That included assaults, robberies, harassment and criminal damage. The rate is nearly three times that of the previous two years. I believe that those figures are just the tip of the iceberg. In conversations that I have had with representatives from the Chinese community in London, I have been told that attacks are far more common. They are under-reported, because the community do not believe that the police take their complaints seriously. To allude to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the issue is about training as well.
The lack of vocal Government support and the severe cuts to policing over the last decade have left the community despondent. They feel that they have no empathy or understanding of the effect that such attacks have. I am pleased to see that the community are getting organised on this issue and demanding action. One group that they have formed is End the Virus of Racism. I congratulate it on calling for zero tolerance for racism and for the full protection of the law following the threefold increase in hate crime towards people of South-East Asian and Chinese heritage during the coronavirus crisis. The police must take hate crime seriously and listen to victims; otherwise, it will continue to be under-reported.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Where there is a lack of empathy, there is also a lack of cases that proceed to trial. I am not aware of the actual figures for this issue, but rape is also an issue where the lack of empathy with victims leads to fewer cases going to trial. The victims do not want to take it further because they do not feel they will be treated seriously. There is an excellent rape review by the Victims’ Commissioner for London, which I highly recommend.
I welcome the calls for greater research, a national strategy and a taskforce to scrutinise the data and address the impact on community cohesion—hon. Members also raised the need for more community cohesion. The increase in hate crime has fuelled a steep rise in demand for victim support and has put additional pressure on community groups, but at the same time their income has been slashed and their resources are more stretched than they have ever been. Any solution to hate crime must include the Government funding of those vital services. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) made a point about the need for helplines, and these communities need funding so that the helplines can function in this time of great need.
In July, the Commission for Countering Extremism produced an excellent paper entitled “How hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic”. It highlighted how different communities were experiencing racism due to the pandemic. It said:
“Government needs to include clear plans to counter extremism in their response to this and future crises. It should also publish a new counter-extremism strategy urgently to ensure that it can strategically respond to the activities of extremists in our country. This strategy should include:…An assessment of how extremism manifests locally, the harm it causes, the scale of support for extremist narratives and how best to pre-empt extremist activity. This should also include a mechanism to provide bespoke support to local authorities most affected…An assessment of who is most susceptible to extremist narratives and a plan of what interventions they will put in place to engage and support those people…A commitment to ensure hateful extremism falls within the remit of the new online harms regulator and that existing laws on inciting hatred should be enforceable online…Plans to build an understanding of how conspiracy theories contribute to extremism. Including how they are utilised by extremists, what the scale, impact and harm is, and how to counter them…Separately, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government must drive forward a COVID-19 cohesion strategy to help bring different communities together to prevent extremist narratives from having significant reach and influence.”
That is from a Government-funded body.
Racism has no part in any civilised society and should be stamped out completely. To do that, we urgently need sustained action. We need to call it out, tackle it online and physically, and show solidarity with our communities that are experiencing racism. We need to ensure that complaints are properly dealt with and that our communities are supported.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister, when will the Government publicly speak out to condemn the anti-Chinese hate speech and the racism against the Chinese and East Asian community? When will she speak to her ministerial colleagues to ensure that more is done to remove online hate speech and algorithms that fuel hateful content? Will she speak to her colleagues to ensure that the police take the reporting of hate speech seriously and work to build trust with the communities affected? Finally, will she support the additional funding for community groups representing those affected by racism and hate crime, and those providing support services?
It is no surprise that the annual hate crime statistics, which were released this morning, show an 8% increase in reported hate crime over the past 12 months. Unless something is done now, there will be long-term damage to community relations, which will take years, if not decades, to repair. I urge the Minister to take action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, on your first day in the Chair. I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this vital debate, and hon. Members for their many contributions. It was powerful to hear about the experiences of the hon. Lady, particularly when she was at school, and the frightening experiences that she was subjected to. Also, however, the account of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), including the experience of one of the mental health workers in her constituency, was very powerful, as was the speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), in which she outlined some of the historic events in her constituency, which are still felt very acutely by the community there.
I am sure that some hon. Members will know that one of the most famous poems in the Chinese language is actually about this country. The poem “On Leaving Cambridge”, by Xu Zhimo, was written nearly a hundred years ago. However, it has stood the test of time, not just in the canon of Chinese literature but as a powerful symbol of the ties that bind our country with the Chinese-speaking world. These ties connect with every part of our national life, from the people we elect to this House to our educational establishments, and from the food we eat to our own language. Few communities can claim to have had such a powerful effect on our culture, and people of Chinese and East Asian heritage have been particularly successful at integrating into the fabric of our society. Equally, few countries can claim to have been as tolerant and as welcoming as the United Kingdom, a place where people of all ethnicities are free to lead successful and rewarding lives.
I deeply regret that the covid-19 pandemic has brought out the very, very worst in a small minority of our citizens. Chinese and East Asian communities, through absolutely no fault of their own, have had to contend with a significant and completely unacceptable rise in hostility towards them, as has already been outlined. According to police reporting, in the period following the start of the pandemic, Chinese and South-East Asian citizens accounted for 1% to 2% of all hate crime victims, but they accounted for 12% to 18% of the victims of hate crimes where covid-19 was mentioned.
As the hon. Member for Luton North said, people were rightly horrified at the dreadful assault on Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student who was badly injured in central London. It is also very disturbing to read and hear about other such attacks. Although they are rarely as violent as the one I have just mentioned, we can all agree—quite clearly, there is a consensus in Westminster Hall today on this issue—that such incidents are abhorrent, and totally and utterly unacceptable in the United Kingdom in 2020.
I am equally concerned by reports of people experiencing lower levels of intolerance. Although those actions have not always been criminal, they are undoubtedly immoral, dehumanising and totally distressing to the individuals who have to hear and live with such comments. This type of prejudice has also had an impact on Chinese businesses, which had found themselves struggling for custom even before the lockdown began.
My Department works closely with Chinese and East Asian community organisations, and in those early weeks of the pandemic we engaged with communities where we could see that tensions were rising. We held community events and spoke to community members. They told us of a sudden change, and of increasingly negative social attitudes towards anyone believed to be Chinese. They reported the fear and anxiety experienced by people who had not faced such hostility before. They also expressed concern that their communities were not always well served by portrayals in the media, not least the labelling of covid-19 in some quarters as “the Chinese virus”, as has been outlined by a number of Members here today. I am totally against such labelling.
One of the comments by the hon. Member for Luton North was about the “cesspit” of social media. We are in agreement on that point. After this debate, I hope that the media will reflect on their use of images when reporting on covid-19. I absolutely understand the pain and anguish caused to individuals who are living in the United Kingdom. Obviously, as outlined, the online harms White Paper is coming, and one of the commitments in that is to form a communications campaign about hate crime. Part of that will involve working through some of those issues with the Society of Editors and the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
I want to be clear, as Members in the Chamber have said, that no single community is responsible for the spread of the disease, and no single person should face abuse for it, in any way, shape or form. We, this Government, condemn that completely. We condemned it at the time—the Minister for Faith and Communities did so publicly, and so did the Home Secretary—and I, today, condemn it again.
As we reflect on the deeply special relationship that Britain has with America, will the Minister undertake to raise with the Foreign Office that strong representations should be made from Whitehall to Washington, DC, that that kind of language is unacceptable? Will that message be conveyed from London?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I speak regularly with my colleagues across Departments when dealing with a whole host of issues that affect the United Kingdom, in particular in my new role as in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I have only been in post for about three weeks now. I will definitely pass that sentiment on to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
While the Minister is talking to her colleagues in Government, will she also speak to the Universities Minister to say that this debate has raised the specific issue of international students such as Mr Mok, whose case was talked about, and to ask for an action plan to deal with it?
I commit to doing as the hon. Lady asked. It is important that we remain committed to, and steadfast in standing up for anyone who finds themselves a victim of hate crime or of any hate, because, sadly, our Chinese and East Asian communities are not alone in that experience. We know that bigots are only too happy to spread hatred against Jewish and Muslim communities and others if it suits them.
This Government have a zero-tolerance approach to those who commit such acts. The perpetrators of hate crimes in relation to covid-19 are being punished. The Crown Prosecution Service has prosecuted a number of people for crimes involving racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity. We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of Chinese and East Asian heritage, and this Government have shown that time and again, supporting not only those who have made these islands their home, but people who visit for tourism or access to our world-class education system, which we spoke about this afternoon. Also, our generous offer to those from Hong Kong eligible to come to make a new life here stands as testament to our solidarity. Although the level of hate crime towards people of Chinese and East Asian heritage appears to have reduced since earlier this year, the Government have no interest in showing complacency.
We will continue to ensure that victims are supported wherever possible and to bring people who carry out hateful attacks to justice. We already have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect communities from hostility, violence and bigotry and to deal with the perpetrators of hate crime. We will strengthen that framework through measures set out in our online harms White Paper and bring forward world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place to be online.
We intend to establish in law a new duty of care on companies towards their users, which will be overseen by the independent regulator, and we will not stop there. We have asked the Law Commission to undertake a full review of the coverage and approach of hate crime legislative provisions. It has opened a public consultation and will report to Ministers early next year.
We will also consult on our hate crime action plan. It has guided our work over the past four years and has been well regarded, but now is the time to consider whether we can be even more ambitious. We will consult widely in the coming months to ensure that we build an effective new approach, which will benefit from the input of many of our diverse communities. I look forward to the Chinese and East Asian communities playing their part.
I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) about the police. He highlighted the annual statistics that were reported today. One of the elements that shows progress in this area is that we are seeing more of an understanding from the police of what hate crime is and the ability to categorise it, so that it is being better reported. I hope that we will continue to see that work in the statistics, but I totally agree with the comments that have been made: while we are seeing progress in this space, we need to continue with the work to make sure that the complexities are understood and articulated in the reporting, and that when individuals feel they want to report to the police, they are comfortable in doing that. I was pleased to hear that 87% of the Chinese community surveyed trusted their local police, in comparison with the national average of, I believe, just over 76%.
On spending to work with our communities, we have committed to spend through the faith, race and hate crime grant scheme, which enables local groups to bid for grants for work, including with schools and young people. That is a £1.5 million pot. We also have the integrated communities action plan, with more than 70 commitments within that plan, and we are working towards completing them.
Comments have been made about members of my party. I am not here to speak for individuals, and I am unaware of some of the details. One thing I am very comfortable to say is that the party I represent stands against any form of racism. I am very proud to be part of a party that holds that position, whether people agree or not. In my role as a Minister in MHCLG, I will do all I can to make sure that all communities in our country have equality and feel parity through the work we are doing. It is something that I have had experience of in other roles as a Minister in this Government over the past two years. I am looking forward to working with colleagues as we progress the action plans as we move through covid.
This week being National Hate Crime Awareness Week, it is a moment to reflect on the challenges that confront us and reaffirm our commitment to tackling hatred. I believe that today’s debate has been an important part of that, and we should all stand together to condemn hatred and bigotry in all forms, and focus instead on what ties bind us together. I end by thanking everyone for their contributions to today’s debate, and look forward to further conversations with colleagues as we progress some of the work I have outlined this afternoon.
Please forgive me, Mrs Cummins; I should have said that it is a great honour to be serving under your chairmanship. I did not realise it was your first day in the Chair, so thank you.
I will start by picking up on some of the Minister’s comments. First, I am grateful to hear her condemnation of hate crimes and racism against Chinese, East Asian and South-East Asian communities, and I know that the community will be really glad to hear it. As I said in my speech, it is a low bar just to ask for condemnation of racism, but it is a start, and I am grateful to the Minister for it. She was absolutely right to mention Chinese businesses: for many of these businesses, the pain occurred well before lockdown, well before other businesses started to see their profits decline and started having to lay off staff. That pain is continuing, and we need to do serious amounts of work to ensure that community, and that business community, is supported throughout this pandemic like so many others should be.
Picking up on the Minister’s second point about the online harms Bill, I am heartened by that Bill, because we have heard countless examples of why it is absolutely necessary. I said that social media is a cesspit; it genuinely is, and it needs cleaning up. One area that I would like the Government to concentrate on and look into through the online harms Bill is the comments sections of news outlets, which I know is an area that the Government have been resistant to include in that Bill’s regulations.
The Minister started by saying that this is a vital debate. It is a vital debate, and I am really grateful that hon. Friends have come here to represent their communities and provide support, but the Minister is here because she has to be. Where are her colleagues? There are six seats empty on her side; not a single Conservative, not a single Government Member, decided to turn up. I know that this is Westminster Hall and it is supposed to be less political, but what message does that send to our communities? It sends a damning message.
I wanted to pick up on some of the points that my hon. Friends have raised, because they are important to solving this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) spoke eloquently and passionately about the history. The Minister talked about our integration: it started in Liverpool, Riverside, the home of one of the oldest ethnic communities in this country. She also spoke about the importance of education about that history; I do not know how many people really understand or fully know the damage that was caused by those forced deportations of Chinese sailors, ripping the hearts out of families and entire generations. Having a helpline is fantastic, and it should be celebrated and supported, but again, the community is having to step up when the state has stepped back.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) was absolutely right to speak about the pain our community faces when it comes to mental health. We have all found this period really difficult, with loneliness, losses of earnings and of loved ones, and being separated, but add to that being blamed and being scared to go out of the front door. It is not just hate crime that our community has suffered: thousands of healthcare workers have come from China and all over South-East and East Asia, and those workers are the very people who we stood on our doorsteps and clapped for, yet we cannot say that we are going to protect them. More Filipino nurses, healthcare workers and carers have died in this country than in the Philippines during the pandemic.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins).
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).