Tuesday 20 October 2020
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Support for Children and Families: Covid-19
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their patience during the security scare, but all has now been satisfactorily resolved. This is a one and a half hour debate; it will start now and finish at 25 minutes past 11. One Member has chosen to withdraw from the list as he will not be able to be here between 11 am and 11.25 am. If there are others in a similar position, they can notify the Chair accordingly.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for supporting the application for this debate. We have become used to hearing that the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that existed in our society, and that we need to build back better. I do not intend to change that script. I want to start with some observations about family life under covid-19 and draw some lessons for the future.
I was very much a witness to the inequalities under lockdown. I spent it with my family in Wiltshire during the beautiful spring and early summer, watching the barley slowly ripen, under skies clear of planes; cycling on roads clear of cars. It was an idyllic existence. However, every day my inbox would fill with emails from families in crisis. I used to work with children and families at risk in disadvantaged parts of London, and I have some sense as to what parents in overcrowded accommodation without enough money must have been through this year. For families who were already in trouble, financially or emotionally, the pandemic has been a disaster. Rates of domestic violence have soared, alcohol and substance abuse have increased, people’s mental health has suffered, and, of course, poverty has worsened.
Save the Children reports that 40% of families have become worse off, and 20% of families have made use of food banks. Personal debt has risen dramatically, and children are the principal victims here, especially children with disabilities, looked-after children, and all those who really rely on support outside the home—support which in many cases disappeared during lockdown, and will remain unavailable in areas under local lockdowns.
I acknowledge how much the measures put in place by the Government have helped many of these families: universal credit, the brainchild of the my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), has worked with incredible efficiency. It is a tribute to him and the current Ministers, and to the thousands of officials and jobcentre staff who manage that system. The £20 per week uplift has been a lifeline for countless families. Likewise the mortgage holidays, the protection against eviction, the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. The Government put a defensive ring around families’ homes and incomes and I pay tribute to them.
I want to pay tribute not only to the Government, but to the families themselves, or should I say “the family” as an institution. The resilience, capability and adaptability and the hidden resources of care and skill that families found in this crisis are extraordinary. The families are the single most important system for what we used to call social security. They have been the most effective defence against disaster for children and adults. They are the single greatest asset that we have as a country.
I mention this because it is right that we focus on these dreadful problems, but we also need to consider the conditions for success, to accentuate the positive, as Bing Crosby said, not just eliminate the negative. However, to eliminate the negative first, I have two simple principles to suggest to address the current crisis for families.
The first principle is that of greater support around the family through more investment in the social infrastructure of communities, especially civil society, especially through the family hubs that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others have championed so assiduously and that are found in the Conservative manifesto. I would also like to see expansion of the help to claim and the flexible support fund. We are inching towards the vision my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has for what he called universal support: a package of help provided by charities and community groups alongside the cash provided by universal credit.
The second immediate step that we should be taking to eliminate the negative, in order to meet the needs of families in trouble right now, is to invest directly in them. I respect the arguments of those who want to maintain the £20 a week uplift for all UC claimants beyond next April, but I would point out that it would not only cost nearly £6 billion a year but that half of those claimants do not have children, and in my view we should focus on households with children, aka families.
Let me finish with some high-level thoughts on how to accentuate the positive and strengthen families from within over the long term, so that people are better insulated against whatever shocks and challenges the next decades will throw at us. Here, I have to challenge what I see as a malign alliance of left and right, or more specifically liberals on the left and the right, who are the dominant force in both our tribes. By the way, I exclude from my idea of “liberal” the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a Liberal Democrat. Where is he? Not here—withdrawn. He is a sound conservative in my book, but he is not here to defend himself against my suggestion that he is not really a liberal but a good conservative.
Anyway, liberals of left and right might disagree on the proper size and role of Government, but they agree that government and society in general should not try to influence family life. I think they are wrong and that government should seek to influence family life, because it does so anyway; it influences the choices that people make all the time. When it pretends to be neutral, its influence is no less real but is a lot less positive.
The policies that we have created in this country over many decades actively, although not intentionally, pull families apart. Our housing policy has created the smallest homes and our jobs market has created the longest commutes in Europe. We have childcare subsidies that only work for people if they put their kids into a nursery for most of the day, and we have a higher education system that makes young people study far from home for jobs that only exist in big cities. We have a social care system that only pays out to people if they put their parents into residential care or makes them sell the family home to pay for it. Most of all, we actively disincentivise family stability by penalising couples who live together. We pay couples more in benefits if they live apart. We tax people as individuals, which means we tax single-earner couples particularly hard, and then we compensate them in benefits. We then punish them for coming off benefits and moving into work with a very high effective marginal tax rate. I recognise that universal credit has greatly reduced that rate, but it remains too high. We have high taxes and high benefits, and we still leave families in poverty.
In contrast to the malign alliance of liberals who think that family life is no business of wider society and of the Government, I have a view of what good looks like. Before I cause alarm—I can sense the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) beginning to twitch—I should emphasise that I am not conjuring up the 1950s, with the nuclear family centred on the housewife. As David Brooks has written, the 1950s nuclear family, the single-earner household living literally detached from wider kin and community, was a brief and unsuccessful experiment only made tolerable by Valium. As Mary Harrington has argued, the trad wife—#tradwife, as it is trendily known in some conservative circles—is a historic anomaly. The really traditional wife was a trade wife; she was not just a domestic consumer, but a fully engaged player in the local economy. What I am getting at is that we need to recognise and support the economy of households and not just of individuals. You will know, Sir Christopher, that the economy of households is actually a tautology, because the etymology of our word “economy” is in fact the Greek world word for household—the oikos. The oikos was the smallest viable social unit, the foundation of society, and we need to strengthen it.
Yes, that means support for one-earner couples. I applaud the work of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies, and “A Manifesto To Strengthen Families”, led by the friend of many of us here, David Burrowes. They all call for an end to the couple penalty in the tax system. When Nigel Lawson introduced individual taxation in 1990, he always intended to let married couples share their combined personal allowances if one of them did not do paid work. Mrs Thatcher— possibly like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who in so many ways she resembles—was not sympathetic to stay-at-home mothers.
We need to get this matter right, so that people who choose to work—unpaid—by looking after children or elderly relatives, or by helping in their community, are not penalised for doing so. My idea of what good looks like is both more old-fashioned than in the 1950s and more progressive; it is both medieval and modern, which I am sure Members will agree is what we should be aiming for in all things. Two parents where possible, multigenerational where possible, with both parents able to work from or close to home, in paid employment or self-employment, or caring for others without pay, and engaged in the local community. That is the vision that I think would command the support of the public. Middle-class families such as mine had a glimpse of that model during the lockdown, and I hope we can achieve it for everyone.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship Sir Christopher, as it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Unlike with Caesar, I do not come to bury him but to praise many of the things that he has to say—and just for the avoidance of doubt, I am not on Valium while doing it. He and I agree on much of what he has just said. We agree that it is actually about the support for families.
It is always interesting to hear the hon. Member’s perorations about etymological foundations. I come with a much more practical message this morning, because we know that our families are in crisis. The question is—and he and I would agree on this—what can we practically do, as communities and as the state, to support them? We know that supporting families reaps rewards, not just for those families, but for the entire communities that they live in.
I agree with what the hon. Member says about the couples’ penalty and not penalising people for how they live, but I would gently encourage him to look at the penalising that currently goes on for those families who find themselves in the most awful situation: where one family member dies, but, because the family have decided that they do not wish to use marriage as a basis for their relationship, their children are pushed into poverty because, under our legislation, those children are not entitled to the bereavement support payment. If he wants to not just talk the talk but walk the walk, I am sure he will join me in raising that with Ministers.
I come this morning to talk about the defensive ring that the hon. Member has already mentioned in terms of rising evictions and debt, and what we can do now that the defensive ring that he talks about is about to end, particularly when we know that we are about to face a tsunami of unemployment in this country.
It has become increasingly clear over the last couple of months that within the family, it is the mums that are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Before a child has even been born in this country in the last couple of months, we have had women who have gone to have scans on their own and found out their child would not live; they have had to give birth on their own and health visitors have been cancelled without anybody being told. As the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned, domestic violence has risen. Now, the evidence is before us that it is mums who are bearing the brunt of that approaching tsunami of unemployment. If, as the hon. Member says, he believes that both sides of the family should be able to work and come together as a family, I hope he will join me in calling for urgent action to tackle the reasons why it is mums who are much more likely to have been furloughed and are therefore much more likely to face redundancy. Indeed, the fantastic organisation, which I am sure he is a supporter of, Pregnant Then Screwed has seen a 450% increase in calls to their helpline during the pandemic. Little wonder.
The protections that many of us took for granted preventing women from being made redundant while pregnant have disintegrated in the past couple of months. We know that it is women who have been doing the working from home in both senses. While the hon. Member was cycling, I am sure that his wife was looking after their three children and trying to home school them. That is not an unusual experience.
The evidence that we have had shows that overwhelmingly it has been women who have been managing children in the home and trying to work from home. Their employers push them to be furloughed to be able to manage that situation, and then they find themselves at the front of the queue to be let go. That is why we know that during lockdown, for every hour of uninterrupted work done by mothers, fathers had three uninterrupted hours of work, according to the research. We know that it is particularly women who are suffering because our childcare and schooling facilities were closed.
What is worrying me now—and I hope that the Minister will tell us they have an action plan for this—is that two thirds of women who want to return to work cannot do so because there is not any childcare. It is a very simple equation: when you have to socially distance three-year-olds—my goodness, I would not wish that on anybody—then clearly there are fewer places, which means that fewer people can put their children into childcare and so an already broken system in this country is now clattering to a halt.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that mothers were 47% more likely that fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit during the pandemic, and are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Pregnant Then Screwed research of 20,000 mothers show that 15% of them had either already been made redundant or expected to be made redundant. It is a generational rollback of mothers in the workplace and of workplaces being able to work for mothers.
We already know from data published on 15 September by the Office for National Statistics that the numbers of redundancies have increased by 45% this quarter. Of those affected by that increase, 79% were women. The high-level data that looks at men versus women does not capture the particular phenomenon we are seeing of the tsunami of unemployment coming towards mothers. It is particularly in the industries that mums work in that we have seen higher levels of redundancies and high levels of closures— hospitalities, retail jobs—and it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that it takes political will to recognise that mums are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. That is why it is so important that we keep that universal credit uplift: we already know that more and more families are falling into poverty.
If the hon. Member wants, as I do, mothers to be able to work and fathers to be able to work, and for them to balance family life as they choose, then we have to make it possible for them to do that. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that withdrawing that uplift would bring 700,000 more people—including 300,000 more children—into poverty. If parents cannot work because they cannot put their children into childcare, then we need to be able to support those families, or destitution will become even more widespread than it already is. Child poverty has already increased by 600,000 since this Government came to administration, meaning that 4.2 million children are living below the breadline. That was before covid hit.
There are some solutions. In the time left, I want to be clear about that. First and foremost, we need urgent investment in childcare in this country to keep those nurseries and maintained providers open that are desperately needed so that parents can get back to work if they choose, so that mums can make that choice. We need to keep that universal credit uplift. We also need to simplify the tax support we give to childcare. I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes that the state can play an active hand—not a dead hand—in helping it work. Frankly, the money is there. Last year, £664 million worth of tax-free childcare was not claimed, amounting to £1.7 billion over the last three years. Imagine if we could put that into childcare settings, and help get families back to being able to organise their lives the way they want. There is £64 million in the local authority schools budget. The money is there. The need is there. The poverty is there. The question is whether the political will is there. I venture that the hon. Member for Devizes and I share a common concern to make sure that the political will is there, and to do what our suffragette sisters and fathers would ask of us: deeds, not just words.
It is a privilege to serve under your tutelage, Sir Christopher. It is always a privilege. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Sometimes when I listen to what he says in his speeches, I often think that I could have written them. Perhaps I did, I do not know, but then I realise that he used to write speeches for me as well. In a sense, we are a little too heavily joined at the hip. I promise that I will not embarrass him any more on that basis.
I fundamentally agree with everything he said, particularly with regards to the challenges. In a sense, much of what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), literally a neighbour of mine, says can be meshed together internally. There are ways through this, and I wish we could form some kind of common purpose in all of it rather than attacking each other. Too often, at the heart of these debates is not the question of left or right, but a big difference about whether people think we should intervene with Government or not.
To those assembled here, I make the point that we face real issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes mentioned the tax system. A good example of what happens when people get into government is that they immediately use the argument that we should not intervene because we show a bias towards one side. The UK has the worse tax system for families that wish to stay together. We have the worse system in Europe, particularly where a person in that family wishes to look after their children for a while. Every other major country in Europe has an allowance, and people can move their allowances across. In Germany, they have income-splitting which gives families an immediate balance, which is more expensive to be fair. But in France they have a marriage tax allowance form as well. We in the UK are alone in having not had one for a period, the Labour Government having taken it away. When I was in government, I sat arguing with the Chancellor—I did a lot of that when I was in government—about that very point. Finally, with the Prime Minister’s intervention, we reinstated the marriage tax allowance. However, it was done at such a measly and miserly level, and then hidden so deep in the documents, that nobody claimed it because they did not know it existed. The Government refused to let anybody know about it, until finally they told them about it. That is one of the problems we face with Government.
It is not a case of siding with one side or the other. If we get family life and the involvement of Government balanced, people will make their own choices; that is all I ever ask for. I know those choices will be, in the vast majority of cases, balanced, positive and constructive. Everyone out there, except for the exceptional minority, wants their family to be stable, and would prefer their children brought up with both parents looking after them all the way through their childhood. Government intervene in the wrong way and distort the nature of that decision, and then accuse everybody of asking them to intervene and take sides, but that is not the case.
I appreciate the comments about universal credit and, definitely, about universal support. Universal support, alongside universal credit, is critical in getting people help and assistance along the lines that the hon. Member for Walthamstow talked about. We should all be on the side of getting that rolled out.
Finally, on schools, we have a real problem at the moment. There is pressure on parents as a result of what is happening in our schools. Whole year groups are suddenly being sent home because one child is infected. That goes against all the evidence that children are not vectors to adults, but that it is the other way round. This situation is causing chaos in families up and down the land. There is a good organisation called UsforThem, which is made up of parents who are worried because they have had to leave work and go back home. That has caused real stress in families, and had a real effect on family break-up. It is also causing problems for children, more of whom need intervention and are now under protected schemes.
We need to think again about what in heaven’s name we are doing with our schools in relation to covid. The children are losing out massively, the parents are suffering dramatically, and if we do not get proper advice to schools, we will be buying ourselves a heap of problems down the road, in 10 years’ time. Schools are operating without clear advice on what they should do when children get covid, and they immediately send everybody home. That has to stop. We need to get a balanced view.
I end by saying that I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes’ speech. It was absolutely right; it is on the money. I will not repeat what he said, but I back every bit of it; I just wish we had longer to speak.
I will be uncharacteristically brief, Sir Christopher. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for securing a debate on the subject. We have heard so much about the impact of covid on jobs, schools, universities, businesses, the hospitality sector and the NHS. Children—particularly young children—and families are the forgotten element in the whole covid crisis. It is important that we talk about them today, and about the mental health impact on not just school-age children, but parents, for all the reasons my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned. There has been huge upheaval due to the extra childcare required and the unpredictability of schools.
There is a lack of support networks for new parents in particular. Some 350,000 babies were born during lockdown. Many of them have not seen other babies. Mums have not been able to take babies to the normal post-natal classes and baby groups that they would usually take them to, so we are now seeing examples of babies recoiling when they meet other babies, because they are not used to other human beings like them. They have not had the support network of extended family members; for a new parent, a new mum—particularly a new single mum—that has been a huge challenge. We need to think not just about the catch-up we need for school-age children—the Children’s Commissioner has calculated this week that we have lost 575 million school days since lockdown—but about catch-up for very young children, and babies and infants in particular.
In last week’s debate, I flagged up the importance of health visitors. Before lockdown, we had lost 30% of health visitors. A great triumph of the coalition Government was to create 4,200 additional health visitors. We are virtually back to the numbers we inherited in 2010. Health visitors have had face-to-face contact only with new parents in vulnerable families, but there are over 106,000 children under the age of one living in households in this country where parents suffer from domestic violence, substance abuse or serious mental health issues. These children need those health visitors eyeballing them, providing health support and acting as an early warning system.
I recommend reading the “Babies in Lockdown” report, which was jointly published over the summer by the Parent-Infant Foundation, which I have been proud to chair for the last six years, Home-Start—a fantastic charity—and Best Beginnings. Their report found that 68% of the 5,500 parents interviewed felt that the changes brought about by covid-19 were affecting their unborn baby or young child. Over two thirds of respondents said that overall, their ability to cope with pregnancy or care for their baby had been affected by covid-19, and many families on lower incomes from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and young parents have been hit harder by the pandemic. This can only have widened the already deep inequalities in the early experiences and life chances of children.
The report therefore recommends that we increase specialised parent-infant relationship teams around the UK, of which there are only 30 at the moment. These teams bring together a range of highly skilled professionals to support and strengthen the important relationships between babies and their parents or carers. The report also recommends a parent-infant premium, which would provide local commissioners with new funding targeted at improving incomes for the most vulnerable children. We need children in schools to catch up, but if we do not help babies and pre-school children catch up, the problem will be even worse when they get to school; that is why this report and this debate are so important.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I start by congratulating the hon. Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate.
Sadly, too many children and young people, along with their families, have been left behind in the covid-19 crisis. Even before this pandemic, with youth services slashed, escalating debt, and persistently high levels of mental ill health, young people were being denied the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation. According to the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission, 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012. Last year, the number of children living in relative poverty rose by 100,000 to 4.2 million, or around 30% of all children. Four in every 10 children in Leicester East live in poverty. Some 14% of our households are in fuel poverty. This means that too many families in my community are forced to make that impossible choice between heating their homes or feeding their children, and sadly, the Government have not done enough to support them.
Like many here today, I fear that the long-term impact of covid-19 will serve to exacerbate the difficulties that children and their families already face. For instance, the Government’s furlough scheme is due to expire at the end of the month, yet nearly 1 million people still on furlough are either living under localised restrictions or in cities on the national watchlist. That means increased economic uncertainty and distress for too many families up and down the country.
The knock-on effect for children cannot be overstated. Indeed, the lockdown has left some children at more risk of harm; at-risk children are less visible as schools and other services close. The number of children referred to children’s services between the end of April and the middle of June was 18% lower than over the past three years. This is especially concerning in Leicester, as we have faced localised covid-19 restrictions for longer than any other area, and will put a great strain on local authority children’s services, which have already been severely cut over the last decade of austerity. This means that essential frontline services that many children and families in Leicester East—my constituency—rely on will suffer as a result.
The amount that our community received in covid-19 support has also been insufficient. At the start of the extended lockdown in July, Leicester, Oadby and Wigston received £3 million in support, the equivalent of £7.30 per person. That is 1,000 times less than the Government are paying top consultancy executives for a single day’s work. As we all know, it was recently revealed that consultants from Boston Consulting Group received up to £7,360 per day while overseeing our disastrous privatised Test and Trace system.
This demonstrates the flawed priorities of our Government; they are happy to spend tens of millions enriching private sector companies, yet leave our families who are struggling to make ends meet to sink or swim. In the past week, they have rejected a campaign led by Marcus Rashford—who was recently awarded a well-deserved MBE—for 1.5 million more children to receive free school meals. Instead, the Government claim:
“the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”
However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that 4 million families face a significant decline in income if the Department for Work and Pensions goes ahead with its plan to scrap the £20 increase in universal credit that was introduced due to the pandemic. It is deeply worrying that the Government plan to cut universal credit during an unprecedented economic crisis. That is especially concerning in Leicester East, as last month, over 5,000 of our residents claimed unemployment benefits—a figure that has more than doubled—it has gone up by 3,000—since lockdown began in March.
The Government must increase the support available for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak. Young people did not ask for this crisis, or choose to grow up as it took hold. It would be a generational unfairness of unparalleled proportions if we allowed their future to be detrimentally determined by forces outside their control.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on his intelligent speech, which I fully support. I wish I had made it myself. The pandemic challenge is new, and it has exacerbated problems for many families, but many underlying challenges for families are not new—nor is my challenge to Government today, a challenge that has been made to previous Ministers and Prime Ministers. Essentially, it is this: when will we take strengthening families policy more seriously?
That sounds stark, but I will explain. After years of debate and discussions with Ministers, I am convinced that however committed an individual Minister in one Department may be to supporting families—I recognise the commitment of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—unless we have co-ordinated, Cabinet-level leadership across Government, we will not get far on this issue. At present, there simply is no co-ordinated support for families.
Yes, central and local government are understandably focused on their statutory duties to children in schools, early years and social care settings, but what are we doing for children’s wellbeing in the place where they spend most of their formative hours—at home, with their families? The Children’s Commissioner says councils spend three times as much on short-term statutory interventions as they do on longer-term interventions to support families and promote children’s outcomes.
The Government, working across several Departments, can defend their record on mental health and victims of domestic abuse, and good work is going on around the children of alcoholics, but where is the long-term transformational strategy and effective government co-ordination to shift the dial for so many thousands of children impacted by problems in families? The poorest suffer most.
The Cabinet Office Minister, Lord True, said:
“Families are a responsibility for the whole of government … families are at the heart of this government’s agenda”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 April 2020.]
We were elected on a manifesto that states that a strong society needs strong families. We have seen covid support packages for businesses, the self-employed, and those on benefits. All that support has an impact on the financial wellbeing of families; but what about supporting family resilience? No family is immune from the need for support from time to time, to function well. Parents may need access at this time to support for their own mental health, when things get difficult for those with little children during lockdown. They may need support for substance and addiction issues, finances or housing. They may need relationship counselling or specialist support for domestic abuse.
I am not asking for a family bail-out—for billions for many different fighting funds to fix a dozen different symptoms, however serious those are. I simply ask that the Government commit fully to the bigger picture, given that they have already signed up to this, and for a Cabinet-level Minister to actively bring together cross-Government efforts to strengthen families. They could start with our commitment to championing family hubs. We need a strategic approach, not just short-term tactical solutions. We need preventive, whole-family approaches. Families need help to halt the intergenerational transmission of problems. We need a well-functioning, early help system, in which health education, family support, relationship support and other support for families are integrated and seamless, so that no child or family falls through the cracks.
At the heart of that system should be somewhere that people can connect with to get the help that they need. That should be the family hub. It might be a library or a repurposed children’s centre. Some people will simply get access to it online; but wherever and whatever it is, the family hub should be recognisable to local families. It should be a non-judgmental door open to all—a place that they can turn to whenever they need to. We all need such help from time to time. We must do this. Families need that help; it is not a nice-to-have policy. It must be a mission of Government. As we build back better, let us build families back better.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for bringing forward today’s debate. There are significant challenges for families, not least with the economy bearing down on them now. The biggest solution that we could find would be a way to stop the mass unemployment that we are about to face. I urge the Minister to make representations in Government.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and permanence, I want to focus on adoptive families. Adoption UK’s survey in April understood the impact of lockdown on families. Following that, the all-party group carried out two shorter inquiries: one was into the adoption process, and the other was into education and home schooling. The witnesses made incredibly powerful contributions, and I thank them.
The adoption process has been significantly disrupted during the recent period, not least when courts have not been sitting. That has had an impact on children, and I ask the Minister to make it a priority that normal proceedings should resume. The priority should be on child-focused court sittings. It has also been harder for panels to meet. We need to find solutions, so that there will be no further delays to that part of the process. Also, of course, it takes longer to build relationships when people are not physically in contact with the young people concerned, so, again, we need to continue to review the process to ensure that the right connections are made in the right places.
The Minister could really help with the issue of medical checks. They have moved from stage 1 of the adoption process to stage 2, but, again, delays are being brought into the system. If there could be an advance there, it could prevent further delay of adoption processes.
More than half of adoptive parents have said that their children have experienced increased emotional distress during lockdown. Essentially fear about the health and safety of family members is triggering feelings of loss and instability for many adopted children. Those issues, combined with the fundamentally restrictive nature of lockdown, have led to an escalation in the frequency and intensity of child-on-parent violence, which is already common in some adoptive families. Nearly a third have reported experiencing more violent and aggressive behaviour than usual.
Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of many children in adoptive families, and that reminds us all of the importance of the adoption support fund in funding supportive and psychological services. As many children did not receive their established support from schools or health services during lockdown, more demand has been put on the services supporting their families. The additional £6 million provided to enable families to access helplines, virtual peer support and online therapeutic support was needed, but we must remember that this money was brought forward from future funding. I plead with the Minister to see this not as bringing money forward but as putting additional money put into the adoption support fund. I would also like to hear her plans for next year, as this period of uncertainty continues and pressures on families increase, particularly on those with vulnerable children. I ask that we meet that demand, to give those families the best chance of being successful.
Adopted children experience many trauma points in the course of their education, and we have certainly found that issues such as exclusion from school bring trauma not only to the child but into the home. We heard powerful testimony from the head of inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council, Mary Meredith—I recommend that the Minister meets her—who highlighted how exclusion approaches are deeply damaging, especially for a child with disordered attachment. I therefore ask that the Minister looks into the issue to ensure that we can keep children safe in school, not least as exclusions are 20 times more likely for children who have experienced care.
Finally, I want to highlight the fact that thousands of children are currently awaiting placement with a family. We need more families to come forward for adoption and fostering, to ensure that these children have a safe and healthy upbringing. I trust that the Minister will do all she can, working with the APPG and the incredible charities and organisations out there, to ensure that these children have safe families for their futures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), who made such an excellent speech, and I will come to some of the points he made. May I also say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)? She made a powerful speech. Seventeen children in my constituency are waiting for that forever loving home, which I think we all agree is arguably the defining thing in lifting their life chances and their health and wellbeing, so I congratulate her on her work.
I think we all knew before lockdown that strong family relationships are defining for life chances on every measure we care to mention. They are the single most important driver in life, and the pandemic has only served to put that into technicolour. When restrictions started to ease and lockdown was lifted, there were miles of queues around McDonald’s drive-throughs, but hon. Members will not be surprised to know that, in the Big Conversation survey published in my local paper, the Eastbourne Herald, the most important and missed part of readers’ lives was their families. We have already reflected in the debate on the fact that we would like to see family policy far higher up the Government agenda, and it is clearly recognised by the people we represent that family is the original, best and most effective welfare state when times are tough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes is right that lockdown was polarising. Some of my constituents got in touch to say that, actually, during that time, they were able to reconnect and to rediscover and build stronger relationships with their children. Their priorities are going to change going forward. They have enjoyed their homes, and they have enjoyed each other. However, there is a far darker reality around lockdown, as reflected in the work of the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice around increased conflict and abuse and the pressure of near-constant confinement.
I pay tribute to East Sussex County Council. The teams there worked so hard during the lockdown months, directly calling more than 6,000 families to try to make sure that the available support was getting to those in need. Their abiding concern now is the unemployment landscape and all the challenges that that will present.
Services are available, but one of the points that I am most anxious to convey is that family support extends far beyond that nought to five category. Too often, people look just at those critical and challenging years, as people step into being a new parent, but we really need to make the case that family support is lifelong.
One of the aspects that I recognise and value about the provision in East Sussex is that the council recognises that families are under pressure and face challenges at every age and stage. Perhaps I speak with feeling as a mother to three teenage boys, but it is critical that we support families all the way down the line—that needs to be in neon lights.
There have been a lot of contributions around the role of the state. Whether it is an active hand or an influence that can distort, both are very recognisable realities. The state definitely has a part to play in setting the context, in setting priorities and in providing funding measures. However, we must avoid the trap of believing that the Government are the alpha and the omega here. In fact, there is real truth in the saying that it takes a whole village, and I would like to conclude by paying tribute to my personal village.
There are many organisations in my town that have worked hard in this time to hold the fabric of family life together. I pay tribute to our schools, which have remained open throughout. That has been hugely important, particularly for vulnerable children and their families. When I visited the Haven school, amid all the talk and anxiety about children returning to school, I arrived to the sound of children’s laughter in the playground. They need each other, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about that connection—about babies being together, and young children being together. It is so important that we keep our schools open.
I pay tribute to Embrace, a charity that supports the parents of children with special educational needs, because it has been particularly challenged in this time. I also pay tribute to Holding Space, which works so hard around mental health.
Strong societies need strong families. We have a part to play here, and I hope this debate contributes to that discussion. I want to align myself with the call for that Cabinet-level leadership and that whole- Government approach.
It is pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on putting forward the case very well and with a certain amount of humour, and I thank him for that. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. She and I were born in the same town—in Omagh, in County Tyrone—so it is pleasing to see her elevated to that position. I will never reach the heights of Minister, of course, but she has, and well done to her. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and colleagues for raising the issue in the first place.
Covid-19 has been incredibly difficult for so many people and so many families. I am feeling the effect of it myself this week, as I lost my mother-in-law to it. The effect on children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is very real. Our children are aware of things that we would want to hide from them for their safety, and I know there is concern that this age group should be carefree. Hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen have referred to that, and I thank them for it. It saddens this grandfather to see so many children so uncertain and unable to do things that their normal lives saw them doing. Swimming lessons have been cancelled again. They can have no meals out with granny and granddad. There are no play dates with cousins. Little lives are disrupted, and that will have implications for their mental health.
I want to speak specifically on mental health, and others will probably do that as well. For some families who have already had their struggles, this isolation and removal from support can see irretrievable breakdowns. We need dedicated and focused support for children and families on this issue from the Government. I am proud that Northern Ireland pioneered the introduction of a nationally funded school-based counselling service over 10 years ago to support our vulnerable children and young people, and such a service has been adopted by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is important now that there is UK-wide provision of this critical early intervention.
Now more than ever, when we are isolating people in their individual circumstances, we need the support of well-funded initiatives to ensure that those individual circumstances are manageable. Some of the teachers I have spoken to in the last months have expressed fears that their children, to whom they give that little bit of extra support emotionally, as well as academically, are removed from them. That happens when schools do not operate as they should, and teachers are concerned that the gap is not being filled.
In Northern Ireland—I suspect it is the same on the mainland—we have rising numbers of those of school age with mental health issues. I welcome the NHS long-term plan commitment that, by 2023-4, at least an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will be able to access support via the NHS. That is good, and I am convinced that it will serve a fifth to a quarter of schools and colleges in England by 2023. That is the start that must be made, and we welcome it as a good step forward.
However, we also need to consider the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children and young people. We need to see more ambition; investing in school-based counselling services would help to serve the missing middle in terms of the support provided between child and adolescent mental health services and meeting the needs of the 75% to 80% of schools not supported under the new model. Mental health in the UK has worsened substantially as a result of the covid-19 pandemic—by 8.1% percent on average, and by much more for young adults and women, and those groups already had poor levels of mental health before covid-19.
A further survey—it is important to record this in Hansard—by Young Minds found that 80% of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse. Of those, 41% said that it had made their mental health much worse, up from 32% in the previous survey, in March. There are increased feelings of anxiety and isolation and a loss of coping mechanisms or motivation. Of 1,000 respondents who were accessing mental health support in the three months leading up to the crisis—including from the NHS and from school and university counsellors, private providers, charities and helplines—31% said they were no longer able to access the support they still needed.
I want to speak up for the people who need that support. Of those who have not been accessing support immediately because of the crisis, 40% said they had not looked for support but they were struggling with their mental health. That is the issue for children. Urgent steps must be taken to provide help to our families and to keep family units intact and—more importantly—happy, and support is needed for that to happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have the honour to follow the wonderful hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for facilitating this important debate. I almost have to declare an interest in Congleton, as it is where I moved to as a child and grew up.
As colleagues have mentioned, the covid-19 outbreak has impacted on society in an unprecedented way. Indeed, I have had many conversations with constituents, who have raised concerns about the future for themselves and their families. They have shared their anxieties about being made redundant and the financial pressures that that entails and about their children’s mental health and wellbeing and the impact that missed schooling may have on their future potential. Parts of Loughborough are among the most deprived in the country, so it is clear that without intervention we run the very real risk of leaving those often vulnerable people behind, widening the disadvantage gap and placing an even greater burden on social services, which are already under strain.
The importance of prevention cannot be overstated. I welcome the fact that the unprecedented impact of covid-19 has been met with an unprecedented package of support from the Government. As well as the financial support available to working families and the enhancements to the welfare system, significant funding has been ploughed into schools to help young people catch up, into local authorities to help the most economically vulnerable and into the fantastic organisations that have worked tirelessly over the past few months to support communities.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention some of the great things that have been undertaken by local people in my constituency recently, which have contributed to the wellbeing of children, young people and families in the area. First and foremost, many of our teachers have worked right through the lockdown to support our children and young people. They have gone beyond teaching to ensure that emphasis is placed on young people’s wellbeing, by regularly contacting many children and their families to ensure that vulnerable children, in particular, are safe, cared for and able to carry on their education.
During two recent visits, I have also witnessed first hand schools’ hard work and the impact that it has had on pupils. First, at Rawlins Academy, I saw the lengths staff had gone to in ensuring that the school could open safely in September. More recently, at Cobden Primary School, I saw how happy the children were and what fantastic work was being created by the head, the teachers and the pupils. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to our teachers and schools for all they have done. Online organisations such as Amazing Grace, which is helping to bring children back up to speed with their coursework, have also been invaluable to the area.
As well as supporting the community through the initial stages of the pandemic, I have been working with organisations that are looking to the future and on to recovery. For example, Loughborough College, Charnwood Borough Council, Loughborough’s business improvement district and Loughborough’s jobcentre have joined forces to help young people into work—the surest way out of poverty—by promoting the kickstart scheme. I am thrilled to say that, so far, 143 job opportunities have been identified in Loughborough, and we only started two weeks ago. That is a testament to what can be achieved when Government organisations and the public work together to support local communities, and it is this collaborative effort that will be vital if we are to ensure that no one is left behind.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on having secured such an important debate about support for families. I could fill much more than my allotted three minutes by retelling some of the heartbreaking lockdown stories that parents across Penistone and Stocksbridge have shared with me, but I particularly want to highlight the plight of families who have children with special educational needs, who have really struggled without the support of schools, face-to-face services and even help from extended family.
Early in lockdown, I received this email from a constituent, which I share with her permission:
“Dear Miriam, My daughter is 5, has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, is awaiting ADHD assessment and is pre verbal.
She has begun lashing out at all family members including her baby sister, she will only eat three foods, she has started smearing her poo on a daily basis, the meltdowns have intensified a thousand times 1000x, and she is sleeping a maximum of two hours a night. I have spoken to the autism nurses, I have spoken to the Multi Agency Support Team, to school; nobody can help and I don't even have a back-up help as I can't see my family.”
For families of children with additional needs, lockdown has been exhausting, but for other households, the picture has been mixed. For families where one or both parents have been furloughed, the opportunity to spend more quality time together has been welcomed. In other families, where parents have juggled an increased workload with home schooling or where loss of income has increased the strain, lockdown has been tough. For single-parent households, the reduction in physical and emotional support has been hard to bear, so what can we learn from the pandemic about how to support families in future?
We need to recognise that covid has stretched the capacity of families that have already reached their elastic limit. So many families, even in normal times, exist on a knife edge. There is just not enough time, money or effort to be a hard-working employee, an effective parent, a loving partner, a carer for elderly relatives, a homemaker, a fit and healthy individual and a volunteer at the local school, so when there is a bump in the road—bereavement, stress at work or sickness—there is nothing and no one to take the strain.
For decades, as has been mentioned by hon. Friends, we have eaten away at family life, with a series of policies that encourage both parents into full-time work. We offer ever-increasing hours of free childcare, without recognising that, for many families, the issue is a lack of work-life balance. We have taxes and benefits that treat each adult as an isolated individual and penalise couples who live together. Those policies have weakened family life, and we must hit reset.
We need to consider the household as a single economic unit, with policies that reduce pressure on family life. We should stop viewing free or cheap childcare as the only solution to families’ problems, and look at how we can redesign the benefits system to allow parents to spend more time at home when their children are young. We need to better understand the economic, health and social benefits to society of resilient family units, putting family at the heart of our levelling-up agenda and investing in family hubs. We need to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between families and communities, because strong families build strong communities, and strong communities build a strong nation.
Covid has hit families hard, but it will not be the last crisis that families face. We must not return to the status quo, but instead find a new settlement that gives families the breathing space and capacity they need and deserve to truly flourish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for having secured this debate, because, in large part, children and families are why I entered politics in the first place.
It was my very first day in court: I was out of the classroom, training as a magistrate. I was sitting in the court observing proceedings for the first time with my mentor when a young boy came into the dock. He was 18, making his first appearance in an adult court, but he was grey and tiny, smaller than my 10-year-old son at the time. I remarked on that to my mentor and she said, “Oh yes, I know him. He’s a regular in the youth courts. I’ve known him for years. The reason he is small is that he has been malnourished since he was a child. The reason he is pallid is that he has been fed drugs since he was a child. Because his parents are addicts, he’s been an addict for many years.” That was my introduction to a world I had not had a lot of exposure to before.
I referred to that boy in my maiden speech:
“the boy whose name I do not remember, but whose face I cannot forget.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2020; Vol. 672, c. 96.]
He was an inspiration to me. I saw right in front of me that for some people the mantras of opportunity, aspiration and hard work, the conservative values that I hold dear and which helped my family and me to journey from workhouse to Westminster in three generations, meant little. What did they mean to him or his family?
The virus has taught us many things, but it has also thrown into sharp relief those inequalities and those problems in our society. Communities like mine in Hertford and Stortford have rallied round to help and support each other hugely. I pay tribute to Hertfordshire County Council and East Herts District Council for what they have done to support all families over this period. I also pay tribute to the universal credit system, the jobcentres and the staff in Hertford Jobcentre Plus, because they have been amazing.
I could say a lot more about what the Government have done to support families of all types during this pandemic, but the economic crisis will outlive the health crisis and there will be more that we need to do. However, I will focus again on that boy in court, because he is the one that I go back to, and how families like his will cope. They do not cope in the good times, let alone the bad.
I refer to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Perhaps now is the ideal time to redouble our efforts on family hubs, to provide a place where we can give that intensive, holistic support to families such as that boy’s. We do not have a family hub in my constituency or near it, but I welcome the Department for Education’s support for a major shift in the development of family hubs. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes for initiating this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Following heartfelt speeches like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), I know I am in the right place.
Family is fundamental to my Christian beliefs, so I am extremely pleased to speak in this debate. I want to start with the word “entitlement”. I do not believe in entitlement per se. I understand that if we pay for something we are entitled to goods or services, but I hear the phrase “I am entitled” too often these days. However, I do believe we are entitled to good parents.
None of us has to be here. We are here through an act of love—a couple saying that they want a child, which is wonderful—or sometimes, sadly, through a horrible act of selfishness by a forced act. Either way, it is never the child’s fault that they are born. With that in mind, you will understand, Sir Christopher, why I believe that we are entitled to good parents. It should just be a given.
It has been proven time and again that a good family home gives children a chance to blossom into wonderful adults. Family life is not always easy—I know. Kids play up. There is not enough money with four or five different people all wanting different things. One child has a temper while another says nothing. There is one computer but two pieces of homework. Many of us have been there and still are. But when family members love one another and can communicate, they stand a chance of creating a great team that will always look out for each other and will need very little help from the state.
When a family starts to struggle, however, whether over money, work or addictions, we should be there to help keep it together. Too often in this place we make it easy for families to fall apart, but not with family hubs. The family hubs initiative is a wonderful thing. I am fortunate to have two in Don Valley. Although I have not had a chance to go and see the work that they do, I hear that they are doing wonderful work. They bring together many services that are often siloed and difficult to source. They bring them online or in person, but what I believe they do most is give a family a place to talk—they help give a family a second chance.
Why is that important? Because family is important. It is also economically important. It is expected that for every £1 we spend on family hubs, they provide between £8 and £12 in benefit. I believe it is much more. Children from complex families are much more likely to require the taxpayer’s money throughout their lives, through a lack of work, police, prisons and rehabilitation—the list goes on. Instead of being contributors, they end up being unhappy burdens. That cannot be right. We know prevention is better than the cure, so we need to ensure that that happens. That is why we are here.
I finally want to mention covid and the additional challenge that it has brought. I have spoken to many people about the positives and the challenges that lockdown brought, but one comment really stuck with me. A friend said: “If you cannot enjoy time with the people that you love, what else is there?” I thought, “What a wonderful thing to say.” We need to help more people feel a sense of belonging. Family hubs will help, so I ask the Minister to press for all we can afford, as I believe that we will all truly reap the rewards.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this really important debate.
The corona pandemic has had tough consequences. Families across the UK and in my constituency have had to make hard choices and sacrifices in order to protect the health of the nation. This global health crisis has shone a light on the fundamental building blocks of our society. It has forced us to question what really matters and how our social structures operate. Who are the organisations, the people and the community that we look to for support in our daily lives? The pandemic has shown that the answer cannot and should not always lie in the hands of Government. Instead, the value of a rich and meaningful family, community and local support network has been realised.
In July this year, I welcomed the Government’s support for a place-based approach to supporting education and employment outcomes as part of the country’s recovery measures from the pandemic. In my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, I was delighted to see the Government deliver an extra £1.67 million in funding through the opportunity areas programme, which included support for holiday clubs for children and families, such as Ay Up Duck. Throughout the pandemic, the Ay Up Duck club and many charity organisations in Stoke have shown the value of voluntary and community sector organisations in supporting the delivery of Government-funded programmes for children and families, particularly for the role they played in ensuring that Government-funded meals were delivered to children from low-income households throughout the months of the school holidays and school closures. Since 2018, Ay Up Duck has delivered over 26,000 meals to more than 18,000 children and young people in schools, community centres and sports clubs across Stoke-on-Trent. It is a fantastic example of how charities are an essential community resource in organising the delivery of Government funding that is tailored to specific needs in the community.
Age UK has conducted research that shows that, if we feel more connected to our friends, families and communities, we are much less likely to encounter problems with brain function in later life. It is really important that, coming out of this pandemic, we capitalise on public support for volunteering and working together with families to continue to find ways to harness the economic, social and health benefits of being more connected to our community. Time and again, empowering families, communities and charitable organisations with the financial and political power to act has proven to be the most effective way to target Government money at the people who need it most.
I hope you are joking, Sir Christopher.
I want to thank The Sun newspaper and their agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, for flagging up today’s debate with their “Sort It Out” campaign. So let us sort it out for Louis, aged 8, who said:
“My mum and dad spend so much time hating each other, they don’t have time to love me”,
and for Shakira, aged 14, who says:
“when she picks up her phone and sighs and rolls her eyes, I know it’s my dad. I’d pay a lot of money to stop that, she just forgets that I love my dad too and I’m stuck right in the middle”.
I agree with what was said earlier on in the debate that the mums are bearing the brunt of so much of the ghastly covid pandemic. We have too many mothers out there forced to do everything by themselves. Those mothers are doing a heroic job, often under trying circumstances, and they deserve a lot of credit, but they should not have to do that alone as often as they do. Raising children is the most important job in the country and it is the responsibility of all of us as mothers and fathers.
As President Obama said in his 2010 father’s day address, our children
“don’t need us to be perfect. They do need us to be present. They need us to show up and give it our best shot”.
Too many fathers are missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities and acted like boys, not men. We need fathers to realise that responsibility does not end at conception. What makes someone a man is not the ability to have a child, it is the courage to raise one and then enjoy the most rewarding and joyful experience of being a father.
A third of children see their parents split up before they are 16, and 1.25 million children are exposed to conflict between their parents. Efforts to support healthy relationships between parents are vital and we know that children benefit from loving parents and strong, loving and respectful marriages and relationships as well. We pass on empathy and kindness by living it; we are not strong by putting others down, but by lifting them up. That is why the work Patrick Myers is doing at the Department for Work and Pensions is so important with his Reducing Parental Conflict programme and why the work done by the members of the Relationships Alliance—Relate, Tavistock Relationships, Marriage Care and OnePlusOne—is so vital, as is the pre-marriage course, the work of Jonathan and Andrea Taylor-Cummings and many others. Also Care for the Family is a fantastic charity that teaches so much, telling parents to stop scoring points and stop thinking the worst.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want to thank the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate. I am used to being in a room full of Conservatives, as my parents-in-law met through the Young Conservatives. This important debate has felt a bit like a family dinner, because I have thoroughly disagreed with some things the Conservatives have said while I have agreed with some points made. I agreed with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) when he talked about vulnerable children. Is he aware of the fact that 2 million children faced greater threats in lockdown, from domestic abuse to online grooming? He also raised the point about the mental health of black, Asian and minority ethnic children and families, who suffered disproportionately in the pandemic, exacerbating existing racial inequalities.
Unsurprisingly, I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) when she talked about the pandemic’s devastating impact on mothers’ earnings and employment. It is not necessary to be a mother with young children, as we are, to realise that our economy will not survive if we do not get childcare sorted and the system fixed in this country. It has been chronically underfunded for years and coronavirus has shone a spotlight, showing there is no doubt that funding is needed if we want to properly secure childcare and get mothers back to work. My hon. Friend also talked about redundancies, that the pandemic has hit women so much harder than men, the fantastic work of Pregnant Then Screwed, the broken system and child poverty.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked passionately about her constituency and about wellbeing. It is a word we did not mention much before the pandemic; I feel it was lost. However, the huge changes and isolation have hit wellbeing, with a survey by Young Minds showing that 80% of people have seen their mental health worsen during the pandemic. The hon. Lady also talked about food poverty passionately and how it affects her constituency. There were 200,000 children skipping meals at the height of the pandemic and around one in five children experienced food insecurity over the summer holidays.
I wanted to mention something said by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left his place. I have never in my life agreed with him before, but I agree that there is a problem with schools, and we have to ensure that we fix the problem before the second wave of the pandemic hits us. He talked a lot about access to services, and anyone who does casework in their constituency knows what a problem that has been during coronavirus. Support through schools, the NHS and charities, and other services has been harder and harder to access. Teachers have been unable to identify problems, and that is one of the things that I urge the Government and the Minister to look at as we hit another wave of the pandemic.
I am glad that we are having this debate, especially because we have had so few opportunities to talk about the impact of the pandemic on children especially, and on their families. The received wisdom is that children suffer less from covid than adults, and thank goodness for that but, unfortunately, many times it has felt that children have been an afterthought in the pandemic. We have to fix that. I realise that covid-19 is uncharted territory and that this is something new for the Government. We as an Opposition have tried to be constructive—we want to help the Government navigate the choppy waters—but there is no excuse for repeating the mistakes that were made in the first six months of this pandemic.
This debate is an opportunity for us to examine the mistakes that were made and make sure that they are not repeated. We owe it to children to make sure that we do not repeat the massive mistakes that happened. By the end of March this year, the majority of children in this country were not going to school, for obvious reasons. The issues that arose from children not going to school were predictable. A proper plan should have been in place to mitigate the impact, especially for already vulnerable children, who were always going to be hit hardest by school closures.
School is often a safe haven for children who are at risk of domestic abuse or other threats at home and, because teachers often spot, report and provide support, or because of many children’s special educational needs and disabilities, such children were always going to find long periods away from school very challenging. That would often be without the SEN provision that they so desperately need. That was bound to have a knock-on impact on their family’s welfare.
I know that the intention of the Government was to keep schools open for vulnerable children but, in reality, if people actually look at the figures, very few vulnerable children went to school. As few as 5% of vulnerable children were going to school in the early weeks of the lockdown. Some children will have been safer at home during covid—there is no doubt about that—but that is not the case for many children. The reality is about ensuring that children at school get the support. That was not made a priority by the Government, and many of those children suffered as a result.
We have all seen the signs of the damage in the casework that we deal with as constituency MPs—the child with SEN struggling to readjust after six months out of school, the looked-after child unable to access a social worker and many more worrying examples. Young carers in particular have suffered during this pandemic. I heard from one 12-year-old boy who had struggled to sleep due to worries about the pandemic and his caring responsibilities. He is now receiving specialised support through the See, Hear, Respond programme, which is run by Barnardo’s and more than 80 local charities and community organisations, but many children in that position have not been so lucky. Referrals for children’s services fell by 50% in some areas during the pandemic.
I want to pick up briefly on adoption, which my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about so eloquently. The problems with adoption were outlined in her speech, especially the delays with medical checks, and I hope that the Minister will listen to her plea for future funding for the adoption support fund.
I also wanted to pick up on the point about the decision to water down legal protections for children in care and those with SEN. It was a particularly worrying example of this failure to prioritise vulnerable children. Ministers rightly recognised that local authorities would be under huge pressure due to covid-19 and would find it hard to meet their statutory duties to support children. However, instead of thinking about how to ensure children were supported, whether that was with investment in services, new ways of working or digital outreach, the Government simply scrapped many of the key statutory duties. So many children suffered in silence as a result of that, and wider neglect has been hidden from view.
When there was an up-tick in schools returning, we have not seen the problems that we know have developed and been exacerbated in lockdown coming to the surface. That means children are still missing out on the support. I ask the Minister, what work is her Department doing to reach out to those hard-to-reach communities?
The other thing I want to speak about is digital poverty in this country. Having an iPad, a laptop or a mobile phone is something a lot of us take for granted, but close to 1 million children went into lockdown without the IT equipment or internet access they needed to learn remotely or to keep in touch with friends. The Government recognised that they would need to deliver digital devices to many families. However, the 200,000 laptops that were promised were nowhere near enough, and the target to deliver them by June was too late for most.
I am sure that MPs in their constituencies had emails complaining about that. The June target was missed, and as the Schools Minister set out in response to a parliamentary question, only 200,000 laptops had been delivered by last month. That is far too late. In a meeting with headteachers earlier this month, I was told that much of the equipment that was delivered was unsuitable for children with special educational needs.
What was the result? Disadvantaged children, who were already unable to access as much learning support at home as their peers, were completely cut off from their teachers, a key factor in the 75% widening of the attainment gap that DfE officials have predicted. It also meant that children could not connect with their friends during the most isolated period of their lives, worsening their mental health and cutting them off from avenues of support.
Finally, on free school meals, which is tomorrow’s big debate in the Chamber, the Government have realised that they must act to provide for children who are at home rather than in school. They set up a voucher system, which of course we welcome, but the delivery of the scheme was shambolic. First, delivery of the vouchers was outsourced to a private company, rather than being entrusted to local authorities and schools who knew how best to meet the needs of their families. It was plagued by delays and technical difficulties that left many children without food and many parents facing the humiliation of being turned away from supermarket tills in front of their communities.
Secondly, we had to fight to get the scheme extended, first for the Easter holidays and then over summer. It took relentless campaigning from us and the intervention of Marcus Rashford to force Ministers into a U-turn, and now we are back in exactly the same position. The Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing free school meals over holidays until spring next year. We in the Opposition are calling for the same here, alongside Marcus Rashford and other food poverty campaigners, but yet again Ministers are stubbornly refusing to do it.
Free school meals are a lifeline for at least 1.4 million children who qualify for them—a figure that is now likely to be above 2 million as unemployment rises. I will share a quote from a parent who shared their experience with the Children’s Society last month and whose testimony will feature in an upcoming report. They say: “I tell my kid to make sure they eat all their school meals, as it may be the only meal they have. I often have nothing to eat and any food I do have I give to my kid, as they only get one meal a day. I don’t have a meal many days.”
I want all the Conservative MPs in this room to think for a minute about the children they know—maybe their own children, as the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned so eloquently at the beginning, or their godchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours or friends—and think about them having to go to sleep hungry at home one night and then wake up the next day knowing that there is no food in the house. Can they imagine the small person they love going to sleep hungry, not being able to sleep because their stomach is rumbling? That is what I would like us to think about.
We all got into politics for a reason; we wanted to protect the most vulnerable and we wanted to make life better for people. I ask Conservative MPs to think carefully about the fact that we are the lucky ones. I never go to bed with my one-year-old or four-year-old hungry. I go to bed knowing that I can feed them the next day. Surely food support over the holidays is the least we can do to help families in this position?
Thank you for your excellent chairing of this debate, Sir Christopher. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this important debate. It is good to have so many different hon. Members present.
I will use this opportunity to update the House on what the Department for Education has been doing to support children, young people and their families during this time. The Government are dedicated to supporting children and families, and the Secretary of State for Education has been entrusted with the family policy brief by the Prime Minister, to ensure that there is a Cabinet-level Minister with oversight of the issue. The Secretary of State is very clear that the two core aims are the protection of vulnerable children and ensuring that every child has the best start in life. He recently made a speech outlining the improvements needed to the adoption system in this country, aiming to close the gap between the number of adopter families and the number of children looking for those loving-forever homes.
We are soon to announce the independent review on children’s social care with the aim to reform and improve an incredible service that plays a vital role in the lives of our most vulnerable children. We continue to work on the SEN review for children with special educational needs and disabilities. We work with Departments across Government on a range of policies to support all children to grow up in happy and loving environments.
No, because there is a lot that I want to update hon. Members on. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, supporting a family starts even before a child is born. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pointed out how important health visitors are, so I was really pleased this month when the chief nursing officer made it absolutely clear that health visitors must not be redeployed from their frontline support for families, even as cases of covid rise further.
Early education and experience set up a child for life and support parents with childcare. Since 2013, the proportion of children who are at a good level of development by the time they end their reception year has gone up from one in two to three out of four. This is why the Government continue to invest and support early years education. We introduced the 15 hours free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds and then 30 hours for three and four-year-olds. We prioritised the early years sector for reopening from 1 June and out-of-school clubs and provision for reopening on 4 July. We have continued to support the sector by paying for those Government hours of entitlement at pre-covid levels of attendance, even if the providers had to close. Attendance is now around 85% of the usual pre-covid levels.
We also know that grandparents and other family members often provide crucial informal childcare. The good news is that those childcare bubbles can still be formed even in higher lockdown areas.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who was born in a wonderful part of the world, spoke about mental health. On World Mental Health Day, we published a state of the nation report which looks at research into children’s and young people’s mental health at this time. Levels of happiness among all children have remained stable, compared to previous years, but children have been anxious about missing education and social contact, which is why it has been so important to get them back to schools.
Levels of anxiety have increased for certain cohorts of children and young people, especially disabled children, BAME children, disadvantaged groups and those with previous mental health conditions. This is why we introduced the Wellbeing for Education Return project, which gives support for schools and colleges, delivered in their local area by local mental health experts. Over 97% of local authorities have signed up to that. We must continue our Green Paper commitment to introduce new mental health support teams in all schools and colleges and training for senior mental health leads and faster access to specialist support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) spoke of a heart-breaking story about families of children with special educational needs. They have faced enormous challenges. The Government have provided over £37 million to the Family Fund to help over 75,000 of those families, including an extra £10 million specifically for the pandemic. As she knows, we are also increasing the high-needs budget by nearly a quarter over a two-year period. In our £1 billion catch-up premium for schools we have ensured that specialist settings and alternative provision will get three times more per pupil than those in mainstream schools.
Fundamentally, it has been so important to make sure that all children can get back to school and get back their support, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities. Over 80% of those children and young people are back in their educational settings now.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), mentioned that children in care and those children who have a social worker are especially vulnerable, which is why we kept schools open for them at the height of the pandemic. I am enormously proud that we were one of the few countries in the world that did that. Yes, attendance was low, because parents were rightly concerned at the beginning of the pandemic, but it grew over the summer and now 85% of children with a social worker are now back at- school.
We also invested another £360 million in frontline charities supporting vulnerable people during the crisis and worked hand in hand with the NSPCC to make sure that people could report—and knew where to report—a child at risk of harm.
We have provided another £4.7 billion to local authorities to help them respond to the pandemic. We know that some local authority children’s services are stronger than others, so we have supported those who need extra help by deploying our new react teams across the regions and Ofsted inspectors have come back to the frontline.
Family hubs were mentioned with great passion by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and I share their passion. I have an excellent family hub in my constituency that offers early support to families who need advice or help. Co-locating such services supports families and providers.
I will make announcements on that very shortly. I want it to be spent on research and development.
Regarding adoption, data was published last week showing a gap of about 600 children between those waiting for adoption and those waiting for a child. The gap has narrowed, but we must narrow it further. We need to encourage more families to come forward to provide those loving forever homes.
We are investing £1 million in a national adoption recruitment scheme and another £2.8 million supporting the voluntary adoption agencies. Courts have prioritised adoption. Flexibility to the adoption support fund during covid has helped another 60,000 families. The changes we made to social care regulations—incidentally, the Opposition tried to throw them out—were specifically to make sure that adoption could continue while not being delayed for medical reports. However, I take the important point made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).
We have put in more support to those who are leaving care to make sure that they do not need to leave care at this time. On the very important point on child poverty and food, we have injected more than £9 million into the welfare system over this period and given support to income protection schemes, mortgage holidays, additional support for rent, and we have done other things to support family income.
When schools were closed to the majority of pupils, we launched the national voucher scheme. It was challenging, but it meant that 1.4 million children who normally received free school meals could still be supported. We also extended free school meals to the children of those families who have no recourse to public funds. Some £380 million was spent on supermarket vouchers, but now that schools have reopened, kitchens have reopened and children are being provided with food, which is so much more important than a paper voucher.
Schools up and down the country are also providing food parcels to those who are self-isolating. In the summer, children from more than 1,800 schools received healthy breakfasts through the breakfast club programme. Our holiday activities and food programme was absolutely remarkable in the 17 local authorities where it was run. We have also announced £63 million for local authorities to provide discretionary financial help to those in need in schools.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left, mentioned that schools sometimes sent home whole bubbles. We have set up a new Department for Education helpline to help schools with bespoke advice when they have cases.
Finally, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke about the outstanding work that schools and school staff have done to bring children back to school. She is absolutely right, and I agree with every word she said about how fabulous school staff up and down the country have been. We will continue to work with other Departments to put in place significant amounts of wider support. As we know, providing a child with the best start in life means that they can grow up in a loving, happy, stable home environment. That is what we are committed to do.
I have exercised my discretion to allow the debate to go a little longer, because the next debate has been withdrawn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.
Local Clean Air Targets
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Hon. Members should please respect the one-way system. Clean your microphones before you leave. Only speak from the horseshoe. You do not have to stay for the full debate, but please listen to the two speeches after you. We have had a few dropouts, but please be mindful that there are eight of you, so if Back Benchers speak for no more than six minutes, that will probably get everybody in. If the sitting ends early, I apologise for my bad maths, but this is a co-operative event.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered local clean air targets.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about air quality. The issue involves a lot of different aspects, as I think we will hear from a number of contributors, but I want to focus my remarks mostly on traffic emissions. I wanted the debate to coincide with the recently launched consultation on Greater Manchester’s plans for a clean air zone. I am pleased that it has generated interest, and I look forward to hearing about developments in places such as Leeds, York, Cardiff, Stoke and, of course, Strangford. Accordingly, I will try to keep my opening remarks relatively short.
As we continue to live through a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus, there is clearly an urgent need to clear up the air we breathe, especially for those who live in the most polluted areas, such as the cities represented here today. I want to focus mainly on what is happening in Greater Manchester and on the local authorities’ planned actions. Also—stop me if you have heard this one before—I want to speak about the additional support needed from the Government to enable Greater Manchester to meet targets that will make a difference to the health of local people. That seems to be this week’s theme.
Before the pandemic, we already knew that air pollution posed a serious threat to the UK’s health and wellbeing. Every year, 11,000 people die from heart and circulatory diseases caused by air pollution. A report by the Royal College of Physicians found that nearly 40,000 early deaths can be attributed to air pollution in the UK every year. Increasingly, we are learning about the many other issues that air pollution can cause or make worse. This is a cradle-to-grave issue, with new research this month from the University of Manchester suggesting that air pollution can have an adverse effect on children’s ability to learn and that cutting air pollution by 20% could improve their working memory by 6%--the equivalent of four extra weeks’ learning time per year. That is to say nothing of the wider effect on growing lungs, brains and other organs. Scientists have also found links between growing up in an area with high pollution and the increased risk of developing a serious mental health issue.
There is substantial evidence to show that higher exposure to dirty air increases rates of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. Last week, more evidence was provided on the link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s. Even if we take covid out of the equation, the combined impact that air pollution is having on our national health service and on people’s life outcomes is extremely worrying. The British Lung Foundation has said that air pollution is the main environmental threat to public health in the UK. Analysis has shown that almost 60% of people in England now live in areas where levels of toxic pollution exceeded legal limits last year. As such, despite the country’s many competing focuses at the moment, this is an issue that has to be prioritised and tackled urgently.
Much like coronavirus, air quality highlights and exacerbates existing inequalities in our society. It disproportionately hits people in some of our most deprived areas—often those living in crowded accommodation in areas near busy roads with high traffic congestion. It is worrying, but not surprising given what we already know, that there is growing evidence showing a link between covid deaths and poor air quality. A recent Harvard study found that an increase in fine particulate matter of just 1 microgram per cubic metre is associated with an 8% rise in covid-19 deaths.
Although there was a time during lockdown when we were breathing air that was cleaner than it had been for many years—if there can be said to be any silver lining to the disaster we are living through, that may be it, as it has given us a view of the world without air pollution—unfortunately that has not lasted. In fact, with the reluctance of people to get back on to public transport, there is a concern that traffic could rise to a higher level than pre-pandemic because of private car use. Major changes to people’s transport usage led to an initial steep drop in air pollution, but the relaxation of restrictions since June has led to increasing vehicle flows, with traffic volumes now less than 15% lower than typical pre-covid levels, and rising. As I say, they are likely to top pre-covid levels.
Having painted a fairly bleak picture of the problem, I want to talk about some of the solutions and some of the action that is happening locally, on the ground, to clean up our air. Following legal challenges by ClientEarth in the High Court, the Government directed 61 local authorities to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible. I thank ClientEarth for bringing that action and for its continuing work in pushing for the most ambitious progress possible on air quality improvement. ClientEarth has acted as a kind of conscience for the public and the Government in this field and has done a lot of excellent work that should be commended.
To focus on the local picture in my area, air pollution contributes to the equivalent of around 1,200 early deaths in Greater Manchester every year. Greater Manchester has historically suffered high emission levels and has a high number of non-compliant vehicles. The Government directed the combined authority in Greater Manchester to introduce a category C clean air zone across the region to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible and by 2024 at the latest. That is of course a welcome move, and we know that clean air zones are the best way to reduce nitrogen dioxide.
Greater Manchester is now consulting on key elements of the clean air plan proposal, which includes daily clean air zone charges for the most harmful vehicles but also takes into account discounts and exemptions and, importantly, proposes a funding package to support local businesses to upgrade to cleaner vehicles. I encourage stakeholders, businesses and individuals to engage with the consultation, which runs until 3 December, and I ask Greater Manchester residents take part, share their views and help to shape the future plans for our area. In parallel, the 10 Greater Manchester authorities are also running a consultation on Greater Manchester licensing standards, asking for views on proposed vehicle standards for hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, which will have a bearing on improving air quality, as it includes low emissions targets.
Greater Manchester’s clean air zone is expected to launch in 2022 and will be a designated area that certain high-polluting vehicles will pay a charge to drive into and within, aiming to clean up air quality by incentivising drivers to upgrade to a cleaner vehicle. All roads in Greater Manchester will be included in the clean air zone, with the exception of those managed by Highways England. ClientEarth has some criticisms of the Greater Manchester plan, including that it does not move quickly enough and particularly that it does not include private cars. Those are fair criticisms, and I hope that Greater Manchester, in looking at the future, will reflect on them and perhaps take them on board. We obviously need to move to a situation where we drive all high-polluting vehicles off the road, but the plans are an important start and cover the most polluting vehicles, such as vans, heavy goods vehicles and older taxis.
My hon. Friend makes some incredibly strong points. He knows I am a strong supporter of air quality measures and of reducing carbon emissions and the types of nitrogen oxide emissions he refers to. However, does he agree that adequate support needs to be given to private hire drivers and taxi drivers, who are often on low incomes, to help them make that transition? Most drivers I speak to want to make the transition as soon as possible, but they need support to do that, because they are often on very low incomes.
My hon. Friend anticipates some of the comments I am about to make, and I am grateful to him for making that point—it is really important, as the current crisis has shown. Many of those drivers are self-employed, and whenever I talk to a taxi driver in Manchester, they tell me that the trade is on its knees and that they really need support to get through this crisis, but also longer-term support for changing their vehicle.
More broadly, it is Greater Manchester’s ambition to secure more walking and cycling, which could be a positive legacy of lockdown—we have seen a lot more people walking and cycling. That could mitigate the bounce back to more reliance on car travel and encourage people to improve air quality for the long term. The combined authorities’ “Transport Strategy 2040” is focused on changing travel behaviour towards greener travel, aiming to reduce car use from 61% of trips in 2017 to no more than 50% of trips in 2040, although those will of course be largely in zero-emission vehicles.
There is an important point here. I gave up my car about two years ago and I now mostly walk, cycle, use a bus or take the Metrolink in Manchester. I can do that because I live in a part of Manchester that has good transport links. We have the Metrolink and we have a very busy bus route 100 yards from my house. When I am in London, I cycle to Parliament along a well-designed and segregated cycle route. If we want to change behaviour, we have to invest in public transport and infrastructure, from cycle lanes to zero-emission vehicle charging. The money is there. ClientEarth has suggested that the £27 billion that is currently allocated to the road investment strategy could be repurposed. That is something that the Government could usefully look at.
As well as investment in infrastructure and transport, the clean air zone proposals also need to be resourced. Greater Manchester’s proposals include Government assistance to help businesses and individuals upgrade to cleaner, compliant vehicles. Greater Manchester has requested funding from the Government totalling around £150 million to cover clean commercial, taxi and bus funds, and a hardship fund. The hardship fund is particularly important, as we have mentioned. It is designed to support those most vulnerable to the financial impacts of the clean air zone. The Government initially awarded £41 million, for which we are grateful, but there is a lot more to do. The leaders are currently in discussions to, I hope, secure the rest of the money. Can the Minister address that issue later?
The clean air plan was developed before the pandemic. The current consultation will take into account the impact of covid and any changes required as a result of the crisis. Local leaders in Greater Manchester are acutely aware of the fact that businesses, such as the taxi and private hire vehicle sector, have been severely impacted by covid. Government policies to stem the spread of the virus mean that they continue to be impacted. The consultation is considering extra support so that those businesses are not doubly penalised.
It is crucial that the final funding package from the Government recognises the changed economic circumstances we are operating in. It may be that more money is required to offset the financial impacts to individuals and businesses that have already been hard hit by covid. We might need more money even than was initially requested. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government take that into account and stand ready to provide in full what is needed for the plan.
There is more I could say in terms of urging the Government to intervene to better support these efforts, but I need to wind up. Local authorities are responsible for the local road network and their own fleets, but responsibility for the strategic road network lies with Highways England, which has not been directed to reduce NO2 in the network in the same timescale or using the same processes. I encourage the Government to look at that anomaly. Greater Manchester has consistently called on the Government to issue a clear instruction to Highways England with regard to air pollution from the strategic road networks that it operates, so that our efforts in the region are not undermined. I encourage the Minister and the Government to act on that.
Greater Manchester is proposing the largest clean air zone outside London, but the funding support guaranteed so far by the Government has not matched the scale or ambition of those plans. Measures that could positively impact on carbon targets, such as an increase in electric vehicle infrastructure and facilitating sustainable journeys, are still considered separate from the clean air plan by Government. There is a strong argument for the various policy frameworks and funding settlements aimed at addressing nitrogen dioxide, PM2.5 and carbon to be better integrated and dealt with as one, rather than as separate disparate pots. I urge the Government to look at combining them and creating a generous clean air fund that all local authorities can use to fund their important air quality improvement work.
My final point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who is speaking for the Opposition, might refer to, is that as well as complementing local clean air plans, we need meaningful, legally binding targets and real accountability when the Environment Bill comes back to the House. Can the Minister give us an indication of when that might be? I urge her to incorporate the World Health Organisation’s air quality standards into the Bill when it comes back to the House.
Absolutely, Chair—in fact, I am due to speak in the main Chamber very shortly, so I will probably have to leave Westminster Hall straight after my speech.
When the books are written about this period in our history, what will they say? Will they say that 2020 was a time when human beings were confronted with a problem—a pandemic—which, with difficulty, we struggled through and that we then went back to normal? Or will they reflect on a lost opportunity to learn the ultimate lesson—that for all our technical advances and complex social structures, we can still be undone by a single sub-microscopic cell? While we try to put out the fires caused by coronavirus with drastic, difficult and restrictive measures, each one causing damage to businesses and families, we must also keep one eye squarely on the kindling of our next crisis, which is burning, for the moment, away from the media’s attention.
Just as the current public health crisis came with warnings from the scientific community—warnings that were too inconvenient to be properly heard, about a problem whose solutions were too expensive to be funded—our next public health crisis will be no surprise to those who are looking. Our next crisis is an environmental crisis, when the price of Government inaction and lacklustre policy will be paid for by our citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Words that were not in the common parlance of 2019 are features of 2020: covid-19, coronavirus and the R rate. Without action now, the following words will, in the not-too-distant future, be repeated in living rooms up and down the country: nitrogen dioxide—or NO2—PM10 and black carbon.
As with coronavirus, we are seeing the impact of our poor air quality right now. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million deaths worldwide each year are due to exposure to air pollution—500,000 of them in Europe. Air pollution is outranked as a risk factor only by high blood pressure, high blood sugar and smoking, and it poses particular risks to the unborn, young children, the elderly and those who are vulnerable because of existing underlying medical conditions—we are all now well aware of those conditions. It is estimated that outdoor air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. Indeed, a report by Public Health England describes poor air quality as
“the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, as long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy.”
Given those stark facts, the problem can no longer be ignored.
Four and a half years ago, eight cities were mandated to solve a problem. One of those cities was Leeds—my city—and it rose to the challenge. It presented the Government with a plan to tackle our air quality issues. Before discussing that, however, let me first give some background information. Leeds, once known as the motorway city of the ’70s, is the largest city in Europe without a mass transit solution. Research by Public Health England shows that PM2.5 concentrations are estimated to cause over 1,000 adult deaths a year in West Yorkshire, with 350 of them occurring in Leeds. That represents 5.5% of the total mortality in the city, and has been calculated to be the equivalent of 3,825 life years being lost.
Constituents of mine see HGVs hurtle along the congested and over-subscribed A660. I have met people from local primary schools in Pool who describe their fear as these lorries pass through their village, due to its position as a thoroughfare connecting North and West Yorkshire. I walk my own children through streets that regularly miss their air quality targets.
Leeds put forward to the Government its plan for a clean air zone costing £40 million. This ambitious policy proposal, which would have taken high-polluting vehicles off our streets, came into being following hard negotiation, including having to challenge the then Secretary of State for the Environment. However, in January 2019, £29 million of funding was given. The charging clean air zone was meant to have been implemented by now, but last week we had the announcement that it would not be coming forward.
There are some stark warnings here. We have seen our air quality improve, due to new vehicles being brought in by First Bus, by HGV operators and by private hire drivers, but what will now become of those vehicles without the charging clean air zone? There is a real risk that those vehicles will go elsewhere.
What of the legal limits themselves? The UK targets ensure that readings of NO2 do not exceed 40 micrograms per cubic metre; the target for PM10 is also 40 micrograms per cubic metre, and the target for PM2 is 25 micrograms per cubic metre. However, the World Health Organisation limit for PM10 is 20 micrograms per cubic metre, and its limit for PM2.5 is 10 micrograms per cubic metre. So the Government’s targets on air quality are set at much higher levels than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. The solution to our air quality problem in Leeds and in the rest of the country is to raise the clean air levels and to have a new clean air Act.
There are no safe levels of air pollution; there are no levels that will see mortality levels decrease. If current events have taught us anything, it is that we must prioritise tackling not only the current public health crisis but every public health crisis. If we are not to see the same things continuing to happen in Leeds, Manchester and other places, we need more stringent legal limits. That is what the Minister needs to take back to her Department today and what she needs to implement. Otherwise, we will see this public health crisis also spiral out of control.
Thank you, Sir Charles. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
This is a timely debate. Stoke-on-Trent is one of the 33 third wave authorities, together with our neighbour Newcastle-under-Lyme. Pollution does not respect authority boundaries. Joint work is necessary to resolve issues that have led to a ministerial direction at Basford Bank. Similarly, there is a direction covering Victoria Road, which crosses the constituency boundary. I share that with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). He is unable to attend this debate, but very much wishes to be associated with my comments.
Stoke-on-Trent is no stranger to respiratory diseases. As a city of pits and pots, it has struggled with terrible lung conditions known, rather glibly, as “miner’s lung” and “potter’s rot”. Dust emission and pollution-related illnesses should increasingly be consigned to the past with the working practices that caused them. Sadly, the city’s overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel motor transport means that this is not so. Just as we have tackled and continue to tackle the causes of industrial illnesses, so we must act to resolve the causes of road traffic pollution.
Let me be clear from the start that we must secure investment from the transforming cities fund. Bus use in Stoke-on-Trent has fallen by one third in 10 years. If we do not get the tens of millions of pounds of investment promised in the Red Book to transform the city’s relationship with non-car transport, it will condemn us to a spiral of further public transport decline.
Paradoxically, despite the high levels of pollution from cars at certain points in the city, car ownership is relatively low. The transforming cities fund is a fundamental necessity when it comes to healing the urban splintering, transport deprivation and inequality of opportunity faced by 30% of people without a car in Stoke-on-Trent. They often live in communities blighted by the most road pollution, which they do little to cause, including pollution from ageing buses, as acknowledged by the ministerial direction on retrofitting buses on the A53.
I welcome the action taken to minimise congestion-related pollution by keeping road traffic moving, not least by investing in the now underway Etruria Valley link road, which I hope will relieve the problem at Basford Bank, and the approved, shovel-ready schemes for a high-capacity Joiners Square roundabout, where the A50 Victoria Road currently has a pinch point with the A52 Leek Road and the A50 Lichfield Street.
However, much more needs to be done to encourage a modal shift from the private car by improving our local rail services, moving to a zero-emission bus fleet that carries regular and reliable services, making walking and cycling routes safe and attractive and by not stopping traffic altogether.
It is not acceptable if measures to improve air quality damage our local economy and risk jobs. That is something that my colleagues and I, as MPs representing Stoke-on-Trent, have made very clear to the Government on several occasions. Measures to improve air quality at Basford or Fenton must also not merely move the problem elsewhere, to Bentilee, Bucknall or Etruria. A holistic approach is needed to improve air quality across north Staffordshire. I will continue to campaign for better bus services and to reopen the Stoke-to-Leek railway line and the lost station at Etruria.
Earlier this year, local MPs secured a deadline extension for our local councils to develop plans on air quality with the Government. The new reality of covid-19 since then is that traffic levels have dropped and suspicion of public transport has sadly grown. It might be that, even at this very late stage, a further extension would help to take stock of and address this new reality. I hope that Ministers will carefully consider that, and that our local councils and Government Departments will continue to devise measures that will result in improvements to the current reality on the ground.
It is a vital duty of all partners to work together to do that. That includes Highways England, whose A500-A50 strategic highway—that monumental splinter of concrete, cutting through the urban potteries, known locally as the D road—is a key contributor to poor local air quality. It would be a perfect location for the kind of smart trunk road mooted by Highways England in its recent consultations on major and strategic roads. A smart D road could utilise gantry technology to smooth out traffic flows and address specific hotspots, improving reliability and reducing standing-time pollution.
Stoke-on-Trent needs a transport revolution that will improve our air quality while also supporting the city’s continued economic growth, particularly given the pressures on the economy caused by covid-19. We need greater public transport capacity, and that needs a step change—a watershed moment to catalyse the shift to public transport that other cities have enjoyed. Delivering the transforming cities fund deal promised in the Red Book would redirect our city’s future away from road pollution and towards sustainable transport and better air quality for us all to enjoy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and an absolute pleasure to follow my friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). A common theme we are starting to see when we stand next to each other to speak is that she is far more eloquent. She has made points that I probably cannot reiterate, but I will attempt to in my own style.
Clean air is indeed important. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act 1965, this country has made great progress in ensuring that our air is cleaner and safer to breathe. There has rightly been an increase in concern about the gas nitrogen oxide, most commonly produced by diesel vehicles on our roads. In response, the Government have set clean air targets for local authorities to comply with. However, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.
The implementation of the Government’s air quality targets by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs joint air quality unit is, in the experience of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, less a matter of co-operation than of Government diktat. The city council has looked at a range of measures to combat air quality issues in the three hotspots of Stoke-on-Trent, but JAQU discounted them early. The reason was that the time it would take to implement them would exceed Government expectations on compliance. So measures such as car scrappage schemes and the installation of more electric charging points have been cast aside in favour of closing two strategic roads in Stoke-on-Trent— Victoria Road and Etruria Road—at peak hours.
The Department for Transport has cast doubt on the closure of a lesser road to create a dedicated public transport highway as part of the city’s transforming cities fund application. The reason it has cast doubt on that plan from the city council and bus operators is that diverted traffic would put pressure on other sections of the network. Yet DEFRA is intent on closing two strategic roads, with no concerns about the implications for other parts of the local road network. The way to ensure that local clean air targets are met is to work with local leaders. The Government must listen to their concerns and let them have the time to implement sensible measures that will stand the test of time, rather than hastily implemented ones to meet an artificial deadline.
In fact, on the two strategic roads, Victoria Road and Etruria Road, natural compliance will be achieved by 2026 thanks to the natural uptake of more efficient vehicles. That means that the Government are intent on spending approximately £13 million of the public’s money to create measures that will be removed three years after their completion. That same money could be spent on local initiatives such as grants for upgrades to electric cars to help the car industry through the pandemic or on buying new, modern-day buses for the city. Those are measures that local leaders want and that they know will work.
Finally, I want to highlight the great flaw in the local clean air targets. The largest polluters on the network are not local authority roads but nationally strategic corridors. In Stoke-on-Trent those are the A50 and the A500. By every measure available, they pollute with more nitrogen oxide than any other road in the city. Yet because those roads are managed and owned by Highways England, they appear to be exempt from meeting any local clean air target. Instead of forcing local authorities to remove the grains of sand on their network, the Government must get Highways England to smash the rock on the strategic network. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) shares similar concerns, because of the impact on the town that neighbours us to the west.
It is vital that we finally see investment in our public transport network. That will come through the Stoke-to-Leek line, which will have a huge implication: finally, we will see not only the Beeching cuts reversed, but those further cuts to public transport in Stoke-on-Trent that came after Beeching and which blight the city. Having a bus network with bus routes that spread far and wide, connecting small villages in my constituency, such as Goldenhill or Baddeley Green, is a vital lifeline for local communities and the local high street.
Lastly, to reiterate, it is really important that the transforming cities fund—money that was promised to us in the last Budget—is delivered to Stoke-on-Trent, because that upgrade to Stoke-on-Trent station and the surrounding strategic roads will have a huge implication for the future of our city, and will ensure we leave behind a cleaner, healthier city once we sadly pass on into another world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Charles. I appreciate being able to speak in this important debate, and I thank the hon. Members who secured it. On many occasions, I have spoken in this House about air quality issues, including how those issues relate to the wider challenges of climate change and the environment. Today, I will talk particularly about some very significant concerns affecting my constituency, relating to the existence already of one incinerator and the plans to build two more burners within miles of the existing plant, which was heavily criticised by local residents and, indeed, myself. It was one of the first campaigns I got involved in locally around the time of my election, eight years ago.
Those plans are deeply concerning. Waste incineration and biomass plants are often dressed up as green plants that are going to provide green energy and green solutions, when they are anything but. They are completely absurd, and sit in complete contradiction to not only our commitments under the Paris climate change targets, but WHO guidance on air quality; the UK’s own guidance on air quality; the Welsh Government’s guidance on these issues; the One Planet strategy that Cardiff Council has recently set out, which I will come to later in my remarks; and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
The context, which has been set out ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and a number of other hon. Members, is the current crisis and the impact of air quality on respiratory conditions. The wider impact of air quality on the health of young people and children is also of deep concern to me. Of course, my concern is about not just the plants themselves, but the trucking to them and the vehicle movement associated with them, and I will go through each of those issues in detail.
I am deeply concerned, not only because of the direct impacts but because these plants are often put forward and agreed to with lots of promises of jam tomorrow—district heating schemes, wonderful green energy and opportunities for local people—and they are often anything but. Certainly, the promises that were made regarding the Viridor incinerator in Splott in my constituency have not been fulfilled, and I am now deeply sceptical of any promises made by any of these companies about what they will do, because they seem to be simply greenwash.
I mentioned the Viridor plant that exists at the moment. I completely opposed it, alongside the Cardiff Against the Incinerator group. It burns 350,000 tonnes of waste a year, but as I understand it there have unfortunately been serious issues regarding the efficiency of the heating and burning process, which mean that the plant does not generate the levels of heat necessary to provide the so-called energy from waste that Viridor trumpeted at the very start. There are also issues with infrastructure access to the national grid, so it is not actually able—I have visited the plant myself—to provide energy to the national grid at the levels that it could do, let alone to any district heating schemes, because the appropriate infrastructure is not in place.
We currently have two other proposals under way. One is for an incinerator right on the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who will be speaking from the Front Bench today. That burner would see 200,000 tonnes of commercial waste burned a year, 24 hours a day, with 40-plus lorry movements a day in an area that is already highly congested—a residential area where there are difficulties with road access. Some 116 other vehicle movements are proposed—I think that is probably an underestimate—in an area where we have the fantastic, brand-new Eastern High School, which has been invested in, and in other residential areas with other primary schools. These vehicle movements, let alone the incinerator itself, will be right next to where our children are receiving their education. That is completely unacceptable, and the fact that the incinerator is being placed right next to a wind turbine is absurd.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out Wales’s admirable record on recycling, which I was going to mention. Because we are recycling so much, the reality is that these plants often truck in waste from elsewhere and, indeed, from across the border in England. I have asked DEFRA Ministers questions about this before because there does not appear to be a UK-wide strategy for the movement of waste around the UK in a way that is both carbon-efficient and responsive to the air quality concerns in many communities.
It would be absurd if we simply became the dumping ground for waste from elsewhere across the UK, with all this stuff being shipped around and the associated air quality and emissions issues. It is also absurd that UK Trade and Investment and the Department for International Trade have been advertising internationally for investment in this incinerator plant, which is in my constituency and next to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West. It is being advertised as supposedly one of the premium projects for investment in Wales. What an absolute contradiction of other things that the Government seem to be saying. There is also the absurdity of proposing to put it right next to a wind turbine, which is exactly the sort of renewable energy we should all support.
I am also opposing the most recent application. Again, notice the name: Parc Calon Gwyrdd, which translates as “green heart park”. It is absolute nonsense, though I will not use any worse words, you will be glad to hear, Sir Charles. It is on Rover Way, behind Splott, a community already blighted by the Viridor incinerator. The proposal is to burn 75,000 tonnes of virgin timber that would be shipped from Latvia, and not even shipped to Cardiff docks, but to Liverpool or Felixstowe for trucking across the country. That could not be more absurd or more contradictory of our ambitions on climate change and air quality. Friends of the Earth has rightly pointed out that burning timber in this way is worse than coal in terms of emissions and particulates. I contrast that with the approach taken by Cardiff Council, which has just announced its One Planet Cardiff strategy with a focus on replacing single-use, fossil fuel-driven journeys with low-carbon modes and low-emission travel, supporting the transition to ultra-low-emission taxis and buses, a 100% shift to zero-emissions vehicles by 2030, and putting in the infrastructure to support that active travel. It is a big contrast.
I conclude with a quote from one of the local activists whose efforts I completely support. Catherine McArthur said:
“What future is there if your postcode automatically puts you at risk by the air you breathe?”
It is absurd to lock in last century’s technologies under this greenwash. My constituency is fed up with being a dumping ground for other people’s waste and with these activities going on right next to residential areas, schools and other communities. I will continue to wholeheartedly oppose this. I would like to hear from the Minister what strategic view is being taken of these issues across the UK and how we should be working with the Welsh Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to be able to participate in the debate.
One of my priorities when I was elected to represent my home city of Leicester was to fight for clean energy and climate justice so that people living in Leicester and across the planet can have a liveable future. That is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic because a Government report in July found that air pollution is likely to increase the number and severity of covid-19 infections. Children are particularly at risk, with those who grow up in highly polluted areas four times more likely to have reduced lung function.
In 2018, the WHO named Leicester as one of the 40 most polluted places in the UK. While we still have further to go, Leicester City Council is taking considerable steps to improve the quality of our air. The latest pre-coronavirus annual figures show that Leicester is meeting all current air quality objectives, except for nitrogen dioxide. Average nitrogen dioxide levels have reduced by over 35% since 2010, when the highest levels, at more than double the WHO air pollution limits, were recorded.
Air quality in Leicester has improved during our extended coronavirus lockdown, one of the few silver linings of what has been an incredibly difficult position for our city. We have been in lockdown, or extended measures, since July; the city with the largest amount of extended measures to date. The drastic fall in car traffic has seen levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide decrease by more than half. In that sense, I cannot wait for us to end the use of diesel vehicles that pollute our cities and our environment to an excessive degree.
However, lockdown is a unique set of circumstances. It is crucial that we keep pollution levels down when people start to return to normal life. The Government must ensure that the decreased levels of air pollution during the pandemic become the norm and that they fall even further.
Many of my constituents have contacted me regarding the need for a stronger Environment Bill for clean air in Leicester. The Government could fulfil that by enshrining the WHO’s guidelines for damaging particles, known as PM2.5, into law via the Environment Bill. Currently, the Bill falls short and merely commits us to setting a new PM2.5 target by 2022. That is not sufficient. The Government have not specified what that target will be. Our legal limit for PM2.5 is twice as high as the WHO recommends. I urge the Government, working with all of us collectively, to adopt a clear legal commitment to reduce these particles, which contributed to more than 4 million deaths in 2016.
The coronavirus crisis has further demonstrated the need for our communities to have access not only to clean air, but to green spaces and interconnectivity. That is why I believe the Government must introduce full-fibre broadband that is free at the point of use, a mass housing insulation programme, and a green integrated public transport system.
It is vital that those responsible for climate chaos—the fossil fuel companies and big polluters—are held responsible for their actions. It is a disgrace that children whose lungs are still growing are disadvantaged by the significant levels of pollution in our cities. We must bail out workers and the planet, not industries that are responsible for air pollution. Large corporations must not be allowed to profit from climate breakdown; instead, they must pay their fair share, as we collectively move our economy towards renewables so that future generations inherit a habitable planet.
Before we get there, it is our responsibility to ensure that the lungs of our children have a future, so that we are not just saving livelihoods, but saving the future lives of children and young people.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles.
I have spoken many times in this place about the poor air quality we experience in York. That is due not only to the transport system we have, but to the topography of York itself. These serious air quality issues still need to be addressed, most notably the nitrogen dioxide levels, which in places exceed the WHO targets. That is why it is so important that our air quality management area is closely monitored.
We know the causation, but we also know the cost. In my city, 150 lives are lost prematurely each year due to poor air quality. As the research and the science advance, we know more about the respiratory and circulatory problems that poor air quality causes. That could increase as we know more of the science. We know there is a link between covid-19 and lung disease, and, of course, between air quality and lung disease. More research is being undertaken in that area, but the related morbidity needs to be recognised.
York was not built for traffic. As a medieval city, it is more attuned to walking and, today, to cycling. The first e-cycle and e-scooter hire schemes will be seen in our city this month. That will be a real game-changer for the city, and will enable people to reconsider the way they travel through York, whether they be businesses, residents or visitors.
I ask the Minister to consider the conversation about modal shift. It is one thing to talk about it and to have it in policy and in papers, but until we have that one-to-one conversation to explore with residents what is possible in their lifestyles, we will not see the modal shift to which we aspire. I would like to hear from the Minister what more can be done to achieve that.
The radial road map of York pulls traffic into our city centre. While much has been done to militate against rat runs through residential areas, the proposals to widen ring roads are simply not the answer, nor the way forward. The only outcome is induced capacity and challenges in the future. Every day, commuters are blighted by congestion as the creaking infrastructure suffocates under the volume of traffic, costing York’s economy £30 million every year. Imagine if that money was reinvested in bringing about modal shift. It would be transformative.
While Labour has rightly supported the electrification of buses, the City of York Council leadership lacks the impetus needed to bring about the significant change we want. We hear rumours of local transport plans, but there was nothing advanced until Labour laid down at the start of the year the need to have a clean air zone—the first voluntary clean air zone in the country—and to ensure that we are a car-free city centre. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to see that starting to take place. There are problems because the authority forgot to consult disabled people when putting the scheme in place, and they have been restricted, but it has made a real difference to air quality in the city.
The challenge, therefore, is not to do with knowing the causation. The solutions are evident. The key is to ensure that there is the right accountability is in the system, that there is enforcement and that sufficient resources to deliver meaningful outcomes are secured. Local authorities cannot be handed the risks and responsibility if they are not also handed the resources. Ultimately, the Government must be held to account if they fail to enable authorities to deliver change. I fear that the Environment Bill does not have the powers to make the significant difference we need. I echo hon. Members in calling for that Bill to return to the House, and for it to be robust and rigorous in addressing climate change.
I could name many pinch points in York. I fear for residents living in those areas and workers working in them, but also for children at school in those areas where there are high levels of pollution. I call for air quality monitoring outside every school to ensure that we are on top of the data and the impact it is having on developing lungs.
Perhaps the biggest irony we face in York, however, is that the Green/Lib-Dem-run city council is proposing the development of six new city centre car parks, drawing in even more traffic. I am glad that the council has paused one of the schemes due to the pandemic, but I urge it seriously to think again, because that would be deeply harmful and would increase air pollution in our city centre.
We need, instead, a strategy around public transport and active travel in the city. Ad hoc decisions and single interventions are not the solution; they just move the problem from one part of the city to another. We need a comprehensive strategy, and that is where the role of Government is important in ensuring that local government plans are robust and effective.
I make five requests today. First, we need to improve air quality monitoring across the city and outside schools. Secondly, we need year-on-year targets to reduce poor air quality and for local authorities to be held to account should they fail to adhere to those targets, as we hold the Government to account here. Thirdly, the Environment Agency may advocate change, but I seriously ask whether it has the powers to make a difference. Strong enforcement is essential. Fourthly, expertise should be brought into local authorities to enable them to put the right plans in place. We know that many local authorities have been hollowed out, not least at the moment, with their finances under pressure. We must ensure that they have the skillset necessary to bring about change. Fifthly, funding will not happen without proper investment in good transport infrastructure to make that difference, ensuring, as I keep repeating, that we can have modal shift. It is the investment in achieving modal shift that will make the difference.
We have an incredible opportunity to drive down air pollution and change the way we move about the places in which we live our lives. York has the potential to be transformative in addressing this issue and becoming a carbon-neutral—or even a carbon-negative—city. That is what we want to see, because it saves lives, it is good for the economy and it enhances our environment. We know what has to be done. The missing ingredient is leadership, and I ask the Minister whether she will provide that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to contribute to this debate initiated by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). He clearly set the scene and the subsequent speeches, which covered different angles, were excellent. We in Northern Ireland are committed to clean air targets, and I hope that in the short time available to me I will confirm that.
I sincerely believe that we must take all steps possible to be good stewards of this beautiful land that God has granted us, of which clean air is an essential component. I am blessed and privileged to live in the countryside. During my recent period of self-isolation, I appreciated being able to go out into my back garden and the fields to enjoy the crisp, clean air. There is no question but that I notice a difference in the air when I am here in London compared with that in my home on the Ards peninsula and my most beautiful constituency of Strangford. Even in Northern Ireland, we are finding that there is work to be done not simply to keep the quality we have, but to return to the quality that we had when I was a boy—and that was not yesterday.
I live in the countryside. Buses are few and infrequent, so a car is essential in getting to the shops, to work and to school. We must always recognise when we debate clean air targets the balance that must be struck for rural communities. The Minister lives in a rural area and will understand what I am saying, as will the shadow Minister.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland recently announced the findings from its consultation on air pollution. Its report provides details on air quality, gives a summary of results and long-term trends, and sets out information on the progress being made by councils in managing local air quality. It highlights the redesign this year of the Northern Ireland Air website and the development of the Northern Ireland air quality app. What DAERA is doing works only because the councils are also committed to it. The partnership between the Assembly and the Minister’s departmental portfolio and councils is important.
Among the key findings of the report on Northern Ireland’s collected data from 19 automatic monitoring stations in 2018 was that objectives for the key air quality pollutants were met in full, but that the objectives for nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant closely associated with road traffic—were not met at three sites close to busy roads. It was further highlighted that levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were lower at three sites than the previous year, after a recorded exceedance of the EU target in 2016. Against a stricter UK air quality strategy objective for PAHs, all three sites exceeded the objective.
One of the spin-offs from the coronavirus pandemic has been less car use and less air pollution. It has been one of the positives to take out of all the negative things, and it reminds us to use our vehicles only where necessary. As hon. Members have mentioned, we should also look at the use of electric vehicles, electric bikes and even electric trains. I read in the paper the other day that there is also the potential for electric planes. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has a company in his constituency that is working on that.
I commend the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) for what she said about broadband. I have a large number of small and medium businesses in my constituency—probably one of the largest numbers in the whole of Northern Ireland, although that is based on pre-covid figures. If we were to have good broadband in place, we could keep people at home and reduce covid levels even more.
Along with DAERA, district councils have a duty to carry out air quality monitoring. Where air quality falls below acceptable levels, they are required to declare air quality management areas. In 2017, there were 19 AQMAs in Northern Ireland. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council redefined its AQMA to encompass the whole borough. It took important steps to improve air quality at that time, which was certainly good news. The Department works closely with district councils—again, it is important that it does so, because it can provide dividends—and with other Government Departments to ensure that progress is made towards meeting all air quality targets and objectives.
However, it is clear that we must redefine UK-wide targets as a whole and press for local, updated targets. Yes, we might meet objectives for an EU member state—our status will change come 31 December—but it is clear that we need local targets to keep areas with a good quality of air, which is vital.
In conclusion, I believe that the Government must work closely with the devolved regions to update a UK target and to keep us as the beautiful green nation that we have been and that we must aspire to be in the future. Can the Minister confirm what discussions she has had with the regional Administrations, particularly with the Northern Ireland Assembly but also with Scotland—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) will follow me on that—and Wales, to ensure that the regional Administrations can collectively make those targets with Westminster? It is always better if we do it together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to you for fitting me back into the call list and for allowing me to go and tend to my migraine. I promise I will not take any longer than two minutes— I do not think my head would allow it anyway. It is important for me to speak in the debate, because poor air quality is a silent public health crisis that is harming the lives of my constituents. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing the debate.
Public Health England figures show that over 6% of adult deaths in Nottingham are attributable to manmade air pollution. That is more deaths than from alcohol and road traffic accidents combined. More than 400 people in my city die prematurely every year because of the quality of the air that they breathe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned, the figure rises to 40,000 across the country. This year, the number could have been even higher, because there is growing evidence that exposure to polluted air increases someone’s risk of dying from covid-19. That risk is not borne equitably; we know that it is the poorest people, and disproportionally people of colour, who are suffering the most.
It is no surprise that cities and towns across the country are taking matters into their own hands. I am extremely proud that Nottingham City Council has done that, leading the way in tackling the problem with policies such as a ban on motorists leaving their engines running in stationary vehicles, investing in a large fleet of electric and biogas buses, and retrofitting older diesel buses.
My plea to the Minister today is that local action is not enough. We in Nottingham, and cities and towns across the country, need national action too. If we can afford to spend £28.8 billion on roads, as the Government have pledged, we can invest in green and affordable transport too. We can decarbonise and give the support that our private-hire and taxi drivers need to join the fight in decarbonising our country and our planet. The right to breathe clean air should not be a radical demand.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I am sure that everyone in the Chamber is delighted that I have pledged to speak for only five minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing the debate. He set the scene excellently, highlighting that air pollution is killing 40,000 people a year, that it affects child development and learning, its possible impact on mental health and Alzheimer’s disease, and that it exacerbates existing inequalities and increases the likelihood of covid impacts. Many other hon. Members highlighted that as well.
It is a mystery to me, when we look at the 40,000 premature deaths per year and at the strong, serious action we are rightly taking to combat covid-19, why there has been so much reticence to do more about air quality over the years. It really is a mystery. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said correctly in that it is shameful that ClientEarth has been the conscience that has held the Government to account, winning three times in court. We need to see much better leadership on the subject.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million people are killed worldwide every year. This is a global problem. Although people are rightly concentrating on their constituencies today, this is a worldwide issue. It is estimated that lower life expectancy of some three years across the world is attributable to air pollution, so again, it is a global problem. We need to work with other countries to fight it. Hon. Members have talked about not relocating issues locally by cleaning up one part of a city and moving the problem elsewhere. That is important, but equally, we need to make sure we do not do that on a worldwide scale. That is something else to take into account.
Many hon. Members spoke about low emission zones, which are required to protect public health and improve the air quality in city centres. Many spoke about funding and Government support, and those are certainly needed. In Scotland, the Scottish Government run the low emission zone mobility fund, which offers cash incentives and travel better vouchers to help remove non-compliant vehicles and provide alternative transport options for people. That is something the UK Government could consider as a wider issue. In Scotland, low emission zones will be introduced in our main cities—Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee—in 2022.
Unlike other hon. Members who have spoken today, I admit that I am lucky in that, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) I am quite lucky, I stay in a rural area with fantastic air quality. I am lucky that I can go for walks in the hills and enjoy the beautiful countryside, but I recognise that poor air quality is a big problem in cities that needs to be addressed.
There are things the UK Government need to look at on a strategic level if we are to tackle this issue. Aberdeen has introduced the world’s first hydrogen-powered double-decker buses. In other words, a whole clean fleet of buses has come into operation in Aberdeen. That could be rolled out across other cities. The UK Government are supposed to be commissioning a fleet of electric buses, so I want to see where that bus fund is. It also supports manufacturing in the UK at Wrightbus and Alexander Dennis Ltd. The Scottish Government have procured 35 electric buses from Alexander Dennis Ltd through £7.4 million of funding, so I ask the UK Government to look at that. We also need to look at the refrigeration of HGVs. The refrigeration units themselves pollute more than the actual lorries that move the goods about, which the Government need to tackle.
On a kind of national infrastructure-type basis, the Government also need to look at the energy efficiency of homes. We badly need a heat decarbonisation plan from the Government, because this contributes to air pollution as well. On that strategic overview, I will leave it at that.
Thank you, Sir Charles. It is lovely to be back in Westminster Hall this afternoon and to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to be able to speak for Her Majesty’s Opposition in this important debate. It is good to see the Minister in her place. I am sure that we will see a lot more of each other in the coming weeks.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing the debate and for raising the issue of clean air on behalf of his constituents in south Manchester, the Greater Manchester region and all the people we in the House represent. I know that many other Labour Members would have liked to have been able to contribute to the debate but were in the main Chamber for the Black History Month debate.
This is a timely debate, coming in the wake of Clean Air Day on 8 October. It gives us the opportunity to highlight the importance of clean air, but more importantly to repeat the demand for sustainable, long-term and comprehensive action. Colleagues across the House will know that there are many responsibilities on the Government and on us as parliamentarians, and one of the most important, if not the most important, is our responsibility to protect our environment and preserve our world. A key element of preserving our environment is clean air. It is vital that we remember that our ecosystems are damaged by toxic air and air pollution, as are our waterways and the natural habitats of our wildlife. Of course, there is also the impact on human life, which has been ably mentioned already.
Toxic air contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths a year in Greater Manchester alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) highlighted the premature deaths in her constituency, too. During oral questions last month, I raised the fact that almost 60% of people in England now live in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits last year. We cannot go on as we are.
The covid-19 pandemic has devastated families, communities and, of course, our economy. The lockdown that started in March 2020 led to an improvement in air quality across the Manchester city region, like it did in other parts of the country, as a result of the reduction in road traffic and the significant increase in active travel journeys. That showed that better air quality is achievable, and that vehicle emissions are key to reducing nitrogen dioxide exposure. However, the relaxation of travel restrictions since June has led to increasing vehicle flows.
Following a number of legal challenges by ClientEarth in the High Court, the Government have to date directed 61 local authorities to bring nitrogen dioxide levels on local roads within legal limits as soon as possible. Ministers have delegated the responsibility to address nitrogen dioxide compliance to local authorities and have set out the process and timescale for doing so, with local authorities now responsible for local road networks and their own fleets. However, responsibility for the strategic road network lies with Highways England, which has not been directed to reduce nitrogen dioxide on strategic road networks under the same timescale or process. That is mixed messaging, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) highlighted, and needs sorting, so I hope the Minister will issue a clear instruction to Highways England with regard to air pollution caused by the strategic road network.
We want action, but we want the right action in the right way, weighing up all the factors. That means taking steps to discourage drivers and to charge where necessary on the one hand, and financial support for local authorities and businesses on the other, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) highlighted. That is vital, because Greater Manchester, for example, is proposing the largest clean air zone outside London, but that ambition is not being met by Tory Ministers in Whitehall. Indeed, the funding provided by Government to date has not matched the scale or ambition of these plans. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope she will commit the necessary funding to achieve that.
Active travel has an important role to play in developing solutions to this crisis. During the lockdown, walking and cycling played an increasingly important role in essential journeys and exercise, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West. The hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) highlighted the need to reverse the Beeching cuts, in order to increase train travel in a bid to decrease car use. I know it is a priority for my colleague Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been standing up for his region so well, to secure more walking and cycling as a positive legacy of lockdown and to mitigate against the bounce back to greater reliance on car travel.
The Environment Bill, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington and which I prefer to call the “missing in action Bill”, should be used to tackle toxic air in England. Disappointingly for many in the sector and out in the country, nothing in the Bill will stop the UK falling behind the EU when it comes to the green agenda and our environment. Indeed, the Government’s air quality plans have been ruled unlawful multiple times. Green Alliance does brilliant work on these issues and I pay tribute to Ruth Chambers of Greener UK and all her colleagues for everything they do. In a recent blog, she noted that
“existing air pollution targets expire in 2030, so it is vital to seize the opportunity now to set new limits, exposure reduction targets and emissions targets for all harmful pollutants.”
In the Chamber last week, the Minister announced that there is now an end date for the Committee stage, which is great. It is good to know the end date, but we need to know the start date, and we need to know it now. The Bill has been missing in action for over 200 days and it is simply not good enough to be told it will return soon. Can the Minister give us a date, once and for all?
We all know that air pollution is a public health crisis. This summer the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership surveyed about 14,000 people with a lung condition and found that the vast majority noticed an improvement in their symptoms, likely due to better air quality during lockdown.
Welsh Ministers in the Welsh Government recognise that we must learn from changes in behaviour and design those changes into tackling toxic air pollution levels going forward. Their plan has a big focus on tackling air pollutants from many sources, including reducing emissions from industry, agriculture and the heating of our homes. I want UK Ministers to reach out and engage with ministerial colleagues in the devolved Administrations, because we need a coherent focus across all four nations if we are going to clean our air in the way we need to. It is good to see the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) here to demonstrate that clean or dirty air knows no boundaries. It goes across the whole UK.
Before I was elected to Parliament, I spent more than 30 years working in the NHS as a physiotherapist, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). Every day I saw the damage that toxic air can cause to the lungs, health and mobility of people of all ages and from all communities, including those whose lungs are damaged while still in the womb and those suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other serious lung conditions. The task of making air cleaner starts with each of us.
It is important that we are all aware of the air pollution levels in the communities we live in, so we know the local challenges facing us all. That is why the Greater Manchester city region, under the leadership of Andy Burnham and my noble Friend Lady Hughes, is right to be ambitious for the area in the fight to tackle toxic air. I hope the debate, the comments we have heard and the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington shows Ministers that we need more than warm words: we need action too.
Minister, if you require nearly 15 minutes, you can sit down at 3.58 pm and allow the proposer of the debate two minutes at the end. You do not have to speak for 15 minutes if you do not want to, but I thought I would say that to be generous.
Sir Charles, you are making it sound as if you do not want to listen to me for 15 minutes. Now I think I will make sure that I do go on for 15 minutes.
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the chair, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing the debate and for the moderate way in which he led it. It is a subject on which we all agree and which is very serious. He recognised that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, as many hon. Members from both sides said.
Air pollution has reduced significantly over the decades, but there is much more to do, as has been highlighted today. That is why the Government have a clear ambition and policy agenda to clean up our air. I will be touching on lots of parts of that today. A key part is funding for the nitrogen dioxide plan. We have put in place a £3.8 billion plan to help to improve air quality and clean up transport. A number of hon. Members have suggested that those issues are somehow separate, but we have two huge funds. I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) and our joint air quality unit, so that they are increasingly joined up.
As part of this, we are tackling the nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads—the only statutory air quality limit that the UK is currently failing to meet. We have actually made great strides in tackling nitrogen dioxide since 2010, and levels have fallen by 33%. We are working really hard with local authorities to help them to tackle the hot spots and to reach compliance with the nitrogen dioxide limits in the shortest possible time.
We have contributed £880 million to support local authorities in developing and implementing measures to improve air quality, as well as supporting many individuals and businesses. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned grassroots, that the initiative has to come locally and local authorities have to be helped, but there is a great deal of Government funding and the initiative really is for solutions to come from the bottom up.
The Government have already given over £394 million of that funding to support a wide range of initiatives including bus retrofits, taxi upgrades and traffic management measures. In addition, the Government are investing £2.5 billion through the transforming cities fund to support several cities—including Manchester—to improve their transport systems. This fund was a particular focus for my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who is a very strong voice for her area, highlighting the potential benefits it could offer to a place like Stoke-on-Trent, as it has done for Manchester, so I urge her to keep fighting for that fund and doing the good work she is doing.
The Prime Minister also recently announced a £5 billion investment to deliver cleaner buses and improved services, as well as to boost cycling and walking, to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles. A further £1 billion was introduced in the March Budget to extend the plug-in vehicle grants to 2023 and support the roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure. I think hon. Members will agree that this is a significant amount of funding.
I have just transferred to a long-term electric car rental, a very interesting piece of research I am carrying out myself. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has ditched his car altogether. Electric vehicles will really help us shift to cleaner air and meet our carbon targets in the medium term.
We need action now, however, and in recent weeks we have had announcements about the first charging clean air zones to be implemented in my old home, Bath and North East Somerset, and Birmingham. Several other local authorities, including Greater Manchester, are expected to follow with similar schemes in 2021 and 2022.
Does the hon. Member mind if I press on? I want to make it clear that the Government are acutely aware of the economic impact that charging zones can have on local businesses and residents, and the fact that those impacts are further heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. It was touched on that the pandemic may have highlighted how air quality affects health and a lot of work is under way and ongoing with the Department of Health and the expert group that has been looking into the effects of the air quality and coronavirus on people’s health. There is no clear evidence of an exact link yet, but the work is continuing so we can have a clear picture.
There is always a preference for non-charging measures where they can be identified, and measures that can be effected before charging is put in place. In Leeds, where a charging clean air zone was to be introduced next year, data demonstrates that it is no longer needed, partly because allocated funds have been used to upgrade bus and taxi fleets relatively quickly, and that has had an enormous impact on the city’s clean air zone. It will still receive funding to make sure that it keeps to its commitments in the future and is still tackling air quality.
In Greater Manchester—on which we have been focusing today—the clean air zone, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned, is scheduled to be implemented in 2022. The 10 local authorities involved have been working on this enormous project—it is a huge area—to take the action that they need. Their local modelling found that nitrogen dioxide concentrations were higher and more widespread across the region than was predicted by our modelling. We have been working very closely with them and I really welcome the launch of the consultation on 8 October, which runs until 3 December. I also welcome that the hon. Member has encouraged people to take part in that consultation because we want everyone to get involved. We want it to be effective—as does he. The zone will cover the whole of the Greater Manchester region, charging non-compliant heavy goods vehicles, vans, buses, taxis and private hire vehicles from early 2022, with an exemption for vans until 2023. As the hon. Member pointed out, private cars will not be charged for entering the zone.
To touch on funding, we have already provided £77 million to Greater Manchester to implement the clean air zone, and a total of £36 million of this funding has been provided towards the implementation of the zone, while £41 million from our clean air fund has been provided to support the retrofitting of buses and to help the owners of heavy goods vehicles, coaches, minivans and private hire vehicles.
I understand that the Greater Manchester authorities are developing their funding schemes with a view to launching this as soon as possible once plans have finalised. Given the lessons we have learned from Leeds, I urge that the money is put into operation as soon as possible, as that does seem to have more of an effect.
Many hon. Members mentioned the encouragement of active travel—of cycling and walking—and how we really noticed, during the lockdown period, more and more people taking that up. In fact, I think that for four months I only ever used my bike and did not get into my car; it was an absolute joy to do my shopping and everything else in that way. I have already touched on the £2 billion package for that, and we do need to build on that paradigm shift we need in behaviour to get people out of cars and into walking and cycling, but we can only do that with the funds the Government have provided.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) mentioned the transforming cities fund and how useful it could be to an area such as Stoke-on-Trent; he was very passionate about his area, as he always is. I met with colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent yesterday—we have met a number of times before and will continue to work very closely, as we are doing with all colleagues with a clean air zone—to ensure that we get the plan and project that will suit their particular area, because every area is different.
Several hon. Members—including the shadow Minister: I am very pleased to see her in her place—mentioned the issue of Highways England controlling the strategic routes. I met Highways England recently—along with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport—to raise this issue of whether it could get more involved in those roads, because so many of them cut right through, for example, areas in Manchester and other cities. There is ongoing work with Highways England on that issue.
Before I finish, I must touch on the Environment Bill—which I think was referred to as the “missing in action Bill”; it will soon be an “in action Bill”. There are not many more days to wait; we have the out-date and the in-date will become clear very soon. Aside from all of the work we are doing on the clean air strategy to help air quality, we have our landmark Environment Bill, which will introduce a duty on the Government to set a legally binding target on fine particulate matter. That demonstrates our commitment to tackling air pollution as that is the most damaging pollutant to human health. The Bill includes a duty to set a long-term target for air quality, showing our absolute commitment. As well as setting new concentration target for PM2.5, which will act as a minimum standard across the country, we propose to break new ground and develop an additional target aimed at reducing average population exposure to PM2.5 across England. The target will drive continuous improvement across all areas of the country, and I think it will be a big step forward.
I hear calls to put the World Health Organisation guidelines straight into law, as suggested by the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). The point is—she has heard me say this before—that the WHO itself acknowledged that guidelines should inform the setting of the air quality standards; they are not targets ready for adoption. Additionally, evidence suggests that there is no PM2.5 level under which no health impacts could happen. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) also mentioned that. It is too simplistic to say that simply adopting those guidelines is the solution. That is why we are setting this system of getting expert advice through, once the Environment Bill has set the target, so that we can work towards achieving what we must on that.
In the Environment Bill, we are setting legal requirements for positive change for local authorities, so that they have more effective powers and a clearer framework for tackling air pollution in their areas. In short, those are responsibilities across local government structures shared with relevant public authorities, and there is a call for evidence out on that, to work out which bodies are relevant. To support these changes, we will also introduce a requirement to revise and publish a national air quality strategy and review it every five years.
I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in which he mentioned incinerators, as he often has before. Most of the incinerators he referred to are in Wales. This is a devolved issue in Wales and Northern Ireland. All energy-generating waste plants in England already comply with strict emission limits under the environmental permitting regulations. The UK puts itself at the forefront of reducing industrial pollution with an appropriate framework for regulation. Industry is being very innovative in this space and we are moving in that direction.
To return to the Environment Bill, it contains a measure to recall non-compliant vehicles and road mobile machinery, and to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2023.
I cannot end without mentioning the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As ever, he made an eloquent contribution. Air pollution policy is devolved in Northern Ireland, but it is always really useful to learn lessons from other places, as it was from Scotland, particularly the hydrogen model, which we are looking at. Our transformation of the energy system is neutral, but it is interesting to hear what is happening on the hydrogen buses.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington for his clear speech today, and for standing up for this important issue.
It has been a while since I spoke in a debate with you in the Chair, Sir Charles, and it slipped my mind that since the last time you have been awarded a knighthood, so belated congratulations, and apologies for misaddressing you at the start.
We have had a rhetorical tour of the UK in the past hour and a half. I am pleased that hon. Members have been able to speak up for their area. There have been two or three themes. First, we need to act quickly, because the more we learn about the effects of air pollution, the more worrying it becomes. Secondly, we need better targets. I welcome the new targets the Minister has just referred to, but we really need to do more and I hope that the forthcoming Environment Bill will put some of those targets in legislation.
Finally, we have heard many times about the need for Government support. The Minister referred to the £77 million that Manchester has been given; we need £150 million. It is expensive, but there are big economic and health costs to not acting. I urge the Government to act.
Historical Discrimination in Boxing
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical discrimination in boxing.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I would like to take the Chamber through the story of a boxer from Merthyr Tydfil. For some people in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Cuthbert Taylor is a local sporting legend. An amateur and then a professional boxer, he had over 500 bouts in a career lasting almost 20 years between 1928 and 1947, many in his native Merthyr Tydfil and across south Wales but also across the UK and Europe. He was knocked out only once in his entire career. During my research, I discovered that during his career he had bouts in the 1930s with two of my great uncles, Jack and Terrence Morgan of Trefil near Tredegar, who were from a family of boxers.
Cuthbert Taylor was once described as “the best in Europe”. In 1927, he won the flyweight championship title. He defended the title in 1928, when he also became British amateur flyweight champion. The same year, he represented Great Britain at the Amsterdam summer Olympics, reaching the quarter-final stage in the flyweight category. He was the first black boxer to represent Britain at the Olympics. Although well known by some in his home town of Merthyr Tydfil and despite a very successful and exciting career, Cuthbert Taylor never got the same recognition on a national or international scale as other boxers. That was because of one simple thing: the colour of his skin.
Cuthbert Taylor was born in 1909 in Georgetown, Merthyr Tydfil, to parents of different ethnic backgrounds: his father, also named Cuthbert and formerly a notable amateur boxer in Liverpool, was of Caribbean descent, and his mother, Margaret, was white Welsh. Cuthbert Taylor was judged at the time to be
“not white enough to be British”
by the British Boxing Board of Control, and he was prevented from ever challenging for a British title or a world title professionally by the body’s colour bar rule, which was in place between 1911 and 1948 and which stated that fighters had to have two white parents in order to compete for professional titles. Due simply to the fact that his parents were of different ethnic backgrounds, Cuthbert Taylor would never have the recognition and success at professional level that his remarkable talent deserved. That was all because of a rule that left a stain on the history of one of our country’s most popular and traditional sports, one that has otherwise been known for bringing people from many different backgrounds and communities together.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter. I was just talking to him outside the Chamber and I was saying that that is one of the great things about sport, and Northern Ireland is an example of it, especially in boxing. We have people of different religions, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and nationalist and Unionist, coming together and uniting in the sport. Sport should be a uniting factor. It should enable people to see one another as they are and not as some would perhaps like them to be.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree entirely: sport is a unifier. It is a real shame, and it brings shame on the sport, that such a rule existed at that point in time. It is now more important than ever to right that historical wrong and ensure that Cuthbert Taylor and so many other black British athletes across a range of sports are not forgotten or cheated out of deserved recognition by a cruel past injustice.
The colour bar rule serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a very different time. Although we cannot go back and give Cuthbert Taylor the professional titles and success that his career deserved, we can ensure that he has true and just recognition for his talent and abilities and that his name is not forgotten from boxing history merely because of the colour of his skin. It is a sad fact, but there is no doubt that had Cuthbert Taylor had two white parents instead of one, he would have gone on to challenge for British and world boxing titles—and he may very well have had success in those, too. His is by no means an isolated case in British boxing, let alone in other sports. Many black or mixed race British fighters in that period were held back by the same racism of the colour bar rule.
My hon. Friend has raised a really important issue. Roy Francis, from Brynmawr, was the first black professional rugby league coach, and he was a code breaker. In 1946, when the Great Britain rugby league squad travelled to Australia, the in-form Francis was not selected for the tour, simply because of the colour of his skin. It was a period in Australia when it operated something that was called a colour bar for non-white people. It is a disgrace, is it not?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case. It is yet another example of an injustice that stained sport. It is something that we do need to recognise and try to address and put right.
There are other examples. We know of Len Johnson, a black boxer from Manchester who had a highly successful career as a middleweight fighter both in the UK and abroad, and who won the British Empire title in Australia in 1926, only to return to Britain and see his victory neglected by the boxing authorities, and to be prevented from competing for the British championship, simply because his father was from west Africa. As it did Cuthbert Taylor, the colour bar rule prevented Len Johnson from ever winning a professional championship or entering the boxing hall of fame.
That unjust rule, passed into law by the Government at the time, consigned Cuthbert Taylor and many other talented fighters to obscurity and robbed them of the fame and success that they undoubtedly would have achieved had both their parents been white. That is simply unbelievable to us in this generation. I believe that we have an opportunity to right that shameful wrong and make the case to the British Boxing Board of Control to recognise him as the fighter he truly was and apologise for having robbed him, through racism and prejudice, of the chance to forge a fantastic professional boxing career.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing a debate on a really important issue, not least to all the people in south Wales. Unfortunately, boxing is not alone in its issues with discrimination. These are systemic problems across many sports, including wrestling and gymnastics, which we know have been rocked by claims of misogyny and sexism. Ultimately, in order to tackle that, leadership needs to come from the top. Does he therefore agree that the Government urgently need to take more control and responsibility to stamp out discrimination from the industry?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The historical discrimination we are talking about is now illegal, but we still experience such issues and they are still present in sport. Much has been done since the time of Cuthbert Taylor, but there is a lot more to do, and a lot more we can do, to stamp out discrimination.
In 1947, merely one year before the British Nationality Act 1948 was passed and HMS Windrush docked in the UK, the British Boxing Board of Control went on record to defend its colour bar rule, arguing that since the UK was a small country, its championships should be restricted to boxers of white parents only and that black or mixed-race fighters were not penalised by the rule as they could compete for the British Empire titles instead, which the board argued were much more important. Such an argument is an insult to fighters such as Cuthbert Taylor, who represented his country proudly at the Olympic games, becoming the first black boxer to do so. He was a local hero for many in his home town, but he could not go on to challenge for British or world titles as many other British boxers did after turning professional.
The repeal of the colour bar rule just one year later in 1948 came too late for Cuthbert Taylor, who had retired from boxing the year before. However, that very year, Dick Turpin became the first ever black British fighter to win the domestic championship, breaking down the colour barrier to win in front of tens of thousands of people. His victory, which was even featured in African-American press, marked the start of a new era in boxing in Britain.
As many know, Merthyr Tydfil has a proud boxing tradition and a rich history in the sport, boasting world, European and British champions as well as Cuthbert Taylor. Jimmy Wilde, from Quakers Yard in Merthyr Tydfil is known all over the world and considered by some to be the best fighter of all time. As a professional boxer, he had world, European and British titles as well as the longest running unbeaten streak. Howard Winstone was a world and European champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist once coached by Cuthbert Taylor himself. Johnny Owen was a Commonwealth, European and British champion who also represented Wales on many occasions. Both Howard Winstone and Johnny Owen have commemorative statues in Merthyr Tydfil town centre, and Jimmy Wilde’s name features on various plaques and commemorations such as the Welsh sports hall of fame and the international boxing hall of fame. All three feature in the Welsh boxing and Merthyr Tydfil boxing halls of fame and have had their legacies immortalised in many other ways.
Cuthbert Taylor was as British as any of those fighters. he had remarkable ability, too, and no doubt he would have gone on to challenge for British, European and world titles had it not been for the discrimination he suffered under the divisive system of that time. It is a sad reality that a boxer who was once billed as the best in Europe, who fought in the Olympics and against some who would go on to be world champions, who won numerous amateur titles and who competed in many prestigious venues, has nothing to recognise him or preserve his legacy either in his home town or elsewhere. He will be fondly remembered and recognised by some in both the Welsh boxing world and his hometown, including his family, and especially his grandson, Alun Taylor, who came to my surgery some months ago and who I know is watching the debate.
I am currently in contact with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council about the possibility of a plaque or local commemoration for Cuthbert Taylor, but there is more we can do to ensure that he is recognised in the way his career and ability deserved. It is perhaps a coincidence that at this moment colleagues are debating Black History Month in the other Chamber. The story of Cuthbert Taylor illustrates why Black History Month is important as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of black Britons and reflect on the struggle for inclusion and equality that so many, including Cuthbert, have faced. We have the chance to take action and get justice for him, and to set the record straight the way it should be. Cuthbert Taylor was fighting all his life, not only in the ring but against a shameful rule and an unjust system, with the colour bar of the early 20th century the only opponent he could not overcome. I ask the Minister to make the case to the British Boxing Board of Control for a formal apology and recognition for Cuthbert Taylor. Although we cannot give him the success that he would have gone on to challenge for—that most likely he would have achieved—we can take action to ensure that he is recognised for his ability in the ring, not just the colour of his skin.
I was actually going to intervene on the Minister, but I would like to say that as my hon. Friend from Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned the Cardiff Bay Rugby Codebreakers, I was hoping that the Minister would join me in remembering the memory of the Codebreakers, and join me in congratulating the “One Team – One Race” project, immortalising some of Wales’s greatest rugby players in a permanent artwork. The statues will celebrate Wales’s proud and vibrant multicultural community, honour players who battled prejudice and racism, and be a fitting tribute to everything they did to improve race relations through sport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing this important debate, as well as all those who have participated. In answer to the immediate question from the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), we need far more permanent memorials to our sporting heroes, especially those who are under-recognised, under-acknowledged and under-represented. The “One Team – One Race” proposal sounds like a laudable idea.
It is appropriate that we have this debate today, because it is, of course, Black History Month. Stories like Cuthbert Taylor’s shine a light on the rich social history of boxing and of society as a whole. It is jarring to think that a sport that, today, is one of the most diverse around had such a history of discrimination. It reminds us that sport does not operate in a vacuum, it is an integral part of everyday lives. As such, it often reflects the values of the time. Cuthbert’s story reminds us of the social norms and inequalities that were present in society and in sport in the first part of the 20th century. From 1911, boxing rules stated that, for a British title, both contestants needed to have been “born of white parents”. That rule was in place until, remarkably, 1948. During that time, non-white boxers were barred from competing for a British boxing title.
Obviously, that did not just affect Cuthbert Taylor. Many other talented boxers over the years were denied the right to compete for British titles due to the colour of their skin, including boxers like Len Johnson, also mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Len was born in Manchester in 1902 to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Ireland. He won 36 of his 93 wins by knockout, and defeated the reigning British middleweight champion Roland Todd twice in seven months in 1925. That same year, he also beat Ted “Kid” Lewis, widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers this country has ever seen. As with Cuthbert Taylor, there was no prospect of a British title for Len and many others like them. Although it does not excuse what was happening in Britain, boxing in other countries was also the focus of discrimination. Thankfully, progress has been made. It started in 1948 with the lifting of the ban on non-white competitors. A few months after the ban was lifted, Dick Turpin became Britain’s first black boxing champion in front of 40,000 people at Villa Park, as mentioned by the hon. Member.
Today, British boxing is one of our most diverse sports. Indeed, many of our of our highest profile sporting stars are boxers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Great strides have been taken in other aspects of diversity too, with the nurturing of female boxing talent. As I am sure hon. Members will recall, the first woman to win an Olympic boxing medal was our very own Nicola Adams at London 2012. Of course, boxing is a sport that is accessible to people from all economic backgrounds. We continue to invest in community boxing clubs through Sport England and funding through the National Lottery Community Fund. Of course, we support our elite boxers through UK Sport. But no sport should rest on its laurels, and we must take steps to ensure that discrimination and inequality are identified and addressed.
Will the Minister please support my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), whose fantastic reference to his borough’s brilliant boxing record came over really well? My hon. Friend will write to the British Boxing Board of Control on behalf of Cuthbert Taylor. Will the Minister also write to in support of Cuthbert Taylor, so that the board will put things right?
Indeed, I would be happy to do so, but I should make hon. Members aware that I have already notified the BBBC that the debate would be taking place and asked that it pay attention. I am sure its representatives will listen and take appropriate action; I am sure the matter is already on its radar. Of course, there are certain challenges. Governing bodies today are not necessarily the same structures that they were a while ago, but I am sure that the importance of the issue is on everyone’s mind.
Like many other sports, boxing continues to look at what more it can do to promote inclusion and diversity. England Boxing has been conducting a review of its operations from board level to grassroots to increase diversity at all levels. So far the work has resulted in additional training for coaches and support staff, and anti-racism workshops. I understand that more activity is in train, such as work to encourage more competitors from BAME backgrounds to remain in the sport once they have retired, and to become coaches and officials. I applaud that work. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of every successful organisation, but they do not happen automatically. Effort and openness from all involved are required.
The Government have also been alive to the need for ongoing review. Earlier in the summer I called for a review of the code of sports governance, the set of standards that all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding. The code has proved successful in setting clear expectations on good governance and diversity. Four years on from its launch it is right that the code should be reviewed, to see how it can be strengthened. UK Sport and Sport England are leading the work, which has a particular focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. All five UK Sports Councils are also working together to review racial inequalities in sport. Their work will bring together existing data on race and ethnicity in sport, to identify gaps and make recommendations. A second strand of work will hear experiences of racial inequalities and racism in sport.
The aim of all this activity is to keep pushing for greater inclusion and diversity in sport and to stamp out racism. It should go without saying that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of discrimination in sport. We continue to work with our sports councils, national governing bodies of sport, and organisations such as Kick It Out and Stonewall to tackle discrimination in local, national and international sport. Our aim is to increase diversity among sporting organisations and to help the sport sector to be more inclusive and welcoming to spectators, participants and the workforce.
Sport often reflects wider society—often for good and sometimes for bad. At its best, sport unites people and at its worst it can highlight divisions. Fighters such as Cuthbert Taylor and Len Johnson suffered from that. A lot has changed since the early part of the 20th century, but we must not get complacent. Sport does not have to be just a passive reflection of society. It can also be a proactive force and lead the way for others to follow. It can show what can be achieved. We should remember Cuthbert Taylor, Len Johnson and others like them and keep their stories alive with memorials, as the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, and in many other ways. We should think about what we can learn from the past, and look forward to ensure that we build a stronger, more inclusive society.
I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, who raised this important issue today. As I have said, I have already notified the British Boxing Board of Control that the debate is taking place, and I am confident that the board will have listened to what he and others had to say. I encourage it to give due regard to his comments and requests.
Question put and agreed to.
Colleges and Skills: Covid-19
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of colleges in a skills-led recovery from the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. There are a large number of colleagues looking to speak in the debate, and thus I will seek to keep my comments brief and very much to set the scene.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate during Colleges Week. This is the third Colleges Week celebration since the launch of the Love Our Colleges campaign in 2018. The week provides the opportunity to showcase and celebrate the role of colleges, 82% of which were graded either “good” or “outstanding” last year by Ofsted.
College education is something that we do well in the UK, but at times we unintentionally undervalue our colleges, which are at the heart of so many communities right across the country. In 2020, more than ever, colleges have demonstrated their value in supporting learners and businesses to deliver quality learning and training despite the challenges raised by the covid pandemic. Colleges have supported students through exam confusion, launched T-levels and adopted programmes for the safe delivery of learning both in person and online. It is also important to thank colleges for the role that they have played during the pandemic in supporting their local communities. East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth created wellbeing packs that it distributed to care homes. Eight staff members cycled to Mount Snowdon and back—bear in mind that it is the most easterly college in the UK. They raised funds for the college’s food bank, and student Jasmine Foster created facemasks that she distributed to nursery colleagues, elderly neighbours and friends.
We face an enormous challenge as we emerge from covid-19 at the same time as we fully enter the post-Brexit world. There can be an exciting future ahead, but we shall secure it only if colleges are given the opportunity to play a lead role, are fully supported and are properly funded.
There has been college education in the UK for a long time. In 1874, the first art classes were held at St John’s School in Lowestoft, the forerunner of what is now East Coast College, with campuses in both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. College education began to take a more co-ordinated form in 1890, when county councils were provided with Government funding to develop technical education. It is fair to say that successive Governments in the first part of the 21st century have not paid sufficient attention to the sector. The focus on higher education is important, but it should not come at the expense of further education, and the sector took too much of the brunt of the deficit reduction strategy after the banking crisis.
In the last three years—indeed, in the last few weeks—there have been positive signs that the Government recognise the lead role that colleges must play in the covid recovery. The industrial strategy published in 2017, and last year’s Augur review, set the scene. The Chancellor highlighted the importance of colleges in his plan for jobs in July, and in his winter economy plan last month. On 29 September, the Prime Minister gave his lifelong learning pledge in a speech at Exeter College.
The foundation stone has been laid, but the country cannot afford a false dawn and we must now deliver. Our colleges are up for the challenge of working collaboratively with the Government and employers, both large and small, to support people and businesses through covid, to help people retrain and reskill, and to improve social mobility so that young people—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—have the opportunity to realise their full potential.
From the early stages of the pandemic, it has been clear that covid will have a huge negative impact on employment—an impact that we have not seen for 90 years. The Resolution Foundation’s report on “Young workers in the coronavirus crisis”, which was published in May, concluded that young people and adults with lower qualifications are particularly at risk of unemployment. Many people facing redundancy or unemployment want to retrain in order to enhance their skills levels and to increase their job prospects. Colleges will play a crucial role in providing that education and training, and it is vital that they are properly resourced and supported. The funding and prioritisation of colleges must take centre stage in the comprehensive spending review, and the opportunity must be taken with the forthcoming further education White Paper to prioritise colleges and to restructure the systems within which they operate.
As highlighted by the Association of Colleges, the following specific issues need to be addressed. College business centres should be established. The Departments for Education and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should work together to set up specific college business centres that support employers with expert advice. There should be a new deal for college funding, with a new funding formula and rates rising towards £5,000 per student. The increase in capital spending that the Government have provided is welcome, but the Treasury should also allow for further investment in IT and the development of specialist provision. Funding levels should also be appropriate to enable colleges to move towards the 2050 net zero target. A second stage of the kickstart programme should be developed by the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions, to enable those who lose their jobs to retrain.
To assist left-behind areas in levelling up, the shared prosperity fund and the towns fund should supplement existing skills policy in areas where economic activity is lower and unemployment higher than elsewhere. In Lowestoft, East Coast College is playing an important role in the preparation of the towns fund bid that will be submitted shortly.
Rightly, there has been much talk about the role of house building and upgrading infrastructure in the recovery from covid. If they are to play that role, we need to address the construction and engineering skills shortages that the Federation of Master Builders and the Royal Academy of Engineering have highlighted. More young people should be encouraged to follow careers in construction and engineering. There should also be better support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the sector, which undertake 71% of the construction industry’s training. There is a need to recognise the role that colleges can play in helping new entrants into the industry, and more must be done to strengthen their links with businesses.
I shall conclude by going local and highlighting East Coast College’s role in the economic recovery on the East Anglian coast. The college has just achieved an Ofsted rating of good. Its total economic impact is estimated at £264 million per annum and its £11.7 million energy skills centre for the east coast opened last year. There are great opportunities in our area. We are on the doorstep of two of the largest infrastructure projects in the world: the cluster of wind farms in the southern North sea; and the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station 24 miles to the south. There are also the exciting reef plans to revive the East Anglian fishing industry. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for an area that has been left behind, but we will only realise them if the right investment is made in East Coast College, which itself is very much up for the challenge.
The Independent Commission on the College of the Future is due to report in the next few weeks, and it is likely that it will emphasise that the college of the future will be central to delivering a fair, more sustainable and more prosperous society. It is vital that colleges are given the opportunity, the support and the resources to play this lead role. If they are, a lot of people will benefit, a lot of places will benefit, and as a country we will benefit, as we bridge that stubborn productivity gap.
Order. In order to ensure that we have enough time for the winding-up speeches and a response from the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), I will begin by giving hon. Members five minutes in which to speak, but I may have to drop that to four minutes at some point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important and timely debate—as he said, it falls in Colleges Week. Colleges and the further education sector as a whole have been close to my heart for a number of years. One of my jobs before entering this place was at Sheffield College. I went on to serve on the college’s board of governors and came to develop a deep appreciation for the way colleges can teach new skills, regardless of a learner’s age.
Education is our greatest tool in combating poverty and deprivation. Colleges well and truly play their part in doing that, with 54% of adult learners coming from the 40% most deprived areas in the country. They are vital for delivering skills-based learning, and those who teach in them are a testament to the quality of the teaching profession. That is evident, with four out of five colleges being rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted.
On many occasions, I have called for increased funding for the further education sector and for the Government to recognise the power that the Cinderella sector could have in bridging attainment gaps, developing skilled workers and giving those from working-class communities greater opportunities. Colleges, when properly funded, are places of great educational power.
The hon. Lady just called the FE sector the Cinderella sector, which I have always opposed. I know that she is making her speech, but would she not agree that it is worth remembering that Cinderella became a member of the royal family and we should banish the ugly sisters of snobbery, intolerance and underfunding?
I do love a fairy tale, but I will touch on that later on.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the impact that the previous 10 years have had on the sector’s finances. The brutal cuts to the further education sector have been felt most harshly by adult learners. In real terms, 35% of adult education funding has been cut since 2013. Over the same period, funding for those aged 16 to 19 has fallen by 7%. Those cuts have meant that fewer adults can learn core skills such as literacy and maths to be able to meet many jobs’ English and maths requirements.
The National Audit Office has said the FE sector’s financial health is fragile, warning that core funding has fallen significantly. The Government have had to intervene in half of colleges to prevent or address financial difficulty. There are too many examples where schools have received further funding while colleges have been ignored. I have spoken to staff at my local college and the morale among both teaching and support staff, who are now being asked to do more, is incredibly low. To add to that low morale and the sense of being ignored, when the Education Secretary announced a pay rise for schoolteachers, he made no such announcement for further education lecturers. The gap in pay between schoolteachers and FE lecturers now stands at just over £9,000 a year.
That background meant many of us were already deeply concerned about FE funding. Then the coronavirus pandemic highlighted more clearly than ever before the truly devastating consequence of widespread cuts. After a decade of cuts, I want to be able to welcome wholeheartedly the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lifetime skills guarantee. However, I fear that it is too little, too late and too slow.
We are facing an unprecedented crisis. Levels of unemployment have risen sharply while earnings have fallen across many sectors as a result of the economic impact of covid-19. In my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has almost doubled since March, accounting for 9.5% of the working-age population. Colleges cannot wait for the funding to trickle through over the course of this Parliament; action must be taken to address the challenges they face now.
In our recovery, we have the opportunity to bridge the skills gap in a way we never have before. However, I feel that the Government are not being that ambitious. The introduction of the job support scheme at the start of next month will see many workers on reduced hours. I believe that the Government should integrate training into the scheme and allow workers to improve their skills. I am also concerned that the lifetime skills guarantee appears to offer little to those who have a level 3 qualification or above. People with qualifications of all levels have felt the impact of covid-19 and, sadly, many with a level 3 qualification or above will lose their jobs. Therefore, people with qualifications of all levels who will face unemployment should be able to access college courses and reskill should they need and want to do so.
The crisis in social care is an example of where cuts to colleges have had a wider impact. Since 2010, qualifications for health and social care have fallen by 68%. Year after year, we have been promised reform in social care. Instead, we have seen a consistent failure to boost the number of workers in social care or implement any long-term plan. There can be no doubt that after the events of this year the need for an effective social care system is paramount. Colleges can and should play a leading role in training future health and social care workers, and they should receive full Government support to bring the level of qualifications back to their previous levels, at the very least.
With the further education White Paper and spending review on the horizon, I urge the Minister to take the points raised in this debate and the strength of feeling in which they are made back to the Chancellor to urge him to fund our further education sector properly. I wait apprehensively for any announcement and hope that the finances needed to upskill our workforce will be provided. In the meantime, Labour will continue the fight for more funding for further education, and I will continue to proudly back the Love Our Colleges campaign.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on initiating the debate.
We are in a potential golden age for further education. We have a Secretary of State who went to an FE college, and who has made a ground-breaking speech on further education—I think it was one of the most important education speeches that I have heard in many years. We have a Minister for Skills who, I think, is the only MP who has done a degree apprenticeship and is absolutely passionate about furthering apprenticeships. We are talking about apprenticeships and skills in a way that we have not done for a long time.
I welcome the increase in funding that is going into further education. I see it at my local Harlow College, which I have visited over 90 times since becoming a Member of Parliament. It is not just a place of learning, but a community asset and an important place of social capital. We have an incredible advanced manufacturing centre and money for a new maths centre. I hope that when we are out of covid the Minister will come to see the work that Harlow College does. We should also acknowledge the extra £1.5 billion for refurbishing the college estate; the capital funding of £290 million for new institutes of technology and the money for T-levels, which I think will be a great educational reform.
As the Secretary of State has said, FE has historically been underfunded. We need a long-term plan for FE— something that we argued for in my previous Education Committee, before 2019. We need a 10-year plan for college funding. We found that sometimes initiative-itis was standing in for long-term vision and the sector needed more money going into the base rate of funding, over small pots of funding.
There is a social justice case for a pupil premium to support disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds. We have to get the basics right. We know that the National Audit Office has found the state of some of the college estate to be grim. The Government have had to intervene in 48% of colleges as a result of their financial health, and have spent £253 million in financial support to colleges over the last few years.
I am very excited to hear about the lifetime skills guarantee and the work being done to encourage businesses to hire apprenticeships. These are absolutely central to our colleges. I urge the Minister to consider whether the apprenticeship levy pot could be fine-tuned so that companies can use more of their levy if they hire younger people from 16 to 19 years, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people who are going to meet our skills needs where we have huge skills deficits.
We need to ensure that there is much closer collaboration between further education colleges and universities, because further education can play a major role in promoting degree apprenticeships—my two favourite words in the English language. Part of the £2.5 billion skills fund should be spent on covering training costs for small and medium-sized businesses taking on young apprentices.
Finally, it would be very special to see institutes of technology across our landscape. We have done this before, with national colleges and other schemes. I urge the Minister to ensure that they are properly integrated into further education, and that they are further education institutes of technology, not just some brand new shiny buildings. Why not help them to build the prestige of further education?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. I stood up in this Chamber many times during the last Parliament to support our further education colleges. I am a proud champion of the foremost further education provider in my constituency, Bath College. Today, I am even prouder to let the Chamber know about a very good initiative that it has brought together in the last six months.
When covid hit in March, our education leaders were quick off the mark. They saw the enormous scale of the economic fall out of the pandemic on our city and region and took bold, innovative action to address it together. Bath College is versatile and forward looking, and it has forged strong links with local businesses and our two universities, particularly Bath Spa University. Laurel Penrose, chief executive of Bath College, and Professor Sue Rigby, vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University, have worked alongside their teams to create a ground- breaking plan to help reskill and upskill our workforce, bringing together Bath College, Bath Spa University and the Institute of Coding. The project, called I-START, will deliver across innovation, science, technology, arts, research and teaching. Participants will be able to hop on and off flexible, blended modules, to more easily fit learning around their lives. This will be truly unique to Bath.
Businesses have reiterated the need for resilience, problem solving, creativity and communication, and building on those skills is at the core of the project. As a direct response to covid, the partnership has co-designed an exciting pilot for a skills and social inclusion element of the project, called “Restart”, which will begin next week. It is based on contributions from local employers and businesses on the skillsets they look for when hiring people. I urge the Minister to look at what has been done in Bath and the courses starting as we speak.
Innovation like that is utterly necessary, but it needs the Government to recognise the value of colleges. For far too long, further education colleges that have been relegated to a lower division in our education hierarchy—Cinderella status, if I may say so. There has been a 7% real-terms decrease in funding per learner aged 16 to 19 since 2013. Our excellent Bath College has not received the funding or the recognition it so deserves. Colleges need streamlined, targeted investment, and overall spending on skills needs to increase ahead of inflation. Higher technical education colleges teach economically valuable skills and must be a focal point of the national skills fund. I also urge the Department for Education to work closely on colleges with the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that adults who lose their jobs can train and retrain in the second stage of the kickstart programme.
Simply repeating what we have done before will lead to the same outcomes. Colleges are well placed to deliver so much more support to people, places and productivity, especially now, as we are coming out—hopefully, at some point—of the covid crisis. This could be an important opportunity. I urge the Government to look again at the funding and to talk to the Treasury. We have been here so many times talking about further education funding, but please look at what has been achieved in Bath. It is a truly exciting project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate? It is particularly vital this week, in Love Our Colleges Week. I most certainly love mine.
The role of colleges in a skills-led recovery following covid is vital to our local communities, businesses and young people, but also to older people looking to reskill. Further education colleges have a wealth of experience and knowledge of delivering learning, training and qualifications in their local communities, and they are agile enough to adapt their offering, in terms of skills, to meet the needs of local markets in real time.
In Loughborough, we are looking at a V-shaped recovery, and we are stretching every sinew to achieve that. Loughborough College kindly came forward to lead the charge on the Government-funded kickstart scheme, working with Charnwood Borough Council, the Loughborough business improvement district and Loughborough jobcentre to be one of the first, if not the first, kickstart scheme started in the country. I am thrilled to inform hon. Members that, after only two weeks in operation, 143 job opportunities have been identified, and we are working on more.
The team that usually manages apprenticeships is managing the kickstart scheme, using its skills and working with the jobcentre to bring forward the young people to fill the posts. As part of the town deal, funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the town deal board—I declare that I am a member—in conjunction with Loughborough College and Loughborough University, has allocated money to set up a careers and skills hub in the centre of Loughborough, to attract those who would not normally venture on to campus, so that they can see what qualifications and training are available and can take up those opportunities. All of this is in addition to the great work the colleges have been doing in the local community for years, in developing skills and delivering outstanding teaching and learning that supports young people and the local economy.
T-level qualifications are of huge importance to the future of our country and our industries. We should support the development of technical training and development for younger people to meet the skills gap. These two-year courses—a combination of coursework and on-the-job training—create the ideal opportunity for people to earn and learn. Linked with the lifetime skills guarantee for older people without higher level qualifications, colleges can be the conduit to greater earning potential and demand-led teaching and learning.
Social mobility is best accessed by good qualifications and training, and never more so than when the skills that are acquired meet the local needs of industry. These businesses pay for the skills and the workforce they need. As a country, we have come to realise during the covid pandemic the gaps in skills and knowledge we have. Colleges give us the opportunity at a local level to tap into the manpower available and deliver the skills we need. Colleges are a jewel in the crown of any local community, and Loughborough College most certainly is in mine.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for bringing forward the debate and enabling us all to put on the record our huge appreciation for our local colleges, such as York College and Askham Bryan College in my city.
We have heard much about the green new deal—York is trying to make it a real deal through the BioYorkshire initiative. From the outset of my contribution, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to bringing this project forward, because last year the unemployment rate in York was 2.8%, and next year it is predicted to be as high as 27%. We need a bridge now, and that is what our colleges can provide.
York is set to be part of the devolution deal for North Yorkshire, and BioYorkshire is hardwired into that. However, that will not happen until 2023. We need to bring forward the BioYorkshire initiative to commence this year or next. It would be a significant win, not least for my community, which is on the precipice of a tragic level of unemployment.
BioYorkshire will put York at the heart of biosciences not only in the UK, but possibly in the world, in the race against climate change. It has been put together by a consortium of our two colleges, York St John University, the University of York, Fera Science and many other partners. Through this partnership and innovation, the BioYorkshire proposal will seek to create skills and jobs, and to attract investment. The vision of BioYorkshire is to bring together biotechnology, the natural environment, farming and food production, and the circular economy for a platform here in York and North Yorkshire that will become the UK’s centre of innovation and the bioeconomy.
We will create the nation’s first carbon-negative region, and deliver profitable and sustainable technologies to transform the region and help kickstart the UK’s economy with high skills and high growth following covid-19. BioYorkshire has shown the power of FE and HE working together by creating a BioYorkshire innovation centre, BioYorkshire district hubs and a BioYorkshire accelerator.
We are looking to BioYorkshire for a skills-based recovery by training for change, resilience and enterprise; driving innovation; and upskilling local talent. This will result in new spin-offs and start-ups, and the mentoring of a new generation of entrepreneurs. The bioeconomy skills academy will run across the three core institutions that offer training and education, co-developed with business, from post-16 T-levels and apprenticeships, through to postgraduate courses and continuous professional development.
The impact will be astounding. Establishing this world-leading science centre will create high-value intellectual property. With the global bioeconomy institute and the circular economy data hub, it will support 800 start-ups and spin-offs, innovate with 1,200 businesses and create 4,000 jobs in York, Yorkshire and beyond. It will cut CO2 emissions by 2,800 kilotons a year and reduce waste to landfill by 1,200 kilotons a year. In a decade, it will generate £5 billion in gross value added. We will attract £1.3 billion in capital investment and, through higher level skills training, we will train 25,000 individuals. We need to start this project now, and I trust that the Minister will back this proposal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for obtaining this important debate.
Further education is hugely important not only for the economy and for the levelling-up agenda post-covid, but for the long term. Skills and education are the key to the long-term shift if we are to truly bring some of the most disadvantaged parts of our country up into line with everyone else and give people the opportunities they need and deserve. My hon. Friend the Minister is ably leading some hugely positive work in the Department for Education right now, including shifting the dial around further and higher education and the balance of what we advocate for our young people––where we push them in terms of education.
We know that HE outcomes are not as good as we would hope in many cases. There is a huge opportunity through further education and technical and vocational skills to advance and to get better qualifications and earning power at the end of it all than many young people get from HE. That includes the new T-levels and the better access to apprenticeships for SMEs that was in the recent lifelong learning announcement. That plan also includes the level 3 entitlement for adults. For communities like mine in Mansfield, where a huge proportion of adults do not have level 3 qualifications, that will give them the right to go back, for free and funded by the Government, and access skills and retraining that will help them get a better job or get back into work post coronavirus. The lifelong learning loans element will help adults to access higher levels of qualifications if they wish. That is hugely important.
It is very welcome that West Notts College in my constituency has had its first capital funding for a very long time. That has gone down very well. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney rightly pointed out the connection between the wider regeneration piece––town deals––and the skills and retraining agenda. We hope Mansfield will invest some of its town deal money in things like student accommodation, new skills and retraining commitments, and new premises to supplement the work being done by Nottingham Trent University and West Notts College in partnership, which is bringing better FE, better technical qualifications and HE degree qualifications to Mansfield so that young people can access them on their doorstep. That is all hugely positive for the future.
The Government are doing good work in this space and we can add to that post-coronavirus things such as the kickstart scheme and additional funding to support apprenticeships and promote those opportunities to business. There is some really good stuff, and it is key to the regeneration piece, to levelling up our country and to supporting communities like Mansfield.
The Secretary of State is bang on when he says that FE needs that boost and to provide an equal level of opportunity to the HE sector, into which young people are so often pushed whether or not it is the right thing. We need to make the case from this place, from Government and from business that FE presents a huge opportunity for young people to get into work and to get the skills and help they need for good employment opportunities.
My ask for the Government is to work with good college leaders on local priorities. I keep raising the example of West Notts College and its work with Nottingham Trent University, which is a really positive example of what could be done elsewhere. It would be great to have the Minister along, as we have discussed before, to see that when it is possible.
We need to look at the apprenticeship levy. We have made it easier for SMEs to access that funding to bring apprenticeships into smaller businesses. The regular feedback on the levy is that it is complicated and that businesses need help to access that money.
On age, I have never understood why we think FE and technical and vocational skills are so brilliant post-16, but are so averse to letting 15 or 14-year-olds have a go at these subjects. That would be really positive and help a lot of the most disadvantaged young people who are disaffected at school to find a reason to stay in education. There is some really good stuff happening in this space and I thank the Minister for all the work she is doing. I look forward to working with her in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for obtaining this debate on this important topic, especially in Colleges Week.
I particularly thank Derwentside College in my constituency, which I have visited many times. It is truly excellent at working with local employers across the piece. This has been a particularly challenging time for people in my constituency.
The announcements over the past few months on the Government’s work in this area have been welcome. The huge lifelong learning announcement will be transformational, particularly for adult learning and FE, and the kickstart scheme is helping to drive the apprenticeships that we need locally. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) mentioned levelling up, and to me that is exactly what the FE agenda is all about—putting some meat on the bones of that and providing a transformation opportunity in people’s lives.
I hope that, as the Chair of the Education Committee said, we are entering a golden age for the sector; I know that the Minister gets it, I know that the Secretary of State gets it and, having spoken to the Chancellor, I think that he gets it as well. However, if we are to drive productivity and opportunity for people across our communities, FE will be crucial.
As hon. Members across the Chamber have mentioned, we cannot debate on FE on its own, without mentioning the relationships with higher education and business. I, too, welcome the Government’s direction of travel, particularly in the relationship with HE and in not constantly driving people on to courses that are perhaps not best suited to them, just to hit a statistic. We should be driving people on to courses that they want to do and that best enhance their life opportunities. I welcome the broader direction of travel towards collaboration. I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships call today, and it was great to see some of the work that colleges are doing with universities, helping with degree-level apprenticeships.
However, this is not just about 16 to 18-year-olds; we face a difficult time as a country and we are going to see a large number of people looking to retrain and reskill, so it is important that we look after the FE sector and lean into it, to let it do what it does best. Part of that will be about upskilling people to levels 4, 5 and 6, but not taking them out of their communities. We should provide those opportunities as locally as possible, so that people can train part-time or in the evening and improve their skillsets while they are in work.
Finally, I ask the Minister to keep highlighting excellence in the sector and, therefore, to visit Derwentside College in my constituency when she gets the opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the opportunity to highlight important issues in respect of colleges.
I am not going to repeat what others have said. My constituents are very fortunate in that they are served, following the area review, by the merged institution created from Harrow College and Uxbridge College— two of the highest-performing colleges in London. Having been engaged with those colleges for many years, I would like to highlight one strength of the sector that is especially relevant to all of us and the different local economic circumstances that our constituents face: the amazing flexibility that colleges have shown in tailoring their offer to the opportunities that exist in the area for young people.
I am fortunate to represent a constituency that is part of a wider west London economic community in which we have a particularly vibrant tech hub. The video assistant referee systems that support high-level football are located at Stockley Park—I see wry smiles from the football fans in the room—as are a number of the companies that programme some of the world’s most popular computer games. There is a nexus of opportunity for young people—not necessarily those who will be pushed by their schools into the traditional A-level academic route—to gain access to well-paid, prestigious jobs in a desirable working environment close to their home area.
I am impressed by the efforts the local college has made to link up young people who are studying and pursuing those topics with those businesses and to ensure that they are able to access those opportunities and find their way into those very good, highly-paid jobs in an internationally competitive environment. That can lead to people doing amazing things with their lives, from what to many people, when they first look at the prospect of college, perhaps seems a less promising beginning than going down a route that ultimately leads to university. The more we can publicise those opportunities in Colleges Week, the better, because the more our constituents—particularly the mums and dads—understand that that route of opportunity is open to young people, the better it will be.
I will finish by touching on finance. Quite a few Members have made the point that, compared with the schools sector, colleges often feel a bit like a Cinderella service. When we simply look at the money, that is a fact, but we also know that we can sometimes do great things on a relatively modest budget. I think colleges deserve praise for that. I do not simply say that the that the answer is to make sure that more money and resources go to vocational education, although that would be welcome; we should recognise that these are institutions that demonstrate that they can create fantastic opportunities for young people that are not driven simply by the Government spending more and more money.
The more that we can extend that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) alluded to, to a wider age group in this country, the better. I agree we need to look at young people, such as those who might have considered the technology college route in the past, but what about those slightly older people, who may be looking to get their lives back on track with further education later on? This could be exactly the opportunity they require.
I hope that those points provide a summary, but I also place on the record my thanks to the Harrow College and Uxbridge College principals, who have done such a fantastic job for my constituents over the years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate.
We are, as the Chair of the Education Committee said, in a golden age for further education—that is good, because we need to be, due to the pressure we have on skills and the need to address the skills gap in this country. A lot of colleagues have talked about the work that FE colleges are doing. I want to go in a different direction and talk about the reason they are doing it. The reason is that business needs them to be doing it. The adoption of automation, new technology and artificial intelligence—the digital age we are living in—is unleashing profound structural shifts in the UK workforce. As a result, we have to change the way that we operate our skills.
UK companies need to respond to these threats. If they fail to meet this challenge, they will find themselves with even more acute shortages of talent. Worryingly, the CBI estimates that as many as nine in 10 people currently in work will need to be retrained or reskilled over the next 10 years, partly as a consequence of that new digital revolution. Therefore, hearing the Prime Minister announce that we will be moving to a system where every student will have a flexible lifelong learning entitlement of four years of post-18 education is very welcome, because that is what we will need. Bridging the gap between further and higher education, and increasing flexibility in the funding system to support adults to train—and retrain—and upskill throughout their working lives is absolutely pivotal.
I want to touch briefly on T-levels, which are now being taught in my local college. Priestley College in Warrington became one of the first colleges in the country to offer T-levels. I met the principal recently, and the successful launch of the T-levels in digital production, design and development and in education and childcare has gone incredibly well. I hope the Minister will join me in commending the work of Priestley College, which has not only reopened in extremely challenging circumstances, but made a fantastic start to teaching T-levels in the north of England.
I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the debate. He is a powerful advocate for our colleges as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for further education and lifelong learning. It is clear that all contributors recognise the crucial role our colleges play. Many took the opportunity to specifically thank and acknowledge the work of their local colleges, and I have no doubt that all those contributions about the role of our colleges were genuinely felt.
As I know from my regular visits to Chesterfield College, our colleges are the providers of second chances. They are the home of about 30% of all apprenticeship learning and the focal point for our skills strategy. For so many, they are the road between school failure and academic and career success, and they have changed the life chances of people in my family. They are fundamental to our country having the skills it needs to cope with the twin threats to our economy of covid-19 and Brexit.
We have heard during this debate a familiar refrain: that our colleges have been ignored too long by successive Governments, and that they must finally be taken seriously. However, I somewhat take issue with that lazy characterisation, and with the suggestion that recent announcements by this Government constitute some kind of golden age of FE. In welcoming the campaigning zeal of the hon. Member for Waveney I also want to ensure that the record of this Government is properly put under the spotlight, because it is not a case of “it was ever thus”.
As was revealed by my recent written question, £2.61 billion was invested in further education capital expenditure in the final five years of the previous Labour Government. In the following five years, the Government reduced that spending in actual terms by a shocking 64%. In all, colleges have endured a decade of cuts amounting to a third of their budget, while attempting to continue to be at the forefront of equipping young people and adults in every area of the country with the skills they need to succeed. What is more, we have seen adult education funding slashed by 50% in real terms and appalling failure on careers guidance, and the Government announcement just this week that they were scrapping their “Get Help to Retrain” initiative—the centrepiece of the national retraining scheme—less than three years after it was announced should give us all pause for thought.
As we enter this period in which we are asked to believe that the Government have finally accepted the need for a skills-based economy, we do so in the shadow of the vindictive and destructive announcement that they are scrapping funding for the Unionlearn programme that their own assessment was so complimentary about. That is perhaps more revealing than 1,000 press releases. At the same time, we know that, just a few months ago, the Government sent £300 million of apprenticeship levy funds back to the Treasury. There is far more generous funding for the commitment-free kickstart programme than for apprenticeships, and the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) was absolutely right to say that SMEs are shut out of our apprenticeships far too often. The Association of Colleges has stated that colleges face a shortfall of £2 billion this academic year.
There is so much more to say about our further education sector, but unfortunately there is not the time in which to do it, so I will close with this: we need a Government that recognise that colleges are a fundamental part of our skills and economic ecosystem and that do not pit them against universities or even see them as opponents of the independent provider sector, but that see them working collaboratively across the piece. We need a Government that introduce policy based on evidence and then give policies a chance to work. We need a Government that are honest about the fact that the scale of funding cuts means that the current investment is a tiny step back up the mountain.
We need a properly resourced Department for Education that sees FE colleges working collaboratively with employers, universities, trade unions and Government schemes, and we need a Government that recognise that not all people can get careers advice from their father’s friends at the golf club. We need a skills system that works around real people’s lives and supports them to retrain without their families going hungry while they are doing so. Colleges are capable of playing the role we need them to, but not unless the Government show the humility and resolve to recognise where those colleges are starting from and what is required to help them back to the place they should be in: at the heart of a skills system relied on by employers, valued by learners and every bit as good as the very best in the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on having secured this important debate during this Colleges Week. I am sure we are all delighted to be back in Westminster Hall, and I cannot think of a better and more important topic than the role of FE colleges in our vital skills-led recovery from covid-19. I genuinely thank all hon. Members who are here today for their support for FE colleges and technical education. I know that they all love our colleges, so I thank them all for their contributions.
FE colleges and providers have never been as important as they are now. For some of us, they have been important for a long time—I attended mine 35 years ago—but they are going to become so vital for so many people up and down the country, many of whom will face changed circumstances. Their prospects will change in such a short period of time, which is highly unusual. The colleges have responded brilliantly during the crisis, and are continuing to do so as we look towards recovery, and I place on record my huge thanks to the sector. Every week I have heard how colleges are supporting not just their learners and vulnerable students, but the wider community. They were making scrubs and masks for the NHS, giving food parcels and meals to the most vulnerable, and doing all kinds of fundraising events. The stories that I hear from FE colleges are truly amazing.
Before covid-19 struck, longer-term reforms to the school system were already under way. For generation after generation, technical education has been undervalued and neglected. That neglect must and will come to an end. I am glad we started our technical education reforms when we did, because they are going to be important to the recovery, boosting productivity and offering young people a real choice of high-quality training and pathways to successful careers that are equal in esteem to traditional academic routes.
It will not have escaped anyone that the world has gone digital and that we are living through a technological revolution. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden) pointed out how important that is. It is a key pillar to levelling up and providing opportunity for all in the towns that will need support to recover from coronavirus and that have felt neglected for many years.
It is fantastic and timely to see that colleges and other providers have begun the roll-out of T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. A number of Members mentioned their support for them, and I was delighted to hear it. They represent the biggest reform of post-16 education since A-levels were first introduced 70 years ago. They are attracting investment of £500 million each year, once they are fully rolled out. The introduction of these new, pioneering qualifications was challenging during the pandemic, so I thank all 44 providers who battled through to deliver them during very challenging times—they were too important to delay. We have waited a long time to put this bedrock for our technical education in place, working with employers and employer-led standards to ensure that we invest in the right areas and the right things.
We are also investing up to £290 million of capital funding to establish 20 institutes of technology across every region in England. I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) that these will be a pinnacle of technical education and training. They are unique collaborations between colleges, universities and businesses, and they will offer high-quality technical education and training in key economic sectors, such as digital, construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering. The first 12 institutes are being rolled out, and the competition for the next wave was launched on 8 October. The opportunity for innovative, high-tech proposals to come forward is now there. The Department for Education very much welcomes any new proposals for the second wave of the institutes of technology.
We need to increase the take-up of higher level qualifications—levels 4, 5 and 6—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham. These higher technical qualifications are key and give people of all ages the opportunity to develop a prestigious high-quality, high-technical route, if that is right for them. The Prime Minister has been clear on supporting that choice. Getting a loan for a high-value technical course should be as easy as getting one for a degree, whether it is taught in an FE college or a university. A new funding system will open up new alternatives, ensure that further education colleges and providers have the same access to funding that universities do, and “remove the bias”, as the Prime Minister put it, that propels young people into universities and away from technical education.
Technical education is part of the lifetime skills guarantee announced at the end of last month. We are already engaging with colleges on some of the measures to be delivered from April next year, particularly the first level 3 funding for adults. That will give adults who missed out on that opportunity the chance to pursue it, by fully funding their first full level 3. It will focus on valuable courses that will help them in the labour market. We will be supporting providers to develop more level 3 provision. We will encourage them to do so, and we will monitor the demand from adults closely.
One important aspect of our recovery is supporting the most disadvantaged. Further education colleges do a lot to provide opportunities and social mobility for the most disadvantaged in our society. We have already been investing in that. Some 20% of learners in FE have some learning difficulty and disability.
I thank the Minister for her important speech. One of the biggest problems in encouraging people to do FE and skills is the lack of proper careers advice promoting apprenticeships and skills in schools. Despite the Baker clause, which was meant to change that, not a lot has changed. What are her plans to ensure that schools encourage skills, apprenticeships and further education and give FE an equality of prestige with university?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I actually had a meeting about this long-standing problem just before I came here, because careers is a key pillar of our FE and skills White Paper to ensure that everyone understands the routes. The Careers & Enterprise Company has done a lot of work to ensure that young people get a broad range of opportunities to talk to businesses, look at career opportunities and visit colleges and universities, but not everyone gets all of the information they need to make an informed decision.
Hon. Members will all be aware of the skills recovery package and the Chancellor’s plan for jobs. There is a lot of investment in apprenticeships, traineeships and classroom-based study. We are also extending the National Careers Service and putting in an extra £32 million to provide additional careers support.
FE providers have always been key to delivering adult education as well. Therefore, as we develop our plans for reskilling adults, that will include an extra £2.5 billion over the course of the Parliament for the national skills fund. Contrary to what was said by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), the national retraining scheme has not been scrapped; it will be built on and become part of the much bigger national skills fund. The national retraining scheme had £100 million; it will be £2.5 billion for the national skills fund.
The “Get Help to Retrain” scheme was a pilot website in six areas, and all the learnings from those pilots will be brought into the new national skills fund. It will be called something else, but the learnings will not be lost. Digital bootcamps are also a new addition, which I am sure many hon. Members will welcome.
These policies are all part of a wider rebalancing between HE and FE, making FE a more attractive choice. However, we are not leaving out the basics. We mentioned capital programme funding, much of which in the past went via the local enterprise partnerships, and it was not always ring-fenced, which led to shortages in some areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney raised some interesting ideas including business centres and focused areas of investment. There will be much discussion between colleges, the Association of Colleges, business groups and the Government to address those issues. We are listening to ideas about how to strengthen the sector, and we will publish a White Paper in the near future.
There has never been a more important time for this. We are facing significant skills shortages in key sectors, including construction and engineering, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, but there are many others. Until recently, we also had low levels of unemployment. However, the prospect of dire levels of unemployment means that now is the time to ensure that we invest in our FE sector and build back better as a nation.
This has been a wide-ranging debate; we have covered a lot in an hour. I will quickly highlight some points raised. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) mentioned that colleges are the greatest tool in combating poverty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, made the social justice case for a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) showed how her college is deeply embedded in her community. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) highlighted how her college is getting involved in kickstart. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) showed collaborative working on the BioYorkshire initiative. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) highlighted the problems with the apprenticeship levy for SMEs. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) highlighted the role here for levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) talked about the global expertise coming from his colleges, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) highlighted the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.
The clock is ticking. For a few seconds, let us suppose that that clock is ticking to midnight. Let us make sure that Cinderella really does disappear this time, that this is no longer the Cinderella part of education, and that we will not need VAR to determine that that is the case.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).