Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 4 November 2020

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

[Relevant Documents: Eighth Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2017-19, Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 840, and the Government response, HC 1764. First Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019, Follow-up: sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, HC 111; and the Government response, HC 127. Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 16 July, 22 September, 6, 13 and 20 October and 3 November, on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector: next steps, HC 605.]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the Room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if there are on the call lists. This applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list and Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of sexual abuse and exploitation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. When we think of overseas aid workers, we imagine altruistic individuals using their skills to provide essential support to people in need across the world, often with little compensation or formal recognition. Peacekeepers, especially those from the United Nations, also enjoy a favourable public image associated as they are with reducing fatalities and helping communities damaged by conflict to rebuild and recover. When they perform their roles correctly, they represent the best of humanity but when they abuse their positions of responsibility, they harm their relations with the host country population, jeopardise peacekeeping and development efforts and leave victims behind, damaged and with no idea of where to obtain redress. I intend for this debate to focus on how to protect the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers and prevent further victims from being made in the future.

The involvement of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in sexual exploitation and abuse and the difficulties experienced by their victims in obtaining redress has been known about for years. To provide some examples from the Select Committee on International Development report on “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” published in 2018, I point to the revelations in 2002 about children being abused in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In 2007-08, the vast majority of surveyed victims of sexual exploitation in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand said they did not know where or how to report their abuse. Last month, staff from a variety of organisations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, Oxfam and World Vision were discovered to have exploited and abused girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is going on again, again and again.

Host countries damaged by poverty and war naturally have displaced people and it is not the case the peacekeepers and overseas aid workers are merely passive participants in the effects of deprivation and misery in host countries. Sometimes their arrival can actively create the problems. A note by the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1996 entitled “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” concluded:

“In six out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children during armed conflict, the arrival of peace-keeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”

Most obviously international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers have access to money, food, supplies and other resources that enable them to exercise influence over the population of the host country. This influence is frequently used improperly—for example, to obtain transactional sex. Women sometimes even have to sell their young daughters for food and supplies. That may be shocking but the fact that it happens just shows how desperate the victims are.

As I said at the beginning, overseas aid workers and international peacekeepers have incredibly important roles supporting the most vulnerable across the world. When they engage in sexual exploitation and abuse, they undermine the trust of the people they are meant to protect and of the people who support them at home. Public trust in charities has fallen since these matters were reported, so have donations. Ultimately, sexual exploitation and abuse undermine the efforts of those workers who conduct themselves properly.

Reading the reports of historical sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers, and the responses of organisations involved, provides a sense of déjà vu. First, there are the apologies, often expressed in general terms about falling short of standards, which are undefined. Secondly, there are frequent platitudes about “lessons being learned” and the interests of victims being at the forefront while ultimately inconclusive investigations are commissioned. During that stage, the perpetrators can be allowed to resign quietly and are free to take employment with another organisation operating in a different country, where they continue their abusive behaviour. Thirdly, there is a gradual loss of interest in the issue until, in five or six years’ time, the exact same thing happens again and the same people make the same excuses. That complacency has led to the trend of the last three decades and it must stop.

While ever I am on a Committee looking at how the aid budget is spent on behalf of our taxpayers, I will keep asking the questions that many do not want asked, which I have been doing since I first heard about this shocking problem at the world humanitarian summit in 2016 in Istanbul. I heard about the problem at one of the fringe meetings, where panellists from several different countries discussed the problem and admitted that nothing could be done about it. From that moment on, I asked about it in almost every IDC evidence session until it was recognised that something had to be done, but only when the Oxfam and Save the Children scandal happened was I finally taken seriously.

There are already fears in the current IDC that the latest round of complacency has arrived. In the evidence session on 7 May 2019, we were given an assurance by Frances Longley, then chief executive of Amref Health Africa UK, who said:

“As a sector, we are passionately committed to making that reporting better and more effective, and we absolutely stand side by side with you on that.”

But I wonder what is actually happening. Tracey Smith, then chief executive of British Expertise International, stated:

“The companies have shared best practice. They have looked at the way the sector operates. They have collaborated together, but it is felt that those specific, strategic issues, the support for survivors, cultural change, minimum standards, organisational capacity and capability, are covered by the code of conduct.”

Passion, collaboration and discussion do not produce results and will certainly not do so if they fall back on a vague code of conduct that has hitherto abjectly failed to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable women and girls across the world.

Three problems must be addressed to discourage potential abusers from exploiting women and girls and to support those who have been abused. They relate to reporting, investigation and whistleblowing. Victims of sexual exploitation and abuse encounter significant problems when they attempt to report their experiences. Many different legal regimes may operate in the context of international peacekeepers and overseas aid workers in mission host countries. There is international law, which often comes with immunity in respect of certain actions; the law of the perpetrator’s country, which may or may not provide redress; and the host country’s law, which cannot be reliable if the host country is in political turmoil.

Generally, victims lack the expertise to pursue their cases without legal assistance, and of course they lack the ability to pay for that legal assistance unless they rely on those organisations that may have been responsible for their abuse in the first instance. Different organisations have different structures and complaints procedures, and there may be so many operating in one area that it is impossible to know which the abuser belongs to. Reporting rape and sexual assault is difficult in the best of places, but as Professor Andrew MacLeod stated in the IDC’s evidence session on 6 October this year, in the context of host countries,

“It is like asking the victim of rape to report to the rapist”.

Often, the women or girls cannot read, so notices that we have been assured are pinned up for the victims to read go unread and therefore the complicated systems for reporting such abuse are a complete waste of time.

This situation is not improved by the behaviours of the institutions involved. In the evidence session on 6 October, Sienna Merope-Synge characterised the “practical reality” of the UN’s assistance as

“usually a black hole of information; that is the standard. At best it may be some charitable crumbs to the victim that is not based on an acknowledgement of legal rights and responsibility.”

In the minority of cases that are reported to the organisation involved, there is no guarantee that effective remedial action will be taken against the perpetrators, even when they are known and identified.

The Oxfam scandal of 2018 is probably the best known example of that. After an investigation by The Times in February of that year, it emerged that senior staff in Oxfam’s mission to Haiti, including the Belgian country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, had hired prostitutes at a villa rented by the charity. An internal investigation commenced, in which several of the abusers admitted using “prostitutes”. The internal report concluded that there was a culture of impunity among Oxfam staff and that some of the “prostitutes” could have been under age, yet that report remained confidential. The perpetrators were allowed to resign and the details disclosed to the Charity Commission were inadequate.

Shockingly, The Times reported that Dame Barbara Stocking, the chief executive of Oxfam at that time, offered van Hauwermeiren a “dignified exit”, because sacking him would have had potentially serious implications for the charity’s reputation. In other words, Oxfam was more concerned with looking good than doing good, and acquiesced in one of its top staff members enjoying all the acclaim of his position while performing none of his responsibilities towards the vulnerable people he was meant to protect. He had already been investigated for inappropriate sexual activity in 2011, when he had worked for Merlin, but he had been allowed to resign and go to another job elsewhere.

In numerous evidence sessions to the IDC, it has become apparent that the problem is not exclusive to Oxfam. Nevertheless, what I want to know is why they believe that women or girls are “prostitutes” rather than victims. How many people in this Chamber went to school with somebody who said, “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute?” Exactly: these women or girls are victims, as are all sex workers.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. When someone applies for another job—ever mindful of their experience and what they have done before—is there not an obligation on that charitable body, or whoever, to ensure that when it seeks a character reference it contains the full details of what the person did before they left their former job?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I think that the problem with character references is that those giving them can be sued, and they often have to be public. Often, the person applying for a job has to know what has been said in their character reference, which I feel is completely wrong. Very often, what someone has done is known about, but they resign before the end of the investigation into their activity, which means there is no blot on their copybook; nobody knows about their behaviour and they move on. That is a serious problem and I hope that we will hear from the Minister as to how he will address it.

Reporting sexual exploitation and abuse is often discouraged by those organisations that do not have transparent structures. Many whistleblowers, having approached the media or other organisations, are summarily dismissed and unable to work again in a similar role. These are not isolated examples; there are many examples.

One recent example that attracted notoriety is that of Anders Kompass, a former employee of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2014, he approached French authorities regarding sexual exploitation and abuse that he had learned about by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. He was suspended for not having gone through the formality of asking his superior for guidance before whistleblowing and for including personal details of the victims in his report. He was later exonerated by an independent panel. The UN’s allegations were spurious. However, six years later the investigations into the allegations against the French peacekeepers have still not been completed. It is often difficult to avoid the impression that organisations complicit in sexual exploitation and abuse are more concerned with protecting themselves than with punishing the perpetrators, with scant regard for the victims. Given the difficulties at every stage, from perpetration and reporting to whistleblowing and investigating to obtain redress, fundamental changes must be implemented to ensure the safety of women and girls in the world’s most deprived areas. We must not forget that it is a problem for a few boys as well, although a much smaller number than for girls.

Currently, frontline aid workers do not require Disclosure and Barring Service checks to operate in host countries. DBS checks ensure that people working with children and vulnerable adults do not have a history of abuse, which is an effective move towards protection. Since overseas aid workers support mainly very vulnerable children and adults, a requirement that they obtain DBS checks or something similar might improve the situation. There is an aid worker registration scheme that would prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from moving around the sector after their abuse has been detected. The scheme could be made effective if donors and Governments were encouraged to make their donations conditional on an organisation being a member of the scheme.

Twenty-one of the 30 major donors that form the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD have agreed to pilot the scheme. Regular reporting of safeguarding and misconduct data would also ensure that victims are actively sought out rather than expected to report their abuse to organisations that, understandably, they do not trust. The establishment of an ombudsman by the international aid community could reduce the complexity of legal systems and complaints procedures that contribute to the chronic under-reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse. Such abuse by peacekeepers and overseas aid workers is an appalling fact of life for vulnerable people in the world’s most deprived and war-torn areas. It is thought that because sexual exploitation and abuse of under-age children has been tackled primarily in the churches, particularly in this country through the Scouting and Guiding groups and all those other places where it was happening, many of the perpetrators are gravitating towards the aid sector because they can go abroad where they are anonymous and can get away not with murder, but with sexual exploitation and abuse. My hope is that effective reforms will be implemented to improve the situation and that the victims are not simply forgotten, as they have been time and again.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) was the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, she had an international summit just across the road, where many of us present believed that much would be done and achieved as a result of a spotlight on the problem. Things have changed, but nowhere near enough. The whole culture must change, not only to ensure that proper reporting is done, but to stop men’s abuse of women and girls. Men need to know that there is absolutely no tolerance of such behaviour, and that if it happens they will be sacked immediately and will be unlikely to get another job where they have access to the most vulnerable.

I wish to ask the Minister what solutions the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has come up with to ensure that this country does not in future become complicit in any form of sexual exploitation and abuse of anyone, never mind the most vulnerable people in the world. What will the Department do to stop it from happening again and again? How does the new, mighty Department plan to follow on from the female Secretaries of State for DFID?

The debate can last until 11 o’clock. At three minutes before 11, I will call Pauline Latham to sum up the debate. That means I am required to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister. Until 10.27 we are in Back-Bench time. Five very distinguished Back-Benchers seek to contribute. Members should bear in mind that the longer they speak at the beginning, the less time a distinguished colleague will have to speak at the end, but we have until 10.27 for Back-Bench contributions. I call Sarah Champion.

I apologise for my tardiness this morning, Mr Hollobone; I got a little over-excited with the one-way system. I am incredibly grateful to follow in the wake of my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I use the word “wake” determinedly and decidedly, because she has really ploughed a way that the rest of us have followed. I can honestly say that the work of the International Development Committee has been led by her championing this, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

The IDC first started to work on this topic in February 2018, following the Haiti scandal. I am really glad that the Government took this seriously and, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, held the summit. We had high hopes for that, and I speak of my optimism both as someone who has campaigned for child protection and now as the Chair of the IDC. The non-governmental organisations took up the challenge led by the umbrella organisation, Bond, that put in place training, policies and lots of resources. The UK NGOs saw this as an opportunity to better their practice and get on top of the issues.

Unfortunately, what we have seen is an endless cycle of scandals leading to policy change, rather than work to address the actual problem that is obvious to all of us if we only take the time to look. It is quite simple—people who prey on the vulnerable go to where the vulnerable are. We have seen big movements within faith organisations and children’s organisations to prohibit and prevent this sort of behaviour, to call it out and to prosecute, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

I am, however, shocked that the aid sector is probably 20 or 30 years behind that. The culture that existed, for example, in faith organisations, still exists within the aid sector. They see themselves as doing good work, as being virtuous, and think that everyone is there for the right reasons, so they do not dig down into the fact that perhaps a very small minority is there for very, very wrong reasons.

Abuse can always happen where there is a power imbalance. By very definition, aid workers work with the most vulnerable people on the planet. The IDC is currently running an inquiry into the sexual exploitation of beneficiaries by aid workers, and I have discovered that there is a very unpleasant layering of racism, colonialism, and deep, deep sexism coming from the aid workers to the beneficiaries. We have to challenge this. We really need to see the Government stepping back onto this platform.

I spoke to a number of women aid workers who belong to a Facebook group that they set up when one of them was raped and did not know where to turn. There are now 8,000 women aid workers in that Facebook support group. They set it up to support one another when they were sexually harassed and abused by their colleagues, but when I spoke to them about the beneficiaries they said, “Of course it is going on there. If they do it to us, of course they are going to be doing it to the beneficiaries, where there is even less comeback or awareness and the power imbalance is even greater.” They described it as the wild west: these men—and it is almost exclusively men—coming in as saviours on their white horses, but now they tend to be white UN Hummers and Land Cruisers.

I want to focus a little bit on the UN, because a lot of the abuse we are seeing is by UN peacekeepers. We are very grateful that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF appeared before our Committee. They are the two branches of the UN that have been on the front foot in trying to address abuses in the system. However, there are many branches to the UN and unfortunately the abuse is repeated time and again. It should not be. In 2013, a UN investigation declared sexual exploitation and abuse

“the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians”.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself asserted that “a single substantiated case” of SEA

“involving UN personnel is one case too many”.

Yet civilian and military personnel associated with peacekeeping operations continue to perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, despite the development of policy frameworks designed to prevent it and hold perpetrators to account. However, the cycle of abuse—oh, shock!—and action, rather than focusing on prevention, is the reason we are constantly in this loop; and it is a loop and has been going on since that statement. Haiti continued from 2004 to 2017, with peacekeepers stationed there trading sex with children for food, and dozens of women left pregnant from rape.

I have discovered that there is almost a currency exchange going on. I speak to different peacekeepers and aid workers in camps around the world, and it is standard: “If you want a tarpaulin, I spend the night with your daughter.” That is the exchange that we are allowing to be perpetuated. From 2013 to 2015 in Central African Republic, more than 108 cases were investigated, including the sexual abuse of women and children. Twenty-six peacekeepers, from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea, were accused of forcing children into acts of bestiality. Human Rights Watch also documented gang rapes by armed UN peacekeepers near the base where women were scrabbling around looking for food. They were then threatened with death if they reported it.

In 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN peacekeepers were accused of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, accounting for roughly a third of all allegations against peacekeepers in 2017. Women, again, were left pregnant and forced to care for children on their own. Video from Tel Aviv in 2020 shows a woman straddling a man in the back seat of a vehicle from the UN Truce Supervision Organisation unit.

The reason it keeps on happening is that the focus is on the victims to report, and then on banning the perpetrators once they are discovered. It is just not realistic. In the DRC, one organisation had 23 reporting mechanisms, but they were not being used and it took journalists to uncover what was going on. We keep hearing, particularly of the UN, that there is a culture of impunity. The UN says that it has zero tolerance, but in the DRC, UN-marked vehicles were driving the perpetrators to hotels to “interview” the women for jobs. There was also a lot of hostility in DRC towards aid workers. Are we really surprised?

Yesterday, we had a session looking at the report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact on abuses carried out by peacekeepers, and it became clear that there was a lack of commitment in middle management, leading to that feeling of impunity. There is no regulatory body for the UN. The UK could push for that. Transactional sex versus sexual exploitation: there is allowed to be a grey area for what is or is not acceptable. Let us just say that sex with any beneficiary is not acceptable. The UN’s whistleblower protection is, to be honest, useless.

We need an independent mechanism to give confidence to victims. To make lasting change we need strong leadership. I say that, because I know the Minister can do this: he can give us that leadership and take personal responsibility for tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, and make it his priority. He can ensure that the UK uses its diplomatic ties with the UN and Governments around the world to start meaningful discussions on how we can get justice for victims and survivors.

Why does the UK not contribute to the UN trust fund in support of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse? As to prevention, mechanisms to prevent SEA and provide support for victims and survivors should be incorporated in the design of all aid programmes, and budgeted for, from the start. The Government should fund only aid organisations that can demonstrate how to militate against sexual exploitation and that that is integral in all of their work. Aid organisations should challenge the extreme power imbalances between the people delivering aid and the local populations receiving it. The Minister should be championing that and challenging those imbalances. I understand why we are shifting resources from the ongoing humanitarian crisis to the covid-19 response, but we still need to do the base work. The Government have put significant time, energy and resources into looking at the perpetrators and how to prevent them from working, but we need to put the same energy into preventing those abusers from having access to potential victims.

I echo the final point made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire: we cannot expect victims to come forward and report. We need to be there on the ground—preventing, looking and, most importantly, listening. I have one final ask for the Minister, which is really simple. Currently, NGOs cannot access DBS checks. We need to expand what is classified as regulated activity, and then we can stop this parade of people going to exploit the most vulnerable in the world.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just on the work that she is doing today by highlighting this issue, but on all the work she does to highlight the sexual exploitation of women and child marriage. The Minister could do very well to listen closely to what she says at all times, because it is built on many years of experience.

It is with great trepidation that I follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who is another expert on these issues. She has dedicated many years to talking about sexual exploitation not just in the international sector—as she has so eloquently just done—but in the domestic sector. Again, the Minister could do very well to listen to the Chair of the Select Committee, because she brings incredible expertise on these issues. They are complex and difficult to solve, and trying to solve them overnight is not something that we will be able to do; it has to be for the long term.

There can be few people in this country who were not shocked to the core by the revelations that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about. They challenged our trust in organisations that are household names—organisations that many of us would freely give to on a regular basis were being brought into the frame for overseeing some of the most horrendous abuse in places such as Haiti and far beyond. We have heard heartbreaking accounts from victims, and we have been shocked at the way that perpetrators were simply allowed to move from organisation to organisation, almost as a matter of right. I was glad to hear about today’s debate because of the ongoing work that the Select Committee has done on this issue, but also because of the inability to find a solution and the need to hold the Government to account.

At the time of the revelations, I was contacted by some of the whistleblowers in one of the international organisations. I was absolutely shocked to the core at the lack of reporting mechanisms. Indeed, as I think the Chair of the Select Committee said, the fact that victims had to report the abuse to the perpetrator is completely unacceptable.

Through their work over the past 10 years, the Government have put themselves at the centre of international development. The UK Government are an acknowledged world leader on these issues, which is why it is important to hear from the Minister how they are taking forward that leadership position. If one thing is for sure, the UK Government cannot step back from that now. We have to step up to the plate and continue to use vigorously our international development clout, which we undoubtedly have, for the good of the sort of people we are talking about.

In their response to the most recent Select Committee report—the Committee has produced two and I think it has almost finished a third report on this issue—the Government rightly said that things cannot be changed in a short period of time. It requires a sustained commitment from each Minister who holds the portfolio that my hon. Friend the Minister has at the moment so that we can see a change, not just in the mechanisms, as has been said today in this debate, but in the ingrained culture that pervades these organisations.

That culture is pervasive because, as the Chair of the Select Committee has said, people who prey on the vulnerable go to where the vulnerable are, whether it is at home or abroad. The recent evidence that the Select Committee has taken for its third report has underlined that. We are talking about a group of workers who have remote and insecure tenure and we have a group of people who are in need of support and have no power at all; they are the most vulnerable people on the planet.

We need clarity from the Government, both today in this debate and in the long term, as to where the international development portfolio sits within the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I am an enormous supporter of the merging of the two Departments, as it could be a power for good to have the leadership of the Foreign Secretary on these issues. That is not to take away from previous International Development Secretaries, but that leadership puts it at the heart of the most powerful people in our Government. However, I am not clear as to exactly where the international development strategy lies within the former Foreign Office’s body of work on a daily basis. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister if he could set that out today.

I believe that the FCDO—or the former Foreign Office—has a fantastic track record on issues to do with women’s rights around the world, whether under William Hague, when he was dealing with women in areas of conflict, or, indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had that role, dealing with education for girls around the world. This is strongly within Foreign Office culture , but the Minister needs to set out today and as the weeks go on, exactly how that strategy will be embedded in the new departmental structure, as it is important that people understand that.

I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has talked about this: the 2018 to 2030 strategic vision for gender equality on international development is crucial. It is an important piece of work that sets out the Government’s long-term commitment to issues of gender equality around the world. The issue of sexual exploitation is at the heart of that.

Can the Minister reconfirm the Government’s commitment to that strategic vision in its entirety at this stage, as well as looking at the more practical measures that the Select Committee has now put forward on two occasions to make sure that there is lasting change on issues of sexual exploitation? Embedding measures around whistleblowing and reporting are crucial, as well as having that strategic vision at the heart of the Government’s work.

In conclusion, under the newly-formed FCDO, the Government have an opportunity to renew their international credentials on these issues of support for women around the world. Sexual exploitation, unfortunately, is not going away. Action taken over the last 10 years has put this Government at the centre of these issues on the global stage, and we must not stand back now. Tackling sexual exploitation needs to be at the heart of the FCDO’s strategy for gender equality as we move forward.

I know my hon. Friend the Minister is a great champion of these issues. He is a man of great integrity, and I know that he will bring that to this job. I look to him to ensure that within the Government’s work, this is not just something that is talked about in Westminster Hall debates, but is tackled on a daily basis—not just within his portfolio, but by all of his colleagues within the newly formed Department.

I congratulate the hon. Lady for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on bringing forward the case and presenting it so well. I almost feel in awe of those who have spoken before me, including the hon. Lady for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the right hon. Lady for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who both do incredible work in this department. I think we owe a debt to those three ladies in particular. I am not taking anything away from those who will speak after me, including the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I just think that those three ladies have put a wonderful case and we thank them for their work. I am pleased to see the Minister. I am not quite sure whether this is an order, Mr Hollobone, but I think he might be at Westminster Hall more often than I am. It is good to see him.

You may be aware, Mr Hollobone, that I hail from what is not only the most beautiful country in the UK but the most generous. I say that factually: it is understood that Northern Ireland donates the most money per capita to charity than anywhere else in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are that sort of people. I am not taking away from anybody else, but that is what we do. The facts indicate that. I am a great believer in the need to help others. I am a well-known advocate in this place for retaining our international development funding and for using NGOs and Christian charities on the ground. I know many churches that do incredible work. They do it—I say this honestly—because they are generous people and they want to help. That is what it should all be about.

I was very shocked and saddened by reports of exploitation in Haiti by NGO workers. It is clear that, although it is good to use NGOs on the ground, we must be certain that there is no abuse on the ground. I read with dismay a number of briefings presented to me by different NGOs and by Bond, which represents a number of NGOs, indicating the serious response of charities to the thought that any of their staff, anywhere in the world, would take advantage of the most vulnerable people.

It makes my blood boil when I hear that those in power have used and abused their important positions for a loaf of bread. Would anyone here give someone a loaf of bread with a condition attached? No, we would not—or at least I would not, and neither would anyone else in this Chamber. We would give it to them because they wanted it. Would we give someone a tarpaulin because they wanted and needed it? Of course we would, and we would not attach a condition to it. Why is it that these people, including UN peacekeepers and some charity workers, are using their position in such an obscene, violent and criminal way? They are there to help; they are not there to abuse underage children. It absolutely shocks me to the core when I think of what those people have done. I tell you what—no, I cannot say what I was about to say; that would be wrong. I will just say this: let the law of the land take control and bring them to account.

Bond has suggested a number of ways in which we in this place can play our part. First, we should make safeguarding in aid and development a political priority, ensuring that core safeguarding is funded effectively through the grant and contracting processes. I say to the Minister that that is key. It is about making sure that those NGOs and charities have in place a methodology that makes these people accountable.

We need a requirement to ensure that new systems reach the most marginalised and invest in prevention. Bond states:

“In the past two years, increased resources have been dedicated to the development of policies, systems and structures, providing a sound platform for reports to be sensitively and effectively handled and responded to. A vital next step is to ensure that these new systems reach marginalised people in the communities in which NGOs are working.”

NGOs are on the frontline. They have a position of incredible responsibility, but they should be using it for the vulnerable people—for those people who need help. Just help them—do not take advantage of them. Bond adds that investment should go

“prevention, rather than waiting for people to speak up when the damage has been done”.

We also need UK legislation to widen the meaning of regulated activity. Perhaps legislation needs to be tweaked in order to provide an obligation for NGO workers to have DBS checks, and to require NGOs to report to the DBS any cases where harm has been caused, so that these individuals can be not just legally barred but made accountable in the courts of the land and prevented from working with children and at-risk people. Making such checks available to NGOs should be a priority, so I ask the Minister: how will that protection be provided? I know that he is going to reply to the debate, but speaking honestly and from the bottom of my heart, I think we all want that to be in place.

You have been clear about the time, Mr Hollobone, so I will conclude with this. There are many issues that we cannot control, but there are others that we can and we must sow them. This new way of doing things must take priority. We must put in place a new system of working in partnership with NGOs that goes beyond funding. Were direct Government workers to be found guilty of exploitation, we would make changes to prevent repeats. If that is our approach in this land, let us do it in other lands as well. I know that the responsibility for running these charities does not belong to us in this House, but we still have an obligation to make safeguarding changes that permeate through the NGOs, as we seek to ensure that every penny that we put into the charities helps people and does not abuse and exploit the vulnerable any further.

I will be brief. It is always a pleasure to honour my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I support what he has said and I deeply respect the contributions that have been made by other eminent Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I want to take a slightly different line, because I do not want to repeat what they have already said with such gravitas.

I want to focus for a moment on the abuse that has been suffered by women and girls in Pakistan, a country to which the UK pays an estimated £383,000 per day in aid. Many are very young girls from minority groups who are abducted, forcibly married and sexually abused—girls like Huma Younus, who was 14 at the time of her abduction, Maira Shahbaz, who was 14 at the time of hers, and Saneha Kinza Iqbal, who was 15. The list goes on. Research suggests that approximately 1,000 such girls, often from religious minorities, are abducted and sexually abused in Pakistan every year. Unfortunately, not many will see justice.

Should we really be paying a reported £383,000 per day in British taxpayers’ money by way of aid—that adds up to £2.8 billion over 20 years—to a country where the rights of so many women are trampled on, where the rights of minorities are ignored, and where there is no freedom of speech or belief, as enabled by Pakistan’s unacceptable blasphemy laws? Can we allow that to continue without calling it out at the highest level as part of the FCDO strategy and on the ground?

I want to talk a little bit more about Maira Shahbaz. The details come from Aid to the Church in Need, which I commend for its reliable information. I have had the privilege of working with that organisation for 10 years. Aged 14, Maira was abducted during the covid lockdown. She was taken from her home in Madina Town, Pakistan, in April this year. She was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men—a 14-year-old girl. Her life was suddenly turned upside down. She was filmed and photographed being raped and then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her abductors. In a statement to the police, she said:

“They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”

She was placed in a shelter for women and girls, but what is really shocking is that when her case was heard in court, the Lahore High Court judge determined that she should be returned to her abductor. She actually had to return to his home. Fortunately, however, she managed to escape. Her lawyer states:

“Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”

Aid to the Church in Need has launched a petition on her behalf. Her case is ongoing, but she is now forever in danger in her home country. There is the threat of honour killing. Extremists in Pakistan have said that they will kill her at the first chance. Her lawyer has said that men are looking for her, knocking on doors and asking for her whereabouts.

That is all happening while the UK Government continue to pay millions of taxpayers’ money to Pakistan. We need to ask some really important questions. What is being done to protect these vulnerable minority women and girls? How is some of the money being used to support them? What are our aid workers doing on the ground to address this issue? It is not a small issue—thousands of young women are affected. What challenges are our Government making to a judicial system that returns the abused to her abuser? Are the Government putting in place strategic plans to address the issue? To which projects does UK aid contribute to support these vulnerable women and girls? What effective challenges have been made by the UK Government against the utterly unjust blasphemy laws, so often cited to justify such atrocities? Why should such enormous amounts of money continue to be paid to a country that so blatantly fails to address such breaches in fundamental human rights?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. There are five distinguished Back-Bench Members present. I do not include myself among them, but I am humbled by the words of those who have spoken before me, who have worked on the International Development Committee and other long-standing initiatives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate, on her long-standing work on the issue and on the IDC report on sexual abuse in the aid sector. It is a staggering example of why the IDC needs to continue in future years, which is something I will be pushing for in the coming weeks and months.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire talked about the need for agencies not to look good, but to do good. I hope I will add to that point in due course. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) talked about shattering the culture of impunity, which is something I am working on with her. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) talked about the need for a sustained course of action. The UK Government have no excuse, because in 2014 we launched an initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Six years on, nothing has happened, other than lip service. We need more to be done in the short term, so I agree with everything she said about that.

In any conflict or crisis, the sight of aid agency workers or peacekeepers should be welcome. They are the first responders, the international community’s emissaries of good will, peace and assistance. For those suffering from the horrors of war, famine and disease, our NGOs and international organisations, such as the UN, should be welcomed. Their arrival reflects not just medical assistance, food aid and peacekeeping missions, but a realisation that the international community is paying attention to the plight of a people and of a conflict.

Yet, in recent years the bond of trust and faith in our NGOs and those multilateral organisations has been severely damaged by persistent examples of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, some of which has already been mentioned. In 2002, the UNHCR and Save the Children reported that there had been 67 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by 40 aid agencies and nine peacekeeping battalions in Africa.

In 2004, Kate Holt documented sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in the DRC. In 2007 and 2008, a study documented that sexual exploitation and abuse was widespread and common knowledge in aid agencies in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand. The list goes on and on. The same can be said for 2008, 2015 and 2018, which saw exploitation in Syria, the DRC and the Central African Republic. These are not exceptions; they are just the incidences that we know about. That is where the problem lies. Imagine the horror of recognising that those who are there to help turn out to be the exploiters and abusers who harm the very people they are there to protect.

Earlier this year, the UN recognised the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Across this country, we marked the extraordinary work of many peacekeepers across the world. It was right to do that, but it was also a reminder of the work we have to do to ensure that sexual exploitation and abuse is eradicated. Although many in this Chamber joined me in marking that day, I was struck by the remarkable number of people who chose not to do so due to the reports that I have just referenced.

Despite the reports that have been published and the press attention that come with them, the matter is under-reported. The lack of attention given to the matter does not reflect the incredibly high level of abuse and exploitation. We need to rectify that by collating and documenting information, and protecting survivors so that we can identify abuse and prevent it in future years.

Fortunately, I believe there is a solution. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and having worked with Lord Hague when he set up that initiative in 2012, I believe there is a way in which we can end the culture of impunity and tackle sexual abuse and violence in conflicts and crises around the world. One-hundred and forty-seven nations have signed our UN resolution on this topic. It is time we took the action we promised all those years ago and ended the mindset that those who perpetrate such crimes can escape justice. We need radical action to ensure that no one, in any place across the globe, will be able to escape justice if they commit acts of sexual abuse and exploitation.

As faith in multilateral organisations has been so severely hampered over the last few years, I believe that the UK should look to create a new international body that documents crimes, supports survivors and helps to launch prosecutions. Not only would an organisation with this three-pillared approach be a conduit for international organisations to feed in their accounts of sexual exploitation and abuse; it would also allow citizens of every country to seek assistance and to know that the international community is safeguarding their rights, in order to restore the faith that has been so badly lost.

Next year we hold the presidency of the G7. I believe this would be the most opportune moment to launch such an international body—I apologise to the Minister, because I made the same point to him yesterday in this Chamber, but we might as well be consistent. Coupled with a 3% ring fence of our aid budget to tackle gender-based violence, I believe that would reassure people at home and abroad that the UK is still a force for good and that we will not shirk our international responsibilities.

To conclude on a slightly more positive note, I was delighted to read earlier this year about the first ever Pakistani female engagement team, who were deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team, which included psychologists, stress councillors, doctors and nurses, was the right step to help rebuild faith in our peacekeeping missions across the globe. I hope that many other organisations will be taking note and will do the work that is so desperately needed to rebuild the relationship between survivor and aid agency.

Later this month, on 25 November, it is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I am working with Parliaments across the world on a statement of intent and action. We will be holding our own debate in this place on gender-based violence and the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, which I am sure the Minister will probably respond to. I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham, who has already agreed to sign the letter, copies of which I will be sending out later. We have the opportunity to take action. The UK has the platform to do so next year. We need a new international body, and it should be here in the UK, where we are leading by action, not just warm words.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this debate on such an important and distressing subject. It has been a genuine pleasure to hear so many distinguished contributions from Members who have taken a long-standing and deeply principled stance on exposing this scandal, doing all they can to highlight it to other Members and the public at large, and seeking genuine reforms that can make a real difference to many people in vulnerable situations around the world. We have heard harrowing cases cited from many countries, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. They include cases of exploitation of women and girls in particular—albeit not exclusively—but above all people at their most vulnerable. These cases involve the abuse of power and the power imbalances in the relationship between those there to deliver aid and help on the ground, and those in need of that help. It is about who has power in those situations and who does not. It is about who has control—or, in many cases, who is thought to have control—over access to food, shelter, medicine, jobs and life opportunities, and over the immediate future for people, their families and perhaps even their wider communities.

When that relationship is abused, it undermines trust not only in aid workers, who are there to assist how they can, but in the agencies and the work itself. That is not something that we should allow to stand, because that undermining of trust is hugely debilitating for all concerned—not only for the wellbeing of those in need of the aid, but for those who are exploited indirectly through that and for the aid agencies themselves, which rely on their public standing to carry out all the work they do.

According to Professor Andrew MacLeod of Hear Their Cries, a charity fighting sex abuse in the aid sector, there is almost a culture of impunity for abusers at the moment. As we have heard from many speakers this morning, the organisations frequently act as if they are above the law. In many cases, they find it more convenient to cover up than to act and eradicate this problem. Professor MacLeod also said:

“Predators now target the aid industry to join because they know they get away with it.”

As a result of recent enquiries in Parliament, humanitarian groups and five of seven UN agencies, including the WHO, UNICEF, the International Organisation for Migration, World Vision and the medical non-governmental organisation Alama, have now announced inquiries into the matter. Although I welcome that recognition of the problem, which is overdue, it is far too easy just to talk of “zero tolerance”. Those words come very easily; the challenge is in actually doing something about it. Sadly, it will take a great deal more than simply expressing disapproval to ensure that lasting change is to happen, as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said.

Yes, there needs to be a culture of safeguarding within aid agencies and organisations—we are all familiar with that and need to ensure it happens—but there also needs to be a culture in which concerns can be reported and taken seriously without fear of consequence, apart from the consequences that need to arise from those concerns being reported. People need to know that their concerns, when expressed, will be taken seriously, particularly victims, but also those within aid organisations who know what is going on and perhaps do not feel that they have the power to report their concerns.

When we deal with aid agencies, we are dealing with organisations that are by definition at the sharp end of the human experience, operating as they do in areas where civil society has perhaps broken down, whether through conflict or chaos. Many of our own domestic institutions have struggled to deal with accusations of sexual abuse, in a country with a functioning judiciary and legal system. We should not underestimate the difficulties of trying to tackle sexual abuse in situations of chaos and conflict, but that cultural change needs to happen nevertheless. One fundamental thing that we could do that would greatly assist that would be to ensure that more women are represented in aid agencies in leadership, management and frontline positions—I am pleased to see so many hon. Members nodding—to ensure balance and supervision that might not otherwise be there. I do not mean to decry the men working in aid agencies who do their very best and are not party to the abuse, but we need that balance, which could help to bring about and embed the necessary cultural change to challenge the abuse that operates in plain sight.

We need to provide mechanisms to ensure that those who are abused never have to report that abuse to an abuser. We need to find ways of ensuring that recipients of aid—no matter where they are or what their situation, their level of literacy or their access to technology—are made aware that aid is not a transaction: that there is no cost to them and that aid agencies are there to provide aid unconditionally. All that requires leadership, clarity, organisational effectiveness and an improvement of culture in the aid organisations, and is urgently necessary to maintain public confidence, particularly among those who receive the aid.

It is also fair to say that a Government response is required. As I draw my remarks to a close, I will make, I hope, a few constructive suggestions, which I would be grateful if the Minister considered. The UK Government’s reputation in international development is long established and well earned. That authority, together with membership of the permanent five on the UN Security Council, gives the UK Government a particularly strong leadership role in demanding reforms of the United Nations and its agencies—the UN sets a standard that many other agencies will follow. Our leadership position would allow us to embed that culture of internal and external accountability.

We could also do more to facilitate the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of abuse. Too often, it is left to the jurisdictions of the countries where the aid is distributed to deliver justice, when civil society may have substantially broken down and there is chaos. We could allow for prosecution at home. We could allow for a special tribunal to carry out those sorts of prosecutions and to make sure the rights of whistleblowers are defended, particularly regarding abusers but also those who are accused but not as yet deemed guilty, to protect everyone’s rights and also to make sure that mechanism of accountability exists.

The FCDO could also lead in establishing a global register of aid workers, which could allow us to track perpetrators of abuse as they seek to move around countries and agencies. I do not underestimate the challenge, but I think it would be a strong declaration of intent, and a practical way to try to eliminate that sort of behaviour and keep those who are not entering the aid sector with positive motivations away from the most vulnerable as they move around agencies and around the world. We could do a great deal more to build up civil society, strengthening the role of women not only within aid organisations but within civil society, as we seek to rebuild it in those zones that are receiving aid. There is also work to be done to embed a culture of training aid workers to spot abuse and empower those they are there to help, and to help people be aware of their rights and how to challenge and report abuses.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I will say that we have a position of leadership. Many of us—certainly in my party, and I know others across the House—had some concerns about the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to be assured that the Government will dedicate the efforts and resource needed to play a part and, more importantly, to help to restore the reputations of aid agencies around the world. We are in a unique position to do that, and I look to the Minister to tell us how we can carry that out.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this crucial debate. It was a real pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on International Development, and I commend that Committee and its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), as well as her predecessor, Stephen Twigg, for their consistent and relentless attention—particularly that of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire—to these crucial issues over many years. We have heard some excellent contributions today, from the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall)—I know he said he was not distinguished, but I thought it was an excellent and absolutely sincerely meant contribution—as well as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and of course the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as well as the spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson).

Consistent attention to this issue is absolutely crucial, because as we have heard today, simply investigating and responding in a reactive way to each incident in an isolated fashion is not, and will never be, good enough. I regret to say that these issues have been and are systemic, and not just in the aid sector, among international aid agencies, or among private sector contractors working in international development or peacekeeping. They are systemic in all contexts where vulnerable people exist and, crucially, where there are power imbalances, not least gender-based power imbalances, imbalances that exist between donors and recipients, or those that exist between so-called protectors and the people they are supposed to be protecting.

This is a crucial point because, as many of the Members who have spoken today have said, we have to recognise that predators and abusers actively seek out the vulnerable, and usually manipulate and take advantage of such systemic, specific power imbalances. We know this from decades of our own experiences, domestically as well as internationally. Whether in parts of the Church, among celebrities, in sport, in the media or with looked-after children, we have seen those tactics used to find and exploit victims. It is absolutely right, as has been done, to highlight environments of conflict, extreme poverty and distress as particularly vulnerable environments with vulnerable individuals, and I have seen those myself around the world.

I think of one of the first visits I paid to Malawi when working in the NGO sector, when I went to a World Food Programme feeding station that was responding to food shortages in southern Malawi. I was 25 years old. I was taken to a village where hundreds of people were queuing up to receive their assistance from the WFP, yet they had to wait for their food while I was sat on a chair, in front of everybody else sitting in the dust, for me to give a speech. I was taken aback by that, but unfortunately it is the culture that exists: me as a 25-year-old white man, sitting there on a chair while other people sat in the dust, waiting for their food. In those first experiences, it was clear to me how such a situation can turn into one where there is abuse, imbalance and misuse of power.

The resolute and consistent cross-party action of the International Development Committee in pursuing these issues underpins the Committee’s value and why, in scrutinising our official development assistance, our role in these matters is crucial. I hope the Committee or one similar will continue to scrutinise our official development assistance budget. I urge the Minister to consider that point, which has had support from across the House.

I have seen NGOs, peacekeepers and others do huge good around the world but, I am sorry to say, this is not the first time I have had to speak on these issues. As a former staff member of Oxfam and World Vision, I was utterly horrified by what I heard was happening in Haiti. At the time, I said:

“I completely share the horror and revulsion about the revelations…I feel let down. I know that many current Oxfam staff members feel completely let down, too, both by the actions of those who carried out these terrible incidents and by the failure to deal with them”.—[Official Report, 20 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 53.]

That is absolutely crucial.

Some years later, I was horrified to hear of another example. I will not read out the name of the individual at the heart of the allegations in Haiti, not least because I cannot pronounce it, but also because he does not need his name repeated. I spoke to a former civil servant for the Department for International Development, who said that that man was well known throughout the sector and had moved from agency to agency before ending up in that situation with Oxfam.

That is a tragedy, because organisations mentioned today such as World Vision have led work internationally on these matters. One of the first issues I worked with them on was tackling the loophole that allowed paedophiles to travel to south-east Asia to abuse children. World Vision did incredible work on that, so it is a great tragedy for me that some of the organisations that have led in the fight to protect vulnerable people find these problems in their own organisations.

We have heard many excellent contributions and recommendations today, which I wholeheartedly endorse on behalf of the official Opposition. I hope the Minister will explain what progress has been made on working globally with others to implement the recommendations that the Committee has made in its several reports, not least in the light of new allegations in relation to the DRC.

I want to highlight a particular recommendation that the IDC made in its report. We cannot have platitudes, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said. It is simply not good enough. The Committee said:

“Whilst we recognise the value of developing best practice guidance and ensuring that it is widely available, we learned from our initial SEA inquiry that the existence of good guidance is only valuable to the extent that it is followed in practice.”

The Committee also warned:

“Voluntary self-regulation of safeguarding standards allows failures on sexual exploitation and abuse to slip through the cracks: in our view the case for an independent ombudsman remains strong.”

I want to highlight another area from the IDC report, which said:

“Protection for whistle-blowers should form part of all frameworks for reporting sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of both beneficiaries and staff.”

Insufficient attention is being given to these issues. The protection of whistleblowers and the freedom of people to come forward and speak out on these issues is crucial. I wonder how the Minister will respond to those key points.

The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation recently exposed shocking reports regarding the DRC. They have horrified hon. Members across the House. The investigation was released in September and refers to 51 women who have accused aid workers of sexual exploitation and abuse during the Ebola response in the DRC. Organisations involved, allegedly, include the World Health Organisation, World Vision, UNICEF, the Alliance for International Medical Action, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières and the International Organization for Migration.

Many of those accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers, exposing multiple incidents of alleged abuse. Given the number and similarity of the accounts from the women in the eastern city of Beni—one of the epicentres of Ebola—it is likely that the abuse was widespread, but the investigation only focused on Beni. We have to accept that in these situations we are not getting the full picture of what has been going on.

I do not need to further detail the stories, which have already been mentioned, of women being plied with drinks, ambushed in offices and hospitals, some being locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply, and, of course, forced pregnancies as a result of abuse. It is absolutely extraordinary. Men from countries including Belgium, Burkina Faso, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, France and Guinea were named as abusers. Many women were afraid to come forward and speak out about their experiences.

With the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), I wrote to the agencies implicated in that response. I am sorry to say that we have not heard back from many of them, but I commend Oxfam and World Vision for responding very robustly and rapidly. Oxfam pointed out in particular that it has now joined the inter-agency misconduct disclosure scheme, which aims to highlight perpetrators. But again I have to ask: is that working? We see these platitudes in these letters; we see these warm words. What is the reality on the ground? These examples keep happening again and again. We asked some extremely tough questions and we will continue to do so.

Oxfam also pointed out research that it was doing that had uncovered a range of aspects that prevent people from coming forward. It pointed out the issues of people not being willing to speak in certain country contexts, preferences about the way to report incidents and so on. I am not sure that that needs research. A lot of it is absolute common sense and blatantly obvious to anybody who has looked at these examples. We need to see less dilly-dallying and dithering by agencies. We need to see action on the ground, and the Government need to be supporting that.

I have some questions for the Minister, not least about the response of the FCDO itself. People may think that the issue is just aid agencies, peacekeepers or others, but unfortunately Governments and international agencies are also involved. Therefore, although we welcome the change to the new FCDO terms and conditions and human resources policies to ensure that sexual relationships between staff and beneficiaries and partners are considered unacceptable and will be treated as potential gross misconduct by the FCDO, can the Minster explain who is included within that category of staff and whether the same treatment will be applied to all staff who are contracted to Departments that are spending UK official development assistance? Is the FCDO providing adequate funding to ensure that safeguarding is at the heart of our ODA programmes with agencies, contractors and multilateral agencies?

Then there is armed forces training. The Minister will know that we give a lot of support to, for example, peacekeepers. Will he explain what is happening on that and how we are ensuring adherence to the highest standards in those we are training? Given that there needs to be co-ordination, will he also explain how the Government are looking at monitoring individuals as they move between organisations? That is one of the crucial issues that have come to light.

In conclusion, we must accept that there is a systemic problem. We have to drive systemic and cultural change within organisations in the sector and ensure that there is prevention, not just reaction.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) not just for securing this debate, but for having been a passionate voice in this area for a considerable time, and long before this issue was in the broader public consciousness. I will go through some of the UK Government’s actions, but I think that one reason why we find ourselves in a leadership position on this is that there have been voices such as my hon. Friend’s, which have been making this case for far longer than others.

I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her chairmanship of the Select Committee and to the members of that Committee, who have pursued with alacrity this incredibly important issue.

I thank all those hon. Members who have made contributions today. We all joke about how Westminster Hall is a much better debating place than the main Chamber of the House of Commons, but with this debate it has been shown once again that, sometimes, difficult and challenging questions can be asked in good faith, with a desire to bring about positive change, rather than just as a short-term political stick to beat each other with across the aisle. I will respond as much as I can to the points that have been made.

Sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are completely unacceptable, especially in a sector whose purpose is to help the most vulnerable. My concern sometimes is that these stories are used by critics of ODA spending as an excuse for the UK to withdraw from its international commitments. I will say this clearly: no, it is a reason for us to work harder to address these issues rather than to step away from them.

In 2018, the aid sector’s failure to tackle sexual exploitation came into sharp relief, and it has been raised by a number of people today. We now realise—indeed, it is very clear—that it was far from an isolated incident. That has been reinforced today. The hon. Member for Rotherham highlighted the pernicious cocktail of attitudes that are, unfortunately, if not prevalent, then certainly not isolated in the aid sector, and that lead some people to believe that the people they are meant to be helping are somehow lesser than them.

The case is therefore clear: we must do more to drive up safeguarding standards, and we must act quickly. Inevitably, there will be a power and wealth imbalance in the sector that we are talking about, but we must never accept the inevitability that that should lead to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Since 2018, the UK has spearheaded work to tackle sexual misconduct in the aid sector. We launched a £10 million multi-year initiative with Interpol to identify and stop perpetrators from working in the sector and, with a UK commitment of £10 million, we developed tools to help organisations with their safeguarding. The misconduct disclosure scheme, backed by the UK, prevented at least 36 people with track records of sexual misconduct from being employed by NGOs in 2019. Following wide consultation, we have designed a new multi-million-pound programme of support to survivors and victims. We will provide further details in 2021.

Yet cases still occur far too frequently, as we have seen in the horrific reports from the DRC, and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is absolutely right that we have to assume that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Reporting has increased—which perversely, I suppose, is a positive sign. We know that there has been, as is often the case with sexual abuse, huge under-reporting, both domestically and internationally.

Tackling sexual misconduct is a priority for the UK Government. In September, we published our first aid sector safeguarding strategy. The UK is pushing for change in three areas. First is sector-wide change. The UK is providing global leadership to tackle the issue from the top. The Prime Minister is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Circle of Leadership to prevent and end sexual exploitation and abuse. The UK brings together donors, NGOs, the United Nations and others to ensure a coherent international approach. We adhere to global standards on sexual misconduct and require our partners to do the same. In 2019, we helped to write and signed the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s recommendations on the issue, with 29 other DAC members.

Organisational change within the UK Government is our second priority; that means a comprehensive look at our own cultures and practices. We have sent a clear message out to all staff that safeguarding is a responsibility for everybody, and we hope that will alleviate the challenge of where victims have to report to their abusers. At the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, that includes a clear statement in our staff code of conduct that sexual exploitation and abuse based on power imbalances, including paying for sex—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire is absolutely right; I will not describe that as prostitution, because that is not what it is: it is abuse—is gross misconduct. All ODA-spending Departments have signed up to that language.

Thirdly, we want to raise standards among those who deliver UK programmes overseas. We have strengthened our due diligence assessments and aligned the safeguarding language in our multilateral funding agreements with other donors, clearly setting out our collective expectations. Reaching our standards can be a challenge for some small grass-roots organisations, so the UK has created the resource and support hub to help build up their safeguarding capabilities. Some might argue that we are not tough enough and should cut funding to all organisations where any allegations occur. Our concern is that that would introduce a perverse incentive to cover up the very issues that we need to see more of.

Does that apply to all staff in all Departments spending ODA and all those contracted to those Departments? That is important.

On the language that I used about gross misconduct, the t’s and c’s of the FCDO can apply only to the FCDO, but all ODA-spending Government Departments have agreed with the wording underpinning that. All Departments signed up to the language in the UK strategy. It is about trying to ensure that we do not introduce perverse incentives that would drive the issue back underground, as we have seen before.

Regrettably, safeguarding cases will still occur from time to time. However, we collectively work to reduce the risk, and we will not tolerate a lack of effort or action. That is why we require our partners to do all they reasonably can to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and to respond sensitively to the victims and robustly within organisations. We will not fund partners who do not reach those standards.

Let me end by saying that more needs to be done. Sadly, we have heard that this issue will be an enduring challenge, and the UK will remain at the forefront. We will place the rights, needs and wishes of victims and survivors and the centre of our response. The UK strategy sets out four commitments for all Departments delivering UK aid: we will continue to provide global leadership; we will hold ourselves to the same high standards that we expect of others; we will transform the aid sector so that everybody is treated with dignity and respect; and we will hold ourselves to account through transparent reporting and external scrutiny. Safeguarding against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is everybody’s responsibility, and the Government will continue to lead the way on this issue.

First, I do not wish to condemn all aid workers, because there are some amazing aid workers out there. However, far too many are abusive to women and need to be stopped, so I am pleased to hear some of the things that the Minister has said.

I believe that whistleblowers need much more support. They need support to be able to come forward, and they do not need condemning, which has sometimes been the case. They also need to be guaranteed a job afterwards, because many of them come forward and never work again. It is a shocking state of affairs.

I thank all hon. Members present for their support. What I find most interesting is that two current members of the International Development Committee, and some past members, have spoken powerfully of the IDC. The other Back Benchers who have spoken have made excellent contributions. It is interesting that the Back Benchers we have heard from include four women and two men, whereas the Front Bench spokespersons are all men. That is not to decry their abilities or anything else, but one of the problems that we have in this debate is that there are not enough women at the top. There are not enough women leaders in charities and in peacekeeping areas—the men tend to rise to the top. It is important to accept that we need to ensure that more women are involved.

I would like to see no abuse happening. That is unlikely, but we need to make it much easier for people to come forward. I believe that victims will feel much more comfortable coming to talk to women than to men—that is just a fact of life.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will appreciate that we must continue to scrutinise the aid budget not just through FCDO, but through the other Departments, because who will look at that funding if there is no follow-on Committee from the IDC? It will be in nobody’s remit to do that, and it is important that somebody is watching out for sexual exploitation. We need to continue the IDC’s work not just on this issue, but on many others. Spending a large amount of taxpayers’ money needs scrutiny. In this case, it is vital that somebody is looking at it through the different Departments.

I thank the Minister very much for his assurance that things are happening in FCDO, but he has no influence, of course, over what happens in other Departments. It is vital to move on and move forward with the changes that have happened in his Department—

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.

A14: Junction 10a

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Junction 10a of the A14.

I thank you, Mr Twigg, for taking over the Chair for this debate and welcome you to your position. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I welcome the Minister to her place. I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council and the new North Northamptonshire shadow authority.

Junction 10a of the A14 does not exist. At the moment, it is just a blob on a Department for Transport map, but it is a junction that the people of Kettering very much need if our town and borough are not to grind to a halt because of all the new house building taking place locally. There are important plans for 5,500 new houses to be built to the east of Kettering, with about 460 completed already. These will be built between the town of Kettering itself and the village of Cranford and were, in effect, imposed on Kettering Borough Council in the dying days of the previous Labour Government in spring 2010.

We have to ensure that those houses form a vital, liveable community and do not simply become one big, soulless housing estate. In order to make that happen, we must ensure not only that the infrastructure is in place to serve those new houses but that the quality of life of existing residents in other parts of Kettering is not impacted. For local people, the construction of this “sustainable urban extension”, to use the planning term, is the equivalent of bolting on to the town of Kettering itself another town the size of Desborough, which is also in the borough of Kettering, located a few miles away.

This development to the east of Kettering has been called the Kettering East development, but it is now called Hanwood Park and it received planning approval from Kettering Borough Council in 2010 for up to 5,500 new houses. The first 2,700 are within phase 1, to be followed by a further 2,800 in phase 2. Overall, the development covers an 820-acre site. Fortunately, the local design code is set at a high standard. This sustainable urban extension will allow the town of Kettering to plan the delivery of local housing. The design will ensure good internal and town centre connectivity with access to trunk roads, including the A6, the A43 and, importantly, the A14.

To place this in a national context, I should say that Hanwood Park is one of the country’s flagship housing extensions. Ministers have already toured the site on several occasions, especially when the initial release of housing with funding from the Department for Transport’s road infrastructure strategy 1—RIS 1—funding plan was fully supported. Local delivery of the houses is supported by all the local authorities and contributes to the Government’s housing targets. It sits within the Oxford-to-Cambridge arc. A funding partnership with Homes England results in the development now having a primary school, surface water attenuation, adopted foul sewers, three principal access roads and junction improvements on the town roads.

This is one of the country’s largest sustainable extensions. Homes England, which comes under the purview of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is funding the major early infrastructure works. There is strong delivery momentum, with Taylor Wimpey, Barratt, David Wilson, Persimmon, Avant, Orbit and Bellway all involved. The scheme is of local strategic importance and is classified as the highest priority in the north Northamptonshire investment framework, but the major hurdle to delivering these houses, which the Government need, is providing the continuous delivery of the so-called Grampian condition for the new junction 10a on the new A14. The new junction is required if the development is to exceed the initial 2,700 houses.

Local land values will not allow the development of this junction to be funded without Government intervention, and that is why we need public funding. Developer contributions exist for up to half the project. The junction was fully supported by the Department for Transport in its RIS 1 funding allocation in 2016, when the Department promised £20 million—to be matched by a further £20 million from the developer. However, there were sustainability issues with the development of the housing extension and it was agreed to defer the RIS 1 allocation to RIS 2. Since then, the junction has been excluded from RIS 2. The junction is absolutely essential to the full delivery of this 5,500-house urban extension. It needs to be provided before 2,700 houses are completed.

The extension was stalled for some time because of viability issues, but they were overcome in 2018-19 following refinancing by the developer and this was enabled by a £60 million loan from Homes England under the purview of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The repayment of this loan to another Government Department will be at risk if the development cannot fully proceed. Homes England considers this site in Kettering to be its highest priority in the UK. Its delivery will satisfy multiple strands of Government housing policy, including, importantly, the encouragement of small and medium-sized builders and sustainable development practices. The junction works were included in the Department for Transport’s RIS1 funding stream, on the basis of a 50% contribution to the total cost by the developer. That developer commitment has not changed; the developer continues to be committed to match-funding the construction costs.

Upwards of 2,750 new homes are probably at risk if the junction cannot be secured, as the developer may cease activity fairly soon if progress beyond 2023 cannot be guaranteed. If there is a pause in the development, the local authority will no longer have a five-year rolling land supply. That renders our local area subject to speculative planning applications which, if successful, will make no contribution to local infrastructure.

Martin Hammond, the lead official at Kettering Borough Council, has said of the importance of the development:

“Delivery is now gaining momentum at Hanwood Park and new parcels are being brought on stream, alongside infrastructure constructed this year, but for the full scheme of 5,500 houses with associated community education, health, transport and employment provision, Kettering requires an additional junction on the A14, a principle established in 2014, otherwise only 2,700 houses can be occupied in the foreseeable future, which is only half of the intended development.”

The planning for a new road junction takes an incredibly long time. The local council has been advised that it can take up to four and a half years to develop such a major junction. The problem is that if the Government do not commit around about now to including funding for the junction, either as an appendage to the RIS2 scheme or for inclusion in RIS3 after 2025, the developers may pause the development because of the lack of future certainty. It is expected that the 2,700 houses mark could be reached as early as 2025.

The Government announced in August that they were setting up an acceleration unit to speed up transport infrastructure projects and build back better from covid-19. I welcome that development. It will be headed by Darren Shirley, currently the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport and formerly of Which? magazine. The unit will be directly accountable to the Transport Secretary.

Encouragingly, the unit will engage experts with significant experience in delivering infrastructure projects, including—this is important for Kettering—Highways England’s director of complex infrastructure projects, Chris Taylor, who oversaw the construction of the £1.5 billion A14 scheme further down the road towards Cambridge, which was not only delivered on budget, but eight months ahead of schedule. No doubt Mr Taylor will be familiar with the A14 going past Kettering.

I make my plea on behalf of the local people in Kettering. The local borough council and all the local authorities have engaged with the various Government Departments at all stages of rolling out the new sustainable urban extension in Kettering, but in order to deliver the project in full, we need a commitment from the Roads Minister that the Government will contribute half the cost of the new junction. We do not need that commitment in 2025; we need the commitment now.

Unless we can get on with planning that junction and giving the developers the surety they need that the Government will deliver their funding, there is the very real risk that the roll-out of the extension will be paused and stop. The problem then is that the Government will not get the houses they need, which is primarily the responsibility of MHCLG, and there is a risk that Homes England will not get the repayment of the £60 million loan.

For local people, the tragedy will be that we could have a very large number of houses built, potentially up to 2,700, without the necessary road infrastructure to take us beyond that level. There is also a very real risk of gridlock in the town of Kettering, with all these initial houses having been provided but with the Government not having come up with the funding for the new junction 10a.

My plea to the Roads Minister today, on behalf of people in Kettering, is to recognise—please—the fundamental importance of the new junction to people in Kettering and to make a Government commitment to fund it.

I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate about a new junction for the A14. He has highlighted how important it is for his constituents in Kettering, saying that it would provide access to one of the country’s largest urban extensions and that there would be a sustainable design with access to trunk roads, which is very important for his area. The housing development would provide good-quality housing for his constituents in the local communities, and is part of the very important and strategically recognised Oxford to Cambridge arc. It will contribute to Government housing targets, and encourage small and medium-sized builders to develop the properties there, which is part of the MHCLG’s larger strategy.

However, my hon. Friend has also highlighted to me, in my capacity as Roads Minister, that this development could potentially be at risk. In particular, he highlighted that 2,700 homes may be put at risk if the funding is not secured within the timeframes that he outlined. That would potentially put his area at risk of speculative housing applications, and he has strongly emphasised to me that Kettering requires that junction to deliver the entire development as planned, along with all the other facilities, such as schools and health services, that we know local communities want and need.

My hon. Friend has done a really good job of highlighting those priorities. In the time available to me this morning, I have three main points to make, to respond to his speech and to reassure him. First, there is the importance that we attach to the A14 as a vital connection between our east coast ports and central economic areas. Secondly, our ambition is that strategic roads and other transport infrastructure support wider policy goals for housing and economic growth. Thirdly, I will set out how the Department for Transport is working with Kettering Borough Council and others to progress the specific proposals for junction 10a.

It may be worth reflecting a little on what we now call the A14. It is 127 miles of dual carriageway that has become part of the landscape. Indeed, it is a stretch of road that may be taken for granted by some, but not—I am sure—by my hon. Friend. That seamless link across East Anglia from Felixstowe and Harwich, two of our nation’s key ports, into the heart of the midlands is vital to our economy. It neatly bypasses Ipswich, Newmarket, Cambridge and, of course, Kettering. It is an artery that feeds both the M1 and the M6, keeping traffic out of our town centres.

Yet before 1990, the A14 barely existed; a piecemeal set of improvements had begun, but a wide range of options faced any new arrival at the ports. In 1990, on completion of what was then the A1-M1 link road, new opportunities and more reliable journeys beckoned. That is what new roads that are well planned and in the right places to serve the needs of the country can do. The A14 has continued to evolve, to meet the ever-expanding needs of the freight and logistics sector as well as those of other road users.

However, no road of such importance can be considered complete and simply left to get on with its job. So, in recent years we have seen a £200 million investment at Catthorpe, which means that the A14 now links smoothly to the motorway network without the series of roundabouts and turns that users of the road previously faced. We have also seen £1.5 billion of investment in the new Cambridge to Huntingdon section, which opened—ahead of schedule—earlier this year. That was a huge achievement. When work on it began in 2016, it was the biggest civil engineering project in the United Kingdom. It has involved 12 miles of new bypass for Huntingdon, 10 miles of widening and other improvements, and a half-mile viaduct over the River Nene. It has created a new road that reflects the needs of industry and road users, while employing the best possible environmental standards. More locally to Kettering, we have invested over £40 million in widening the A14 southern bypass between junctions 7 and 9, to ensure that the road keeps pace with its users’ needs.

Given the reliance on that important route for moving people and goods across the country, it is no surprise that we continue to explore the priorities for further investment. For example, we have asked Highways England to develop an upgrade of the Copdock interchange where the A14 meets the A12 to enable smoother journeys through the junction.

The process of identifying enhancement priorities on the strategic road network—the roads, like the A14, managed by Highways England—and then committing to funding for their development and construction is all part of our long-term approach to infrastructure investment. The Government set out their strategic vision for the network through periodic road investment strategies, and specify what Highways England must deliver in terms of road enhancements and day-to-day performance.

To inform the content of those strategies, the Department for Transport and Highways England develop a substantial evidence base about the network, its current performance and likely future pressures. That is the product of several years of research, analysis, public engagement and consultation. In March, we published the second road investment strategy—a vision of the network through to 2050. We also provided £27.4 billion of funding for its operation, maintenance, renewal and enhancements through to 2025. The strategy made clear our ambition that strategic road investment support the delivery of housing and economic growth in ways that are respectful of place and minimise the impact of roads on the environment and air quality.

In that light, the Department for Transport and Highways England are working with Kettering Borough Council and the local developer to progress proposals for the new junction 10a on the A14. That junction would unlock the capacity needed to connect a new phase of much-needed housing at East Kettering, as my hon. Friend has laid out in detail. He has explained that the junction is needed before housing numbers can be delivered, while also making clear the positive impacts that the junction would bring, and the risks of not delivering.

Work on the junction scheme commenced under the first road investment strategy, which covered the period 2015 to 2020, on the basis that the local developer would meet half the costs and Highways England the other half. However, the work was put on hold when it was found that the local development did not require the capacity provided by the new junction during that period.

Based on the pace of development now, construction work on the junction will need to start early in the next road investment period, which is due to start in 2025. I want to reassure my hon. Friend that Highways England is now looking at how to achieve the earliest possible start date. That encompasses the cost and timescale of activities required to complete the development work, and will inform further discussions with Kettering Borough Council and the local developer, which I anticipate will pave the way to an agreement about how best to proceed.

My hon. Friend made several references to the importance and urgency of those discussions’ taking place to a faster timescale; highlighted the Department for Transport’s focus on urgency; and mentioned the acceleration unit—an initiative of the Transport Secretary. That is what we at the Department for Transport are trying to achieve across all parts of the UK. To that end, I recommend that my hon. Friend have a meeting with my noble Friend Baroness Vere of Norbiton to discuss in more detail some of the timing issues for work on that road, which is so important for his constituency.

I share my hon. Friend’s appreciation of the strategic importance of the A14 for Northamptonshire and for the nation, and specifically for his constituents who depend on it day by day. The interventions that have been undertaken on that route in recent years reflect the importance that the A14 holds for the Department for Transport. I thank my hon. Friend for the efforts he has made to promote the case for that junction, which could help unlock the new housing that people in his constituency want and need.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Further Education Funding

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for further education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hosie.

The question before the House today is one that has been considered many times over recent years, which is testament to its importance. I am grateful to hon. Members for participating in this vital debate. Indeed, the debate might never have been so necessary because, as for all aspects of society, coronavirus has shone a light on the devastating impact of austerity and the rampant inequality in our society. That is particularly apparent in the further education sector.

Education is potentially the most powerful tool for lifting people out of poverty, with further education presenting unique opportunities to do just that. Not only does FE prepare many school leavers for higher study and provide them with the skills for meaningful employment, but it allows many adults to learn, whether that means new skills or building on existing ones. The FE sector and the many colleges and sixth forms within it have proven an accessible source of further and higher education, providing opportunities for learning to students who are disproportionately from more deprived areas and disproportionately from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. It is of note that the 16 to 19-year-old students in colleges are twice as likely to claim free school meals as those in schools or sixth forms.

Given the deep cuts that the sector has experienced in recent years, it has attracted many nicknames. I agreed with the Secretary of State for Education when, in what can only be described as a total lack of self-awareness, he came up with one more, saying that the FE sector stood for “forgotten education”. I am sure that many other Members have reminded him that he has voted for cut after cut to the FE sector since 2010 but, in case they have not, I will take this opportunity to detail briefly the impact that forgetting the sector has had.

The Government have started talking up further education and skills, but colleges and sixth forms continue to have to deal with the lingering reality of austerity, with grave concerns about the prospects of many colleges in the future. As schools and colleges began to return, the Association of Colleges estimated that colleges face a £2 billion shortfall this academic year, despite the Government investing an extra £300 million for the year. An assessment by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that to bring spending in the FE sector to 2010-11 levels would cost a total of £1.1 billion. The citing of such vast sums from the AOC and IFS shows as plainly as possible the enormity of the challenges that face us.

I do not doubt that the Government want to see the potential of the further education sector utilised fully. Time and time again, however, it feels like the issues that have arisen because of prolonged underfunding are papered over, instead of addressed fully. A report from the National Audit Office found that although there were strong measures to prevent colleges falling into financial difficulties, they were extremely costly. Many colleges remain in financial difficulty.

I agree with the assessment of the Select Committee on Education which, in its report on a 10-year plan for school and college funding, said that the post-16 education sector had not moved on following the financial crash in the same way that other sectors had, that political decisions had created the lag in post-16 education and that that had a detrimental impact on outcomes while undermining efforts to tackle social justice. Without delving into the lack of lack of funding for managing estates, and the additional costs incurred by colleges and sixth forms, the further education sector clearly needs serious investment, not only to survive in the long term but to deliver the widespread upskilling that our country needs to see as we come, I hope, to the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

I cautiously welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of a lifetime skills guarantee. With such significant job losses across the country, people need the opportunity to learn new skills or improve existing ones. I also welcome the devolution of funding for adult education, such as the £36 million that Sheffield city region is set to take responsibility for. Local leaders understand the needs in their area best and are most connected to those who will benefit from these funds. However, I do not believe that these funding streams are a fix-all that addresses the serious need for a financial overhaul of the further education sector, which must come from a national approach.

The skills package fails to address the key skills challenge and the 68% drop in qualifications for health and social care workers since 2010. Funding for Sheffield city region is not available to be used until August 2021. While its promises seem bold, I fear that it is too little, too late. For all the talk of ambition, the plans coming forward are too slow and not bold enough in what they hope to achieve.

The Association of Colleges has once again highlighted the enormity of the task at hand. It has called for an extra £3.6 billion to upskill those at greater risk of the economic impact after the coronavirus pandemic moves on—whenever that will be—as well as ensuring quality places for every 16 to 18-year-old and expanded traineeships and apprenticeships. That is echoed by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which goes further, calling for a one-off skills package of £8.6 billion and urging Government to allocate £4.5 billion of that to address the serious underfunding of adult education.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide in the country. When schools and colleges are shut, students have to adapt to online learning overnight, which requires access to good quality IT equipment and reliable broadband. However, many students from low-income backgrounds, who did not have access to a laptop or PC at home, and had until then relied on using library computers, were left unable to complete remote learning or had to work from a unsuitable device, such as the small screen of a phone.

During the lockdown, I had a Zoom call with the Red Cross, which works very successfully with hard-to-reach learners. I was told that many of those learners’ parents only had a pay-as-you-go phone. If they were to take part in the Zoom call and get the support they needed, their data could be gone in minutes, because a mobile phone is not a way to try to learn. That makes it even harder for young people to access the learning that their better-off peers can.

The Government have made clear that they expect colleges and sixth forms to use existing funds, namely, the 16-to-19 bursary and the adult education budget, to purchase IT equipment. There is concern among the industry that further education providers may struggle to meet this cost, and that the provision of pre-16 schemes should be extended to the further education sector.

Students without access to effective equipment are at real risk of being left behind if the Government do not step in to ensure that every further education student has the tools that they need to complete their education in these challenging times. Funding for colleges to supply students with this equipment has fallen short of what is necessary. Although colleges have welcomed back students, many are moving once more to online learning.

The Government announced, at the 11th hour, changes to the criteria for schools to receive laptops, a decision that the NASUWT says has meant schools receiving up to 80% less than promised. With many pupils and students having to self-isolate, remote learning will be a feature of our educational system for a long time to come. The issue is, therefore, still pertinent, and it is not too late for the Government to step in and fix it while the academic year is still quite new.

We are at a crossroads. The country has faced and continues to face one of the greatest challenges in living memory. After the second world war, our leaders knew that we could not go back to business as usual and, in the wake of such destruction, rebuilt our country. The economic challenge we will face in the months and years to come cannot be overcome by bringing public funding back to 2010 levels. We must go further to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and that takes vision; I know that the Minister has that vision, but I fear the Treasury does not share it.

I am looking forward to hearing the contributions in this debate, and hope that the Minister will listen to the wide range of voices in support of the FE sector ahead of the publication of the White Paper. I hope that when it is published, it will finally provide the funding the sector has been calling for, year in and year out, and that this funding will allow it to play its part in rebuilding our economy. I hope that our people, young and old, will be supported by the Government to face a very different post-coronavirus world in which they will thrive, and I urge the Minister to ensure they are not abandoned to a future without hope.

Before I call the next speaker, I want to start the summings-up at around 3.38 pm, but given that we are slightly sparse, I am not going to put on a time limit at the moment, even an informal one: just ca’ canny.

As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) has said, at a time like this, with so many people losing their jobs, further education and its ability to agilely shift to retraining people are particularly important. It is very concerning that we have seen real financial sustainability issues in FE, a topic that the Public Accounts Committee has raised a number of times. That sector has come into this crisis working from a challenging base, with its funding base for adults in 2020 still at 2013 levels.

As the Minister knows as a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, this sector has been on a difficult trajectory for seven years. She has been involved in some of those discussions, so I do not need to run through the figures with her: I am sure that as a former member of the Public Accounts Committee and with her business background, she is hot on the numbers, and the numbers matter here. That base funding causes a lot of the difficulty and the inability to be as agile as the sector can be, because of the way in which the sector is used to working with adults—of course, it works with young people as well, but I am mainly talking about adults today. Those adults have sometimes come from challenging or different educational backgrounds, and have not followed a traditional trajectory in training: level 2, level 3, and so on.

We on the Public Accounts Committee will be looking again at this topic; that inquiry is coming up, and we will increasingly be looking at sixth-form colleges as well, because that is obviously a concern. However, I particularly want to talk about FE today. There are particular issues with the covid pandemic, so I will talk about funding first, and then some of the practical issues.

We are here for a debate about funding for further education, which my hon. Friend is coming to, and many of us are concerned about the overall amount of funding. However, alongside that, we are seeing things such as the Government sending £330 million allocated for skills back to the Treasury because it has not been able to be spent under the apprenticeship levy. There are other examples, which I will come on to, where the issue is not just the overall amount being spent, but the fact that how it is being spent means that it ends up not being used.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I am going to touch on the apprenticeship levy. It was an interesting and bold policy initiative, but as he has rightly highlighted, it has its pitfalls and, indeed, is not always going to the right places. If I have time, I will touch on that as well, but I want to get the immediate funding issues around covid on the record first.

As the Minister will know, the last time that FE colleges were encouraged to come together to save costs—part of the challenge of living on a low funding basis—Hackney College became part of New City College, a consortium of colleges. It has been keen to keep recruiting 16 to 18-year-olds, because in the current climate it wants to make sure that it does not turn students away. It has managed to recruit 200 above its funded target, which is costing it £1.2 million a year: that is a cost to the college directly, money that it is having to take out of its own base costs if it is not funded, and I hope that the Minister will look at that issue. We should not be turning people away from study, and it is great that New City College is not turning people away, but obviously that money has to come from somewhere, so another part of the system is losing out.

The funding tolerance for adults is also a very interesting point. In London—this is a happy circumstance for my constituency—if the colleges meet 90% of their adult rate, meaning that they keep those students in place, they get 100% of the funding. Nationally, the figure is 97%. It is difficult enough to keep in place adults from a different education trajectory who are perhaps juggling families and sometimes jobs as well as study; it is harder than if people are in compulsory education. Add to that the complexities of covid: ill health, and people perhaps dropping out after having to self-isolate because they had covid or have long covid. They can enrol and lose out. That means the figure can very quickly drop below 97%.

Nationally, the Minister needs to look at the tolerance level. As she knows, I am not for wasted money or deadweight money; it is certainly not something I would advocate. There is a very high threshold at the best of times but, with covid, it is particularly challenging. A bit more tolerance would enable colleges to plan and focus. As agile and clever as they are, I am sure they could find ways to fill gaps in those places. I will come to explain how they can be really agile by providing short courses for people.

The costs of covid compliance have to be mentioned, because it is expensive. Fewer people are in the building, and there is less activity in some ways. New City College spent £200,000 from its reserves to support students in the first lockdown. As the Minister knows, many colleges up and down the country have run out of money due to their challenging financial circumstances. There will be a crisis point if those colleges are not supported to survive.

We do not ever want to see a college go bust. Colleges are the main education providers in small towns, but they might be hampered by previous loans from Government, some of which we know have been converted to grants. Even then, however, such colleges are in great difficulties financially. If they go bust, where will the adults in that area go? The Government have an agenda of levelling up areas of the country that have traditionally not recovered from some of the post-industrial job losses in previous decades. If they lose their FE colleges, where will the training come from for the people who are now losing jobs in some of the sectors that are particularly suffering because of covid?

I want to touch on capital funding. It is good that the Government have said they will match-fund capital expenditure to ensure that colleges can patch themselves up, but the constraint of having to spend the funding in the current financial year is challenging. We are already in November. Although the announcement on funding was made a while ago, some of the projects that could be delivered are a bit longer range or are very disruptive to the working of a college. Add in the covid measures and it becomes even more challenging. We all know that a lot of work goes on in schools and colleges during the long summer recess or the breaks, but the summer recess comes after the end of the financial year. Although I recognise that it is difficult in some ways, it is not beyond the wit of Government to look at extending the deadline and perhaps making it a two-year capital funding programme, so that colleges can plan.

The Minister knows as well as I do that if things are done in a rush because the money has to be spent by a certain point, they are not necessarily done well, or the right things are not necessarily done. We should allow colleges to spend that capital money as effectively as possible. It could be spent on better covid measures to enable people to work more easily in those circumstances, or on enhancing facilities for the sort of job creation that we will need and that they will need to train for. I will touch on that in a moment.

It would be good if we could have more flexibility. An example of why this is needed comes from Hackney College, where there is an atrium with a leaking roof. It is a £500,000 job. The matched funding is very welcome, but it is a big job and will really disrupt things. If that has to be done before the end of the financial year, it will be challenging—if it even gets done.

I will move on to how we train people for the jobs that will still exist after covid, and for the ones that will emerge. I hope the Minister will tell us what shared intelligence there is of the local and regional skills that will be needed. Having a strong London authority means that there is some understanding of the jobs that are available in London but, given the nature of their work, a lot of London workers now do not have to live in London. There will be an interesting and challenging job for everybody in working out where people will be and where the jobs will be available. If somebody is working in care or certain other jobs, they clearly have to be physically present, but that is not the case for lots of jobs.

There really needs to be some analysis. I hope the Minister can shed some light on what analysis is being carried out not just in her Department, but across Government, about what jobs and skills might be needed. It might seem early to start thinking about that, but it is never too early to start planning. Things might shift and they might change, but if we do not start thinking about it now, there will be far more people without jobs in the right places. Imagine retraining for a job that does not exist in a year’s time because we have not got it right. We need to be thinking about that and sharing intelligence as much as we can. I am not saying the Government have all the answers, but they have a very strong role in co-ordinating this effort.

We need to move quickly. Existing mechanisms for funding new courses are very slow. Let us consider some of the jobs for which need might be rising. With Brexit looming, the health and social care sectors face a real struggle. I know from looking at the issue with the Public Accounts Committee that getting people to work in social care in the Minister’s own constituency is very challenging because of the costs. If the Government are serious about levelling up and investing in infrastructure projects, construction will be vital. Digital enablement of all sorts of careers will also be important. I happily represent Hackney South and Shoreditch, where understanding how to work digitally and adapting quickly has been a hallmark of people’s success in surviving and coming through the pandemic so far, so it is definitely something in which we need to train people.

Those examples are the reason for my hunch about what might be necessary. Putting people on six-month intensive courses—my local college reckons that that could be done for between £3,000 and £3,500 per person— could quickly get them out of unemployment, off benefits and into work. Alternatively, as they may still be on furlough with their job winding down, facing redundancy even if their sector survives, it might be better to train them before they have to claim support from the state.

There is a constraint, however, about which I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance, even though it is not her remit alone. Those six-month intensive courses, for which I just gave the costs, would entail only 15 hours per adult per week, because under the current rules the college cannot start planning a longer course. If anyone studies for 16 hours or more, they are no longer eligible for benefits. That trap will be devastating as we come out of covid. People will be trapped on benefits because they have lost their jobs, but they will not be able to train for other jobs because they would no longer be able to claim benefits. We would find ourselves in a Kafkaesque circle of doom.

I hope the Minister will try seriously to tackle that. If that time threshold were raised, colleges could be so much quicker and more efficient in targeting and supporting adults back into work. Funding for that sort of short-term, swift reskilling would usually come from the approved national skills fund, which is, again, something over which the Minister can have some very direct influence, I hope.

That fund is normally released in the summer. We are now in November and already in our second lockdown, meaning that people will lose their jobs. The Minister knows that one of my bugbears about all Governments is what I call cost shunting, which is something that the Public Accounts Committee highlights all the time. If we do not get that money to train people now, many of them will start claiming benefits and there will be all sorts of ramifications for their lives, homes, livelihoods and so on. That will cost them, the state and the taxpayer a lot more in the long run.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough mentioned the apprenticeship levy. The Public Accounts Committee has looked at this and we were concerned that, in order to get the money out of the door, it is quite easy for companies to put money into MAs and other higher-level apprenticeship programmes. I think we would all acknowledge that the levy was really intended to train people in much lower-level careers, so that they could either reach higher levels or change career.

I do not have all the answers, but the Government need to look at how the levy works. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), has said, it is criminal for that money to be levied, only to then go back into Treasury coffers. I am sure that we would all back the Minister if she took on the Treasury and demanded that that money be syphoned back into education. We might find a harmonious point of cross-party agreement in these challenging times. I launch that campaign here and now, and tempt the Minister to agree with it when she responds.

I am sure that the Minister has our support to act fast. We need safeguards in place, but I have no desire to see more of my constituents lose everything just because we have a bureaucratic deadline of next summer rather than November and the 16-hour rule that prevents those who are studying from claiming benefits. We need to unjam the system so that people who want to work and retrain are encouraged to do so with every tool in the box. Colleges stand ready and waiting. I pay tribute to East London Advanced Technology Training, which trains people in my constituency but is already losing students because of the loan scheme.

Will the Minister also look at the loan scheme for level 3? Many people will not take on the debt now, but they need support to ensure that they are retrained and can work and support themselves. My constituency is poor, but there is no poverty of ambition. I now have the new poor: people who had good jobs and want to work again. They just need a little leg up. They do not want a handout—they want a hand up. I hope that the Minister has heard me and will answer my questions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She made all the points that I intended to make, so I can be nakedly self-interested about my own constituency and one of my FE colleges. She raised a number of very important issues, not least this Kafkaesque circle of doom, which I am not sure any of us would want to see our constituents in. I thank her for her comments and look forward to listening to the other speeches. I apologise that I may have to leave early, as my name is on the call list for the main Chamber.

All of us across this House recognise the power of education in boosting the life chances of young people across our country and for growing our economy. None of us can question the importance of higher education, not least in light of the covid pandemic. The progress being made towards delivering mass testing, new and more effective treatments, and, most importantly, a vaccine that will allow us to resume our normal daily lives, is being led by British scientists with first-rate degrees from our world-leading universities, which are frequently in the top 100 of the global league tables. Graduates are supporting cutting-edge technology sectors, including in the photonics industry, which has a strong presence in my constituency through the Electronics and Photonics Innovation Centre in Paignton.

That said, it is fair to say that successive Governments have focused too much on higher education to the detriment of our further education system. In our eagerness to send as many young people to university as possible, we have failed to deliver sufficient options to empower those who do not feel that higher education is right for them.

In my previous life, I worked in Singapore. Any Member doubting the transformational impact of further education on boosting life chances and economic growth should look to that country. In the immediate post-war period, Singapore was less wealthy than Jamaica. It had no natural resources and so Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, set out a strategy to develop the country’s only available natural resource—its people. Between 1960 and 2010, Jamaica’s GDP per head of population increased by 30%. Singapore’s increased by 1,100%. A journal article produced by the University of Southern California compared the two countries’ approach to education and the economy across this period. It concluded that the different outcomes were largely as a result of Singapore’s heavy investment in vocational and technical education, and its approach of actively seeking to boost the prestige of VTE. We must and can learn from Singapore by their example, and by investing more into further education and championing the role it plays in helping young people to achieve their dreams. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made a good point that there is no poverty of ambition anywhere in this country and that is something we should harness.

I am fortunate to have in my constituency South Devon College. It is the jewel in the crown of FE colleges and I am working closely with the principal, Laurence Frewin, and his staff to ensure that it has further support and opportunities now and in the future. Each and every time I visit, I meet young people who are aspiring to become engineers, boat builders, thatchers, plumbers, electricians, coders—and anything else imaginable. This college is helping to create a new workforce that is in demand now. It is focused on producing opportunities for those industries and sectors that are the backbone of south Devon’s economy, as well as championing innovation and creativity for tomorrow’s businesses and industries. The latest figures show that 90% of apprentices in Torbay, in my constituency, go on to find sustained employment within a year of completing their courses. As such, it is clear that the first-rate further education providers, such as South Devon College, play a pivotal role in empowering these young people to achieve their dreams.

That is why I welcome the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee, set out by the Prime Minister at the end of September, offering adults without A-levels or equivalent qualifications a free and fully funded course, which will help those who missed out on further education to boost their skills and achieve those opportunities before them. I look forward to looking at what will be available within that scheme. Of course, more can be done.

I would not be representing the people of Totnes and south Devon if I did not speak about our fishing sector, which will have the opportunity to regain access to the catches denied to us for more than 40 years by the common fisheries policy. Our fishing fleet has fallen by almost one third since 1996, which raises the question whether we still have the capacity to take full advantage of our new-found freedoms. Put simply, we need more fishermen. To encourage people into this fantastic and in many cases lucrative sector, we need a maritime college as part of South Devon College. I am working with the principal and the staff on implementing a fishing school at Noss on Dart. That school will help encourage people into the industry, teaching them the required skills and giving them the opportunity that comes with such an important sector. I hope the Minister will visit when the maritime college is developed next year.

The Government should not waste the opportunity to support the FE sector. I know from my conversations with her how dedicated the Minister is to driving it up the agenda. More funding in both capex and opex will see us create the homegrown skills and talent that we have had in the past and that we will so desperately need in future. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said that she welcomed the FE White Paper and looked forward to seeing it. I agree with her, because the sooner we can see it, the sooner it will help shape the future of our colleges. I commend the Government for ensuring match funding on capital spending. We have a unique opportunity to provide and help people into a different range of jobs. I hope the Government will work with all Members across the House to develop a strategy that will be efficient and effective at getting people back into the workforce and give them the security that they so desperately need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to follow the many good points that we have already heard this afternoon.

I have been a strong supporter of further education and Bath College, which I visited almost immediately after I became a Member of Parliament. It has been pointed out, and I think it is absolutely true to say, that we talk about schools and universities and often leave out further education colleges. We should always say “schools, further education colleges and universities” in one breath. Indeed, it has been a struggle to get the significance of further education colleges into our minds. I do not think we need to go as far as Singapore to see examples of how education is done well. This country has looked with envy at the skills training and technical and vocational training across the continent, and has wanted to follow it. We have talked about it, but it never seems to happen, which is a shame. I hope that the Minister can make her voice heard and make sure that the Treasury is listening, because, in the end, investing properly in further education will be a financially clever thing to do.

There is no better time to talk about the importance of properly funding further education. The pandemic brings with it a great deal of financial uncertainty for many people across the UK. It is more critical than ever that we invest in helping workers to retrain and reskill. Our workforce and our economy must be ready to adapt to a post-covid world. Also, in the context of the climate emergency, we keep talking about how important it is to prepare for the jobs of the future in order to get to net zero. I have spoken before about the excellent work of Bath College. In my constituency, our local universities, businesses and the council are working on exciting ways to address the pandemic’s economic impact on our city.

In addition to the many points that have already been made, I want to draw attention to the value of the union learning fund, co-ordinated by the TUC. The fund supports more than 200,000 workers a year in job-relevant learning and training, guided by trade union reps who understand the nature of the workforce, the business and the skills gaps. When I talked to a TUC rep, I learned that Ministers had for a long time been looking at cutting the union learning fund, but then they decided that that was not a good idea and have kept it going. I want to use my time today to make this strong plea. It is clear that the model works. On average, training volumes are 19% higher in unionised workplaces. It is counterproductive that the Department for Education has decided to end the ULF from March 2021. Union learning gets working people into skills and training that they would not otherwise access. It reaches people that other Department for Education programmes do not. Despite Government funding, the take-up of English and maths qualifications for adults has declined by 30% since 2010. By comparison, ULF projects continually exceed annual targets for these learners.

My constituency of Bath has been no exception. Local members’ learning events have included IT and management skills, apprenticeships and CV writing workshops. Providers have also responded rapidly to covid. Unison worked alongside our local authority during lockdown to help start book clubs in the workplace. Unionlearn launched a new campaign promoting online learning for furloughed workers, those working from home and those who have been made redundant. Again, that shows the need for a flexible response and the fact that Government need to understand that covid demands that we act flexibly.

Courses and initiatives such as the ones I have described provide huge benefits to my constituents and thousands of others across the country. Research from the University of Leeds shows that 77% of employers believe that union learning has a positive effect on their workplaces, and 68% said that unions could reach and inspire reluctant learners to engage in training. More widely it is estimated that the ULF contributes about £1.4 billion to the UK economy through a boost to jobs, wages and productivity. Again, I hope that the Minister will take the message back to the Treasury that such learning ultimately helps to save taxpayers’ money.

A recent CBI report suggests that nine in 10 UK employees will have to reskill by 2030 as a result of the pandemic. Unless we invest properly and strategically in adult education, we risk skills shortages and long-term unemployment. As I understand it, the Government are focusing particularly on FE colleges for 16 to 19-year-olds, but the beauty of FE colleges is that they are about lifelong learning. It is no good giving to Peter to take away from Paul. I hope that the Ministers understand that the decision to stop the union learning fund is clearly not a good one and should be reversed. Please do the right thing and make sure that the ULF is reinstated.

It is pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hosie, and to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). I wish to start on the point with which she ended. I have seen the power of the union learning fund and how it can transform people’s lives and prospects. At a time such as this, when we know that so many people will lose their jobs, we see the importance of the fund. It is not just about the fund; it is about the union learning reps who accompany people into training and support them through it in the workplace. That is the transformative element that the trade unions have worked on, offered and developed, It is not just a beacon in the workplace, but a springboard to take people forward in their career.

I thank my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). The fund is so much better value for money because through it people can be properly supported into training and that does not involve throwing good money after bad. Someone is properly trained and qualified when they have completed their course.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. She is absolutely right. When a course is completed, we see the impact on productivity. We know that the Government have had a real problem improving productivity, so I would have thought that would have seen the value of something that helps them with that. If the ULF is ending, I trust that a Rolls-Royce version of a new fund will come forward that embraces the value of trade unions on the ground. They are there to work alongside workers.

I want to touch on my local colleges in York. We are fortunate to have two: York College under its principal, Lee Probert, and Askham Bryan College, our agriculture college under its principal, Tim Whitaker. They face specific challenges in this covid period and I thank them both for their leadership and all the staff for what they have done over the past few months. It has been a really challenging time in ensuring that their environments are covid secure and that they are gearing up to support our economy. They certainly need help.

The two colleges have come together with York’s two universities to form Higher York, which does not look inwards in education, but looks out to localities, society and the economy to see how we can rebuild our city’s economic base, which is so important at this time, and so release the potential opportunities for our community. That will be particularly important at a time when unemployment in York will be absolutely devastating—among the worst in the country. We are staring down that barrel at the moment, and it is deeply disturbing. Higher York needs more support to deliver that transformative agenda, which we desperately need.

Higher York can drive the economic recovery in our city, and I believe that further education, blended with higher education, is the key that is needed to unlock our economic recovery at this time. As Higher York is proving, we need colleges to be at the heart of shaping the local economy and the skills base that will be required in the future. Taking a local economy place-based approach to skills planning is so important. I recognise the matrix of needing to look at sector skills, which has very much driven skills strategy for a long time, but we also need to look at local place. With devolution and many other measures being put in place, the local economy is very much coming to the fore.

Given how our economic base is developing, with specialism in particular segments of the economy, skills provision can really boost the local economy and blend with employers’ opportunities and needs now and in the future. A lot of work has been done in York on the green economy and how we can sustain the bioeconomy, which I spoke about in this Chamber only a few weeks ago. That could see a growth of 25,000 people through a skills process to enhance skills. That is at the root of how we build a recovery into the future.

I want to address a number of things with regards to covid. The first is what I shall call the basic need of having a covid-secure environment. The Government have come forward with the obligation to provide that, and rightly so, but there are costs, none of which are recoverable at the moment. York College, for example, has spent £400,000 on becoming a covid-secure environment. That is money that the college wants to put into education, and therefore it is important to see some of it recovered.

Secondly, cash-flow issues are particularly acute at the moment. My colleges have come forward with a simple solution to help—something the Minister probably barely needs to ask to change, but it could make a real difference—which is the alignment of the economic cycle between the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the funders of FE, and the colleges. The ESFA funding year runs from April to May and the colleges’ from August to July. That causes a real cash-flow difficulty. A little tweak to the system would make a world of difference.

On the issue of capital funding, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned earlier, Askham Bryan College in particular is an old college. The facilities are tired and yet the match funding is prohibitive, especially at a time such as this, with the additional pressures the college is facing. I ask that the issue is revisited, so that some more capital grants can be made available to FE, because the estate is important to delivering vital education to young people and adult learners.

The fourth issue is the wider funding formula, which we know is crucial in order to gather skills. We often look at the minimum cost of provision, but there is a wider cost. We need to look at the wider costs of not investing in our learners, particularly in things such as the recruitment and retention of staff—technical as well as teaching staff—which is really important. Obviously the wider economy is a draw, but we must ensure that we can deliver classes. Class sizes at the college in York are getting bigger and bigger, and the opportunities in the curriculum are getting smaller and smaller, in order to try and balance the books. This should be a key investment. I would therefore welcome a further education White Paper if it had a proper funding formula for FE hardwired into it.

My fifth point is about mental health investment. Many young people have felt the stress and strain of covid. I know from discussions with the principal and previous principals that York College has had challenges around the mental health of its students. We need to ensure proper mental health facilities are in place. It does not have the resources that are invested in universities and is not benefiting from any of the investment in the schools mental health programme. I ask the Minister to look at a mental health approach for FE, and for proper resourcing for facilities.

Finally, I want to talk about the longer-term opportunity and planning for further education. We have a really big challenge ahead in the skills that people are going to demand for the new economy. As I have said, it is for local areas to plan their approach. It will improve productivity and rebuild the economy, but, more importantly, it will give people a bridge from their current place of employment into new employment, without having to go through the massive dip of unemployment. That is what I fear. That linking through for every person on the cusp of losing or their job—or even before that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch pointed out powerfully—would enable us to sustain our economy and protect people. Everything should be done to enable that process. I am working with the trade unions and the local not-for-profit sector, as well as Citizens Advice and the jobcentre, to see how we can ensure that there is a skills-based approach to recovery injected into our city, but we need support from the Government.

I was concerned about the impact of the apprenticeship levy being returned to the Treasury; it is a lost opportunity for investment. Back at the beginning of the current crisis, there was a call-out for shovel-ready projects to try to kick-start the economy and build skills. I would ask for shovel-ready apprenticeships and opportunities in order to use that money wisely and to invest in the skills that are needed now. Colleges would welcome the opportunity to reach out further.

I have a final point on asylum seekers, who are arriving at this very difficult time and are being placed in difficult circumstances. There is a lack of connectivity into FE. In my city, young people have been placed in a hotel, without a connection into college and skills. I appreciate that that could be quite a transient group, but there is an opportunity to engage young people who are coming here and to ensure that they are on that learning journey. It is a good use of resource and time, but the connectivity between the Home Office and education is not there. It would be really good to see more investment in those connections at a time when people are waiting for their applications to be processed, not least because it is taking so long at the moment.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this important debate.

I speak as one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth form education. We have heard much that I agree with around FE colleges, Unionlearn and covid-secure colleges, but I want to focus on sixth-form colleges; I am a governor of the fantastic Luton Sixth Form College.

While the covid-19 health restrictions have been critical to tackling the spread of the virus, the Institute for Fiscal Studies states that school shutdowns are likely to have accentuated the socioeconomic divide in educational attainment. We need immediate action to tackle that widening divide—that point has already been well made—particularly the digital divide.

Increasing the national per-pupil funding rate for 16 to 18-year-olds would be a considerable step forward to closing the divide. Education funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has been cut since 2010, alongside rising costs, an increase in the complex needs of students and the Government demanding more from colleges and schools. The national funding rate for 16 and 17-year-olds was frozen at £4,000 per student in 2013, and was actually reduced to £3,300 per year for 18-year-olds in 2014. While in 2019 the Government announced that they would raise the rate for 16 and 17-year-olds to £4,188 per student, that was only a one-year deal, in contrast with the three-year funding deal for five-to-16 education.

Will the Minister explain why the rate was not increased for 18-year-olds? Particularly in the context of this year and the coming year, many students have been impacted— for example in terms of exams—and may well need that extra year at sixth-form college to ensure that they can progress on to the right next step for them, be that an apprenticeship, further education college, higher education college or the world of work. I also want to ensure that the rate increases in line with inflation each year. In January, the Government confirmed that the national funding rate of £4,000 per student in 2013 amounted to £4,435 in 2019 prices, so even the recent increase falls well short of meeting the cost of inflation since 2013.

Sustained under-investment in sixth-form funding over the past decade continues to impact on the education of students. A funding impact survey carried out by the Raise the Rate campaign in 2019 showed that, as a result of funding pressures, 51% of schools and colleges have dropped language courses, 38% have dropped STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—78% have reduced student support services or extra-curricular activities and 81% are teaching students in larger class sizes. Those last two points are particularly important to reflect on in the context of the impact of covid-19. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the mental health of students and the support that they need, as much as the costs of covid-secure teaching environments.

Research from London Economics found that £4,760 is the minimum level of core funding required to increase student services such as mental health support to the required level; to protect subjects such as modern foreign languages from being dropped because they are deemed unviable; to increase the time available for extra-curricular activities—for example, around employability, skills and work experience; and to improve the range of enrichment activities, particularly for 16 to 18-year-olds in the state sector, so that they can get that social capital to compete with their better-funded peers in the independent sector.

High-quality education that equips young people with the knowledge, skills and experience that they need to flourish in higher education and skilled employment will be critical to our recovery from covid. That point has been expressed in many ways during the debate. I press the Minister to explain whether the per-pupil funding rate will be increased in the comprehensive spending review. Others have talked about the relationship with the Treasury in finding that out.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that the number of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in full-time education will increase over the next eight years by about a quarter of million. It also states that capital funding for 16 to 18-year-olds is insufficient and calls on the Government to create a dedicated expansion fund to cater for this increase.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that it costs around £2.5 million to expand an existing sixth-form institution to accommodate an additional 200 students, which works out at about £12,500 per student. However, analysis of Department for Education data indicates that the average 16-to-19 free school costs about £11.5 million to build, including land purchase, and educates on average 397 students, which works out at about £29,000 per student.

The absence of a dedicated capital fund for sixth-form providers means that expansion is simply not an option for many institutions, as sixth-form colleges and academies must bid from a single condition improvement fund for all phases of education, with the vast majority of funding directed to capital improvement, rather than capital expansion projects. The creation of a dedicated capital expansion fund for high-performing sixth-form providers should be a major priority in the comprehensive spending review and could be modelled on the existing expansion fund for grammar schools.

I ask the Minister again to outline what plans the Government have to increase capital funding for sixth forms.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this timely debate and for the passion and determination with which she continues to speak up for the further education sector. It is hugely welcome that for the second time in two weeks we are here to debate the sector. I know how important it is to many Members.

Our colleges are incredibly important. They are at the heart of all our communities. They are an education and skills hub relied on by employers and learners. They are crucial providers of skills and play an incredibly important role in bringing employers and learners together. They are the institutes of second chance for many people who have had their lives turned around by the further education sector—even in my own family. My son went to an FE college and subsequently went to university, which would not have been predicted when he left school. I know that his experience is commonplace.

People who go to our colleges can study vocational or academic subjects, and foundation and life skills. Colleges are incredibly important for adult education. People who go to colleges are more likely to be younger, and more likely to be black or from an ethnic minority, than the average population. Colleges are an incredibly important cog in a functioning education system. I think that the passion for that has come across today.

I was particularly struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said about the extent to which the skills and productivity crisis that we face existed prior to coronavirus. It has been much exacerbated by the virus, but many of the issues existed long before, and it is important for us to focus on that. As we think about the value of adult education, and learning at all stages of our lives, I am sure I am not the only one who has today learned, in far more detail than they knew it before, the geography of Wisconsin and what the obscure states around America are all about. It just shows that every day is a school day.

It is important to make the point that we already had a skills and productivity crisis before coronavirus. We already had an apprenticeship levy where there was a huge reduction in apprenticeships at small and medium-sized enterprises and in the number of 16 to 19-year-olds obtaining access to one of them. We already had an underfunded further education college sector. We already had a huge flight of experienced college lecturers, after years of real-terms pay cuts. They left the profession and left colleges less able to provide the support that is needed. We already had a Government who were making further education the enemy of higher education, rather than seeing them as complementary providers whose success depends, in part, on each other.

Coronavirus has only exacerbated those challenges, with a huge reduction in apprenticeship starts. The colleges that focused most on apprenticeships and commercial partnerships are the very ones with the biggest financial challenge. Many apprentices’ college courses were suspended, and they were either furloughed or made redundant, and a generation of workers of all ages who need retraining find that the careers and adult education offers that would help them right now have been obliterated.

On finances, the Ney report exposed the fact that the Government’s destruction of the civil service and its capacity means that the Department for Education has been ill equipped to work with colleges that hit financial trouble. On capital funding, which other Members have referred to, the Minister’s written response to my recent question exposed the unprecedented capital funding cuts we have seen over the last 10 years. This debate is timely, Mr Hosie.

In the last decade the further education sector has seen its funding slashed by a third, but adult education, which is so crucial at this time, has taken an even bigger hit, with a 50% reduction. By the end of this year, an estimated 1 million young people will be neither in employment nor education and training, and will be facing the toughest jobs market in a generation. Even when faced with the urgent need to act this spring, Ministers ignored calls from the Association of Colleges to have that education and training offer in place for September, at the start of this academic year.

On capital funding, £2.61 billion was invested in further education capital expenditure in the final five years of the previous Labour Government. In the five years that followed, the Government reduced that spending in actual terms by a shocking 64%. When we hear the Government now proudly boasting about a £200 million increase in capital funding, we need to place that in the context of the cuts we have already had. Even with the additional money that has been spent, Government are spending less now than they were 10 years ago—purely in cash terms, not even taking into account inflation.

When colleges urgently need funds to make structural changes to cope with the demands of coronavirus, it is staggering inaction on the Government’s part to say that there will be a plan coming along in April. The Association of Colleges has exposed that the average college has spent between £200,000 and £300,000 on covid-related improvements to keep their college safe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) reflected.

A powerful point was made by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who brought her experience to bear, as well as her passion for the sector. In her contribution she talked about the frustration that we all feel when money that has been allocated by the Treasury and is finally in the skills sector is then subject to systems that mean we cannot use that money, and it is sent back to the Government. It is infuriating.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough spoke powerfully about the digital divide. In this crisis, we have seen the importance of young people being able to access broadband and devices. The case she made about the lack of laptops was powerful.

On the subject of money being sent back, in a debate a couple of weeks ago I asked the Minister about the “Get Help to Retrain” scheme, which was being wound up after its pilot. She said that it had not been scrapped, but was being incorporated into the national retraining scheme. FE Week recently published evidence that the leftover cash from the £100 million, earmarked for the retraining scheme, would not be added to the new skills fund and Ministers have confirmed that the money will be sent back to the Treasury. Once again, we have a situation where money has been allocated and it ends up not being spent on our young people, when it should be. That is becoming something of a pattern.

The tweaking of the apprenticeship levy to enable large employers to pass levy funds down to companies in their supply chains is welcomed. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about the importance of his college in Devon. He made a powerful case for the importance of the FE sector, focused on local needs, in small towns and rural communities.

The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) spoke about adult education, as I have, and she referred to the decision to scrap the union learning fund. I see that decision as entirely vindictive. The fund is a tiny proportion of the money being spent on skills, and it is being scrapped at a time when we know that the Government cannot even spend the money that they have. The decision does not seem to be based on any evidence that shows that the programme does not work—it does work—but on the Secretary of State’s antipathy towards the trade union sector.

In a wide-ranging speech, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) once again demonstrated what a great advocate she is for her local college, and spoke about the state of the college estate. The FE colleges that have been hit hardest by the pandemic are those that took the Government’s advice, developed training in association with large employers locally, focused on apprenticeships and built up commercial partnerships. It is a tragedy that those are the ones most badly affected.

As the Secretary of State focuses his aims in the White Paper on creating a German-style education system, it is important that the Government should have cognisance of the difference between the kind of economy we have and that of Germany. I would love to see more of a skills-based approach, but it will not stand in isolation from a proper industrial strategy.

It is clear that Ministers’ rhetoric about FE funding is a long way from the reality of the policies we have seen over the last decade. This Government are constantly keen to distance themselves from the last 10 years of their own record. However, whether they have really made a damascene conversion to FE remains very much to be seen.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on securing this important debate. I know that FE is close to her heart; she has first-hand experience, having served on the board of governors for Sheffield College. I am delighted to be discussing the vital issue of funding FE for young people and adults, and agree with all hon. Members who have said that it is especially important as we seek to recover from the impact of the global pandemic.

FE delivers not only high-quality provision for our 16 to 19-year-olds, but lifelong learning for adults. It provides learners with fundamental skills and gives them the opportunity to partake in learning that they may have missed out on in school, giving them a vital second chance, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) said. Equally, it gives learners the opportunity to retrain, to learn new skills, to go on further in learning and to progress in their careers.

All hon. Members here are passionate about this issue—that comes through in their speeches—and their constituents are really focused on it as well: it means such a lot for their everyday experiences and for the opportunities of their children. I am personally truly committed to the sector, having left school at 16, started an apprenticeship and been trained by an FE college in Merseyside that unfortunately is no longer there—much like most of my schooling, actually; none of the places I went to are there any more. Hopefully, there is no correlation between that and the fact that I attended them.

Over the last decade the level of FE funding has fallen, and Governments have had to make difficult choices about public spending, but we are now making real, positive changes for the FE sector and I know hon. Members will all be delighted with what they see in the FE White Paper. The spending review of 2019 saw the first FE funding uplift in a generation, and we have increased 16 to 19-year-old funding by £400 million. Of course people will call for more, but that is a 7% increase—the biggest injection of new money in a single year for a very long time, with funding increasing faster for 16 to 19-year-olds than for five to 16-year-old schooling. That has been welcomed by the sector.

I cannot let a figure glibly spoken like that pass—it may be, in percentage terms, the biggest injection of cash in a single year, but that is because for at least seven years, if not more, there has not been even an inflation-level rise in funding for local authority FE colleges. The Minister should be a bit more cautious about how excited we are supposed to be about even trying to begin levelling up FE to where it should be.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments. FE funding is quite complex, because at the same time over this decade we have also invested £2.5 billion in apprenticeships, and we will come to the many new areas of investment, all of which have benefited FE colleges. We have already announced one of those: the £1.5 billion capital programme for the transformation of the FE college estate to make colleges great places to learn. That will enable our colleges across England to have buildings and facilities that can deliver world-class tuition. We are not limiting ourselves to a single country, but we want to be world class, and I am committed to that.

We want to give people of all ages the opportunity and means to participate in lifelong learning, to learn valuable skills and to have the confidence to retrain in new areas. That is why we have also committed £2.5 billion to the national skills programme. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) mentioned the national retraining scheme, but we have replaced what was left of the £100 million with that £2.5 billion, which is a massively increased investment. There is no way that that is not an increase.

I am listening with interest to where the Government are putting money in, but I still cannot quite understand the reasoning behind taking away the union learning fund. I would be interested to hear why that decision was made.

I was going to come to that, but I will address the hon. Lady’s question. Effectively, we have increased a lot of the basic entitlements—obviously with English and maths, and with the digital entitlement. We are trying to streamline the delivery partners, including to the devolved areas, to ensure that it is simpler for people to get easy and broader access. That was the decision, and I have communicated that personally to the general secretary of the TUC.

I recognise the challenges that providers face as a result of covid-19. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) mentioned the response to covid and the world-leading scientists working on vaccines, and so on. However, I also want to mention—as he has given me the opportunity—the many apprentices working on our response to covid, whether they are lab technicians, science and engineering apprentices, or those in nursing, health, social care, everything digital, and many, many more areas. As he also mentioned fishing, I should also tell him that a level 2 fisher apprenticeship is under development, and I am sure there will be many more to come as we develop the sector.

I thank the FE sector for its continued hard work to make sure our learners can continue to access high-quality education and training, which includes the move to remote learning. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who I always seek to remain harmonious with, mentioned that. We have introduced a lot of flexibilities to shift towards online and blended learning and to increase the flex vis-à-vis attendance. Many of the colleges have appreciated the flexibilities that we have introduced, and we have done that all the way along.

In June, I had the pleasure of meeting students and leaders from Barnsley College, who, from the first day of lockdown, successfully moved 100% of their curriculum online. We have heard from many colleges about how covid-19 forced a behavioural and cultural change towards a more flexible approach of blended learning, which might otherwise have taken years. I have been so impressed by the sector. In fact, I know that it has even surprised itself, given how well the whole sector has moved to absolutely excellent interactive online learning.

We are helping to ensure that all young people and adults can access the skills and training they need to get on in life, despite all the economic and other challenges posed by the pandemic. That has included giving people access to digital devices and dongles, which goes to the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made. Data is vital. We know that, which is why part of what we have broadened access to, for those who need them, includes data, PCs and dongles. We have enabled the discretionary bursary fund to be used for that and have also put in place a very simple business case to enable providers to ask for an uplift if it runs out, because it is being used for different things, and 38 have benefited from that uplift.

Of course, we recognise the impact of lockdown. As part of the £350 million national tutoring programme, we have made available a one-off ring-fenced grant of up to £96 million. Those are important additional funds to help students who, in some cases, may have missed the last six months or the last year of their GCSEs, as the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) referred to. We know this is always a challenge for colleges, so we have specifically put that funding in place for them to provide small-group tutoring activity, to enable our most disadvantaged students to catch up.

There have been some additional costs, and we have looked at making sure we provide financial support, as the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch mentioned. The financial health of colleges is absolutely vital and key, so we have put that support in place, and we have a team of people who have been there to support colleges. As those colleges’ funding has changed—their commercial income and sometimes their apprenticeship income—that has impacted their overall income, so that support is in place, as is emergency funding. To date, five colleges have requested that emergency funding and have received it, but we are ready to help others, and keep very close to the sector to make sure that no colleges close. Clearly, we need to keep learners in focus throughout this period.

The Minister has previously spoken about the five colleges that have had direct financial support, and 40 colleges she has identified that might need that support. Can she update us a bit more on what progress is being made, and how many more she thinks are likely to need further support?

I am very happy to, because I asked that question just as I was leaving to come here, and the number of requests for emergency funding has not changed: it is still just those five colleges. However, things clearly will change, and we are now going through other changes as well. Another month’s lockdown could have impacts on other incomes, apprenticeships and so on, so we keep this issue constantly under review, and keep a team in place to help people and make sure we are aware of any stresses and strains on the system.

The Minister obliquely referred to the 97% tolerance level—that is, where 97% of students stick to their course, the funding is given at 100%, whereas in London if 90% of students stay, the colleges get 100% of the funding. Is that something that she will be looking at, or can have a discussion about? That little bit of tolerance can give a little bit of flexibility to colleges, and perhaps prevent them from getting to the point where that is a contributory factor in their coming to the Department for emergency funding.

The flexibility that we have introduced is to make sure that attendance is not impacted by coronavirus, through having blended learning and dual systems in place. That is going to be increasingly important, because some people may be shielding or may be with people who are shielding, and will have concerns. That is why we have insisted on having the capability and flexibility to offer that learning in many different ways.

For those people who are not able to take up a job or a work-based learning offer when they come to the end of their learning, we are investing over £100 million in a brand-new offer of classroom study in high-value subjects to support 18 and 19-year-old college and school leavers to progress into employment. These courses are aligned to priority areas for economic recovery and well-paid, rewarding jobs, and as the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch mentioned, in some cases that could lead to increased numbers for those particular courses. We are considering the impact that this will have, and are considering providing extra funding during the year to help support those colleges.

For those who have minimal work experience and lack the skills or confidence to enter employment or start an apprenticeship, we are making £111 million available to triple the scale of traineeships. These are like pre-apprenticeships, and they can be very flexible, specifically tailored to the needs of young people and adults to help them into the workplace. They provide opportunities to develop further skills, work preparation training, work placements and sector-focused vocational learning or support a transition into work or an apprenticeship. They are also designed to help people get on to the next stage of an apprenticeship.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned apprenticeships. Some £2.5 billion a year is invested in apprenticeships, and we have introduced a lot more levy flexibilities to try to ensure that all that money can be utilised. We have put in place 25% to transfer within a sector or a supply chain, which I know has been welcomed. We need to work more to make this function better, because it is a bit clunky at the moment.

We need to focus on SMEs and the opportunities that they provide for apprenticeships. We also have a redundancy service, which we have just put in place, for apprenticeships. There are some signs of good news. More than 1,000 employers are advertising vacancies and opportunities at the moment on that service for those who find themselves redundant.

It is essential that every young person has access to an excellent education when they finish compulsory schooling at 16. The Government plan to spend over £7 billion this academic year to ensure that there is a place in education or training, including apprenticeships, for every 16 to 18-year-old. I appreciate that the base rate of 16 to 19 funding has been static for many years, so I am pleased that we were able to increase it by 4.7% this year.

We are also transforming technical education in this country, providing a lot more opportunity, particularly through the introduction of new T-levels. These pioneering qualifications will create a highly skilled generation of students who are able to meet the needs of industry. It is fantastic to see that providers have begun the roll-out of T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. I am sure hon. Members will visit their local colleges and I urge them to see the students there. It will give hon. Members a real boost. One chap said to me, “When I saw the curriculum and I heard about it in my school assembly, I thought it was too good to be true. Now I am on my eighth week and it is even better than I thought.” To hear young people so excited about those qualifications is amazing. They are also welcomed by the sector, because they attract a significant amount of funding and capital investment. I look forward to rolling those out, because that will provide another stream of funding—up to £500 million per year when they are all rolled out.

I recently visited my local college in Chichester and met some of the trailblazing students. Their enthusiasm and excitement is really catchy. The state-of-the-art technologies that they are using are brilliant to see. I have seen the latest equipment in manufacturing and the latest technology and software. I have seen them using virtual reality and immersive technologies. Those are the gold standard in technical education, which is why I feel confident that we will have a world-beating system.

We want to support and encourage providers to deliver programmes that will really help young people and adults to succeed in the labour market and, in particular, are valuable to employers, even if they cost more to deliver. That is why we have introduced a premium pay to providers to deliver level 3 qualifications, which are of high value to businesses but cost more to deliver

We need to provide the skills that employers and businesses are looking for. It is vital that we are in step. It is such a fast-moving market; we have seen that even more with coronavirus. I have worked for 30 years, and technology has impacted businesses’ operating models unbelievably quickly. We need to ensure that we keep in step.

The lifetime skills guarantee will give adults who missed out on that first opportunity the chance to succeed by fully funding their first full level 3 qualification, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. I hope that is welcome, because it is a breakthrough and it is something additional. It will really give adults a great chance to progress further in their careers or change careers completely.

In the light of the current economic situation, will the Minister look at extending that opportunity to allow people who have already achieved a level 3 qualification to change the direction of their career and secure future employment?

I think the hon. Lady will accept that we have only just announced this initial opportunity. We are considering providing other opportunities to upskill and reskill. We are providing digital bootcamps and we are providing learner loans for levels 4 and 5. Digital bootcamps can really help to provide opportunities to fill in-demand vacancies. Those will be targeted. The digital bootcamps will start first of all in some of the areas in the west midlands, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Liverpool city region. They will then be developed out to Leeds city region, heart of the south-west, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

We will keep that model under constant review. It is quicker to respond. The courses are intensive over 12 to 16 weeks and are delivered in a specific way. If the model works, we will look to expand those courses further. We are also looking at other industries that may benefit from that approach. We are trying to respond quickly.

A few moments ago, the Minister said that there would be some discussion about potential in-year funding for colleges. Does she have a date for that, or do we need to wait? Is she expecting it to be announced in the forthcoming spending review?

I do not have a date right now—I will come back to the hon. Lady—but it is something that we are discussing and it has been raised a number of times.

We are acting quickly, and in a way that we have not had to do and have not done before. The skills toolkit, which we have put together to give people something to do while they are on furlough, is a great example of that. We have discovered that during the last lockdown about 22 million people took to learning, so there is a massive appetite among people to learn. We need to look at those opportunities, and the skills toolkit offers many different courses. I encourage hon. Members to promote that far and wide to their constituents, and to the many people in their constituencies who may want to signpost people to those courses, because they have been developed by employers and with employers, are of a really high quality and can help people to upskill in their own time.

The Government are committed to supporting and encouraging high value, but of course we do not want to neglect the basics; the basics are important. A digital entitlement has just been introduced—from August—and that is key. Half the adult education budget is devolved, including to the Sheffield city region, from next year, which is in line with the commitments. Of course, we also have the European social fund, which is in place till 2023, and the UK prosperity fund, which will increase it.

I want just to touch on capital, which was mentioned. The £200 million is the initial £200 million of the £1.5 billion, so there is £1.3 billion still to go—I am proudly boasting that we have £1.3 billion more to go. We brought the £200 million forward for two reasons. One was that there are a lot of repairs and day-to-day things that colleges want to do; but also we wanted to encourage them to kickstart some of the local market in terms of construction, so there was a “Build, build, build” element to that as well.

We are also investing up to £290 million in institutes of technology. Those are across the country; there will be 20 of them. That fantastic collaboration will make a massive difference to the opportunities for young people as well.

Our FE sector is diverse and resilient. It supports learners of different ages and backgrounds to develop the vital skills that they need, including for green jobs.

I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind, just because I want to give the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough some time at the end of the debate.

The policies that I have outlined highlight the Government’s commitment to making FE a more attractive choice for all, improving the quality of provision and providing more flexible ways to learn. I again thank the hon. Member for initiating this important debate. My message to her, as well as to colleagues across the House, is that we will continue to work with you to improve our FE sector, to take advantage of the new funding, to shape the new funding and particularly to shape it in response to coronavirus. We will soon publish an FE White Paper, which will set out how FE is absolutely central not only to our economic recovery, but to reskilling and levelling up the nation and ensuring that high-quality technical education is available throughout the country.

I thank everyone who participated in the debate, because at the moment this issue of the utmost importance. I pay tribute to the Sheffield College, where I worked and was also a governor. A big shout-out also to Longley Park Sixth Form, which I am immensely proud of, because that sixth-form college is only there because of a Labour Government. One of my predecessors, David Blunkett, ensured that our constituency, our area, where there are low-income families, got a fantastic facility. I was at the opening, which the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, attended. That was some years ago, and during the time that that sixth-form college has been there, it has transformed people’s lives. It has enabled people from non-traditional backgrounds, who would not be expected to get to university, to get to university, including two of my own children, who attended as well. We can never overestimate the part that such a facility can play in regenerating that sort of society.

As I am from Sheffield, and Sheffield is obviously associated with steel, I used to be the shadow Minister for steel. In the late 1970s, the steelworks were, very sadly, closed. That was when I first went to work in FE, and there were some fantastic schemes whereby the steelworkers were brought into college on nine tenths of their salary. It was a construction college, and they learnt different trades in order to get over that bump in their lives and move on to a better future. That is what I would like the Minister to ensure is there for people today—more and more of them, as each day goes by, finding themselves in circumstances they never expected.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Universal Credit: Effect of Child Element on Separated Parents

[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of child element of universal credit on separated parents.

It is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Murray.

There is a lot of evidence that children who have positive relationships with both parents are happier, healthier and more successful. When families choose to have children, in the vast majority of cases they hope and expect to stay together as a couple for the foreseeable future and the rest of their child’s childhood, but alas, it does not always work that way. A sad fact of life is that parental separation is commonplace: there are 2.5 million separated families with almost 4 million children across Great Britain.

Separation is in itself a traumatic experience for everyone involved, in particular for the children. It is also an incredibly financially stressful time for parents. It can lead to mental health issues, depression, homelessness and many other difficult consequences. It is therefore incumbent on all of us in this place to do all we can to protect children in such circumstances and to support them to have as stable and successful a relationship with both parents as possible.

The process of separation can often lead to considerable hostility between the parents, and that can spill over into financial disputes. Through the Child Maintenance Service, the Government already involve themselves in supporting the process of one parent providing money to the other, but that still leaves the thorny issue of who is eligible to receive child benefit. That issue also has consequences for the housing allocation and as a gateway to other benefits.

One of my constituents, Lee Waterhouse, has two such issues. He and his former wife were in dispute over some matters. I do not propose to go into the detail of their case, but while the Government will allow parents who share care for two children to agree to receive child benefit for one child each, when there is not agreement, as in this case, it means that one parent is considered to be the parent with care and the other parent neither receives child benefit nor is eligible to be housed as a parent with caring responsibilities—that parent therefore becomes eligible to be charged the bedroom tax.

That issue affects Lee, as he is classed as having a spare room, though he needs somewhere for his children to be when they stay with him for about half the week. The Social Security Advisory Committee, which examined this subject in October 2019, acknowledged that one of the most difficult issues for successive Governments has been to design and operate an effective financial regime for separated parents.

The committee’s report went on to recognise that it is difficult for the social security system to reflect complexities, especially of shared care arrangements. One recommendation was that there was a strong case for the Government to take a more strategic approach to separated parents and social security. The committee outlined that it felt the welfare system needed to be updated, given that a key principle is that it should centre on the welfare of the child, in line with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, but that in doing so it should consider the impact on the child’s welfare of the living standards of both parents—not just the parent with the main responsibility—and their ability to share care.

The report went on to highlight that the current system does not meet those principles, pointing to the presumption that there is one main carer, despite the range of shared care arrangements in place within separated families. The report stated that, as a result, some parents without main caring responsibilities are being pushed into hardship, may face poor work incentives and are unable to share care of their child, which may not be in the best interests of the child’s welfare. I have to ask the Minister, what is the merit of the state deciding who is the main carer in situations where children are shared equally between two parents?

The committee pointed to Scotland as an example of best practice, given that the Scottish Parliament has established a cross-party working group looking at separated parents. It was recommended that the Department for Work and Pensions should join up with that group to ensure a joined-up approach and to learn lessons from the progress made so far. Chesterfield Borough Council has enabled Mr Waterhouse to have a discretionary housing benefit allowance payment that can be used in cases where the Government’s unfair bedroom tax applies. However, the Government are specific that it is a transitional payment to allow claimants to make arrangements to move into more appropriately sized housing. In this case, Mr Waterhouse’s property is exactly the right size when his children are with him. Although we have managed to get Chesterfield to extend the discretionary housing benefit, relying on that means that the Government have outsourced responsibility for the fairness of welfare policy on to Chesterfield Borough Council rather than the Department for Work and Pensions taking the responsibility, which is where it should reside.

In addition to having the bedroom tax imposed upon him, Mr Waterhouse is unable to receive the housing portion of child benefit, given that his children live with him on what is seen as a part-time basis, albeit 50% of the time. Given that my constituent is unable to work owing to a long-term mental health condition, he is now struggling to make ends meet. That is without the additional stresses placed on him by the current benefits system. He does not qualify for any child benefit entitlement. Again, as he has his children on a half-time basis, despite the lack of funds, my constituent is expected to care for his children when they stay with him. From what he has put on social media and from reading the evidence from many other parents in a similar situation, it is clear that his situation is not unique. He is often forced to go without to prevent his children going hungry.

It is difficult to quantify the scale of the situation as there is currently poor quality data available in relation to parents without main caring responsibility. The family resources survey in 2017-18 estimated that as many as 30,000 young non-resident parents were likely to be affected by the housing benefit shared accommodation rate policy. I understand that the situation is a difficult one, particularly in circumstances where parents are in a dispute over custody or child maintenance payments.

In the Social Security Advisory Committee report that I referred to earlier, the committee believed that a cross-departmental working group should be set up to instigate urgent action on these issues. It suggested that such a working group should consider the impact of policy on the living standards of both parents and the net impact of that policy on children’s welfare. It should consider how the social security system could better reflect modern shared care relationships that are not detrimental to the parent without main caring responsibility. What actions have the Government taken as a result of the Social Security Advisory Committee report and has the cross-departmental working group been set up to instigate urgent action on the issues that the committee raised?

The committee went on to say that the group should also consider how to ensure that the benefits system and interactions with the child maintenance formula do not unduly result in poor work incentives or push one parent into hardship, with all the impact that that would have on the children, and it should consider how to ensure separated parents can easily access the right information and support from the social security system. The Government’s sorting out separation website was a welcome step, but much more needs to be done to help both parents effectively navigate the complexity of the system. The committee also suggested that the social security system and interactions with the child maintenance system affects the hardship of both parents, including those not classified as having main caring responsibility, while also affecting and creating hardship for children.

When examining the housing element of universal credit, the committee recommended that the system should be reformed to enable young parents under 35, who share custody of their children, to have them to stay overnight without imposing a financial penalty. Another key recommendation of the committee was that the Department for Work and Pensions should consider options for the system to support all non-residential parents with more than one child to stay with them overnight.

I do not underestimate the challenge, given that it is difficult to design a system that takes into account every personal circumstance, but I do say that there should be safeguards in place to ensure that any social security system is not open to abuse and does not work against the interests of separated parents when one parent has decided not to support a collective approach. We also need to make sure that children are protected in the eventuality that one parent is negligent in carrying out their responsibilities, and I recognise that striking a balance is a difficult matter, but it is incredibly important. It is clear that the social security system is currently not fit for purpose to reflect the complexities of modern family life and that reform is necessary.

In summary, it cannot be right that the benefits system forces parents already in dispute to fight it out between themselves as to who receives the money needed to support their children. Nor can it be right that parents who do the right thing and want to care for their children are hit with the bedroom tax for having their child’s bedroom empty for half the week. In addition to the Minister telling us what the Government have done in response to the Social Security Advisory Committee report, will he tell us what steps they are planning or can take to ensure the equity of payments in these situations? Is the gender of the parent a factor that the state considers when deciding who should be regarded as the main carer? Does the Minister think that the Government do enough to support separated fathers to continue to be there for their children? Will he explain why it is not appropriate for benefit payments to be shared as a matter of course when parents are sharing responsibilities rather than relying on parents coming to some mutual arrangement? I do not underestimate the difficulty in finding arrangements that work fairly and equitably for all sides but will the Minister tell us whether there are any specific concerns about an assumption towards shared payment?

Protecting children who have suffered the trauma of a divorce is something that we should all feel passionately about. Supporting their parents when they are suffering ill health is one of the most tangible ways that we can deliver on that. The report has exposed the failures in the system so I hope that this debate and the Minister’s response can be a step towards getting greater fairness and security for many of the 3.9 million children who will look to us to act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, on your first occasion in the Chair. I thank the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) for securing a debate on this hugely important issue.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises some of the challenges faced by separated families. I have listened very carefully to the points that he has made. Following this debate, I and the DWP Lords Minister, Baroness Stedman-Scott, will be happy to meet him to discuss the issues further. Baroness Stedman-Scott has responsibility for the Child Maintenance Service and the reducing parental conflict programme, so there is clear crossover there.

I will start with the principles of universal credit. One of the core principles is to enable families to manage their own affairs. We believe that the current arrangements whereby one designated party receives the whole child element payment are fair and allow families to make their own decisions on how it is used.

To touch on the most recent support, we have taken immediate action to protect jobs and incomes in the face of the pandemic and the Treasury analysis of these measures is that they have been targeted at those most in need. We have injected more than £9.3 billion into the welfare system, including an increase to the universal credit standard allowance of up to £1,040 this year and we have increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local rents from April, so for UC and housing benefit claimants, we are giving additional financial support for private renters to support them through this difficult period. For an average family, that is worth about £600.

Yesterday, we announced that the current easement of the suspension of the minimum income floor in universal credit that was due to expire on 12 November will be extended to the end of April 2021. This sits alongside a generous package of additional support already announced by the Chancellor, including further grants through the self-employment income support scheme and an extension to the furlough scheme until December.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield spoke about who receives the child element of universal credit when separated parents share custody, including arrangements where it is shared 50:50. Where a separated couple have joint custody for their children, the parent who receives the child element is the one the child normally lives with, but if the child normally lives with both, it is the parent who has the main responsibility for the child who receives it. That is decided by the parents, or by a Department for Work and Pensions decision maker if the parents cannot agree or the decision maker does not think that the nomination accurately reflects the arrangement. It is important to stress that similar rules apply to child tax credit and to child benefit, both of which are administered by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

I appreciate the points the hon. Gentleman made and I have huge sympathy with some of them. This is a hugely complex situation and there are no simple or easy options, as he said. There are many different kinds of childcare arrangements that families can come to; that is why our policy is to pay the child element to one parent, and then leave it to families to decide how it is shared between different parties who care for the child or children. Our view is that separated families are able to make their own private arrangements regarding the sharing of resources for children without state intervention.

It might assist and add some important context if I set out some details of how universal credit awards are calculated. Universal credit is a unitary benefit made up of different elements. There is a standard allowance, plus additions to help with additional expenses; for example, the cost of raising children comes via the child element. These elements are all subject to prescribed maximum amounts and paid as a single monthly award, which is calculated at the end of a claimant’s assessment period. Consequently, certain elements, such as the child element, cannot be ring-fenced or separated from the monthly award. Attempting to ring-fence individual components or extract them from the calculation would ignore the all-important interaction between the different stages of the calculation and would not correctly reflect how universal credit is designed in legislation and how it operates in practice.

I understand the case the hon. Gentleman made for his constituent, and we have corresponded on it. There is a 50:50 shared care arrangement, but the ex-partner receives the child element for both children. I understand that that means the constituent does not receive housing support for the additional bedroom that he has. As I have pointed out in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, we have provided resources to local authorities so that additional financial support for those facing a shortfall in meeting their rental housing costs can be given through discretionary housing payments. We have provided about £1 billion in discretionary housing payments to local authorities since 2011, and they are designed to help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to meet their housing costs.

I seek clarity on that point. It is the understanding of Chesterfield Borough Council that discretionary housing payments are a transitional payment for local authorities to work with vulnerable people so that they can get themselves out of the position of having a spare bedroom. In this particular case, and many others like it, however, it is not a transitional arrangement. The man will have a long-term need to accommodate the children. The council is under the impression that the Government do not want it to use discretionary housing payments as a long-term support. Has the council has misunderstood the guidance? If it has not, what does the Minister suggest for this case?

We have provided £180 million in discretionary housing payments this year; that is an additional £40 million in this financial year. We deliberately do not give prescriptive guidance on how discretionary housing payments should be spent by local authorities, because they are precisely that: discretionary. They are there for the local authority to use its discretion to support people who sometimes face very complex situations at the point of need. That discretion is deliberately with the local authority. We also do not prescribe how long discretionary housing payment can be paid. In cases such as this, people may have to apply multiple times for a discretionary housing payment, but we do not say that payments can only be, for example, handed out once, twice or three or four times. It is wholly at the local authority’s discretion.

Just one more point: I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, even if the Government were to agree with his suggestion and I were minded to agree with him—I stress that we do not agree—any proposed change of this nature would require significant structural system change or a manual intervention, which would take considerable departmental resource, along with any legislative change. The Department simply does not have any capacity to make that kind of change at the moment.

To add some context, we have had to divert huge amounts of resource across the Department to the processing of claims throughout this unprecedented period, with claims for universal credit going up from 2.2 million to some 5.7 million. It is important to point out, despite that unprecedented shift, that more than 94% of people were paid in full and on time. We simply do not have the capacity to make big structural system changes, even if we were minded to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we are committed to providing a strong safety net for those who need it.

The Minister talked about the Government wanting parents to work together and leaving it to parents to decide, but clearly, this is not a unique situation. After a separation, there is often contention and disagreement between former partners. When both are looking after the children 50:50, how is it fair for the Government to decide that one of those parents is the main carer and therefore gets the support with housing, child benefit and the gateway that that opens, and the other parent gets nothing? It seems patently unfair. To dismiss that by saying that is how the system is and it would be difficult for the Department to work on it in a different way is not really good enough, not just for Mr Waterhouse but for many others in that situation.

The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head when he says that these situations are extremely complex. Every family is different. In the vast majority of cases, families come to individual arrangements that work well. The answer cannot always be state intervention. He says that it is not fair. That may well be the case; in many of these situations, there is an element of unfairness. There are often situations of family breakdown and separation that are hugely regrettable and there are situations that are deeply unfair, but we, as the state, try to encourage families to come to arrangements themselves. We have programmes such as the reducing parental conflict programme and the Child Maintenance Service precisely for situations where parents are not able to come to individual arrangements themselves, or need the support of the state to do so.

The question comes down to this: how much state intervention and involvement do we want? That is why I said I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and hear more about his constituent’s case and about his ideas for how we might reform the system. I just gently say to him that fundamental or large-scale system reform would not be an easy or quick thing to do. That does not mean we should not explore it or look at it for the future, but it is certainly not something that we could do in the short-to-medium term. As a Government, we are always looking to see what more we can do to support families and to support separated families, be that one family unit or a unit migrating into two or multiple units.

I remind the Minister of the question I asked and invite him to respond. Is the gender of each party a deciding factor in who ends up getting the original payment? Certainly, the view of Mr Waterhouse and many others is that there is a sort of natural bias in the system, so that where both parties share the care, the woman is treated as the main carer. Is that how the system works, and what more can he tell us about that aspect of it?

My understanding is that that is not the case, but I think that if the hon. Gentleman and I sat down with officials from the Department, it would give him a level of comfort about the procedure when individuals from separated families cannot reach an agreement, and how the DWP decision maker will consider all the facts of the case and then come to a conclusion and make a judgment. I would be very happy to have that meeting with him and with officials to go through that process.

As I said, we are deeply committed to providing a strong safety net for those who need it, which is why we continue to spend over £95 billion a year on welfare benefits for people of working age. We believe that families should be free to make their own decisions about how their benefits are used, without Government intervention. As I also said, there are no current plans to change arrangements for the payment of child benefit to separated families. I appreciate that that is not the response that the hon. Gentleman hoped for, but I repeat that I and the DWP Minister in the Lords, Baroness Stedman-Scott, will be happy to meet him.

This Government will continue to reform our welfare system so that it promotes work as the most effective route out of poverty, and is fairer to those who receive welfare and to the taxpayers who pay for it.

I am never knowingly quiet, Mrs Murray. [Laughter.]

I appreciate the Minister’s response and his offer to continue our dialogue after this debate. I recognise that creating a system that works in individual cases is difficult, but there is inherent unfairness at the heart of this system, and a real danger that it will make it more difficult for fathers who are on benefits and who may suffer with mental health or physical health problems, or who are for whatever reason reliant on the benefit system, to be the parent that they would like to be. We recognise that we have a safety net to support parents and families and their children, so investigating whether there is more that can be done to allow for the reality of the situation, which is often that responsibility for children is shared and that therefore benefits need to be shared, is something to work towards. I will take the Minister up on his offer to meet further.

Question put and agreed to.

Order. In order to allow the safe exit of honourable Members who have participated in this debate, and the safe arrival of those Members who will participate in the next debate, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Protections for Emergency Service Workers

Before I call the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), I remind all hon. Members that the matter of appeal of proceedings relating to the convictions of two people, and the sentencing of three people convicted of the manslaughter of PC Andrew Harper, are sub judice under the terms of this House’s resolution; reference should not, therefore, be made to either the merits or otherwise of the convictions or sentences in that case. I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of his debate. I remind any other Member participating in the debate to be equally mindful of the sub judice resolution and matters still before the courts. The debate can go on until 5.45 pm.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered protections for emergency service workers.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank everybody for taking the time to contribute to this debate.

The pandemic has reminded everyone of the important role our emergency service workers play in protecting, defending and saving lives. Doctors, nurses, police officers, paramedics, fire service personnel and everyone else on the frontline have served with fortitude and commitment during these unprecedented times. While the country has retreated to the safety of our own home, our emergency service workers have rolled up their sleeves to protect and save lives. They have held the hands of dying patients, provided counselling to distraught family members, maintained order in some of our most vulnerable communities, and upheld hope in our everyday lives. I am proud that in Stockton we have an award-winning hospital that is filled to the brim with a talented and passionate workforce. Throughout the pandemic, I volunteered at University Hospital of North Tees and saw at first hand the commitment of a workforce who give 110% to caring for local people.

While this pandemic has made us appreciate those who work in the health service, it has also allowed us to see the diverse roles that other frontline workers play. In Cleveland, we have frontline police officers who are second to none. To most of us, it seems perverse that anyone would want to assault another person for doing their job. Abusing someone who, by definition, goes to work and dedicates their life to helping others is simply wrong, but during a night shift with my local police force, I witnessed the horrid abuse our emergency service workers face. I shadowed police officers as they attended a call to deal with an aggressive, drug-fuelled individual who was making it his business to abuse the hospital staff who were trying to help him. Matters then turned physical, and the individual lashed out at officers, throwing fists and feet in an effort to evade arrest.

Whether physical or verbal, abuse is abuse, and it should never be tolerated. Sadly, incidents like the one I witnessed are not rare. In 2019, more than 11,000 people were prosecuted for assaulting emergency service workers, and it is thought that this number has risen by as much as a third this year. In our year of crisis, when we are more reliant on our emergency service workers than ever, the number of assaults has increased. We cannot allow that to go on.

Between 2008 and 2019, 92 police officers lost their lives while on duty. Some 39% of officers across the country have been assaulted. Between August 2019 and July 2020, 6,668 were assaulted, which is an average of 18 assaults on officers every single day. Within those national statistics are even darker pockets of local problems. In Cleveland, in the year to October 2019, there were 440 assaults on emergency service workers. That is 440 too many. This year, that has risen by more than 50%, to 662. Whatever we are doing is not working, and we must do more.

It would be impossible to discuss this issue and not think about a man who embodied duty and service, and who committed his life to uphold, defend and protect. That man is PC Andrew Harper. At the time of the incident, Andrew Harper had finished his shift and, like many other emergency service workers across the country, he carried on to do a few more jobs, to help colleagues and his community. I realise that we are not allowed to discuss the details around the case and the sentence imposed, but let us be honest: I do not think anybody here is not aware of the case. The nation has been shocked by a story that has pierced the public consciousness and has been inspired by PC Harper’s wife in her quest for justice.

PC Harper’s wife, Lissie, has shown unbelievable courage, bravery, energy and passion in her effort to ensure justice for her husband and the family of any other emergency service worker who might find themselves in such a horrific situation. Lissie’s online petition, calling for life sentences for those convicted of killing emergency service workers, has attracted more than 730,000 signatures. It is a new movement for change from a British public who want to see protection for their protectors, and justice for them and their families.

I am delighted that Lissie’s drive and relentless pursuit for positive change has been recognised by the Government. Through discussions with the Lord Chancellor, I am aware that the Government are looking at options for strengthening the law in relation to those who kill emergency service workers while engaged in unlawful activity. I hope that through debates like this one we can continue to push the issue up the agenda.

When someone signs up to work for our police force, our NHS or our fire service, and gets up each morning and puts themselves in harm’s way for us, they should do so with confidence that if things go wrong we will stand by them and, when necessary, ensure that justice is delivered for them and their families. We must do more. I know that the political will is there and appreciate the progress that has been made.

The Government’s sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, includes proposals to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency service worker from 12 months to two years. It is a good start, but I see it as only that. It is a starting point to build, so that the law can act as a deterrent and deliver real justice.

I am proud to support the Government’s announcement of a police covenant to recognise the sacrifices of those who work in policing. The covenant will recognise the huge contribution made by our officers and ensure that they are not disadvantaged as a result of their commitment and that they have access to justice.

Having spent time on duty with my local police officers, I know the solution lies not just with tougher sentences for those who do harm to emergency workers, but in what we give our officers to do their job. Some say a workman should never blame his tools, but I believe everybody should have the right to ask for the tools they need to do their job safely.

In March 2020, the Home Office provided £6.7 million to English and Welsh police forces to purchase more than 8,000 new tasers. The equipment is there, and I welcome it. However, access to training is sometimes a stumbling block. Looking forward, we should aim to set a standard. If a police officer wants the training to be able to use a taser, he should be entitled to it.

Perhaps most crucially of all, almost every officer I have spoken to has impressed on me the importance of high-quality body-worn cameras. In fact, I have seen at first hand how a poor standard body-worn camera can fail when needed most. My local force is now led by an excellent chief constable and the body-worn cameras have been upgraded and replaced. At that time, an officer down the road, working in Durham, was afforded an acceptable camera. Officers working in my constituency were not. They were put at the risk of harm, with inadequate kit.

There must be a minimum standard. Officers should not be left without the necessary equipment to do the job, just because they work in one force rather than another. There has been a cultural shift away from supporting our emergency services workers. Many mourn the lack of respect, the verbal abuse and the gotcha culture. They are constantly subjected to it. Social media is full to the brim with those gotcha moments—people pushing their phones against the noses of emergency services workers while shouting in their faces. Body-worn cameras act as now-essential security to an officer when that happens, nipping in the bud the threat of false allegations that unjustly create so much anxiety for our emergency services workers.

Our frontline officers must have the highest-spec body-worn cameras—no ifs, no buts. If we are putting people in harm’s way to uphold our laws and to protect and save lives, we need to give them the equipment that they need to protect themselves. When things go wrong and that protection is not enough, we must stand by them and ensure that justice is done.

Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 5.25 pm. There are 11 Back-Bench Members wishing to speak. I am sure that you can all do the maths. If you speak for about two or three minutes each, we should be able to get everyone in.

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for bringing forward what I think is a timely debate.

I represent an area in Northern Ireland where an element of the community believes it is only right and proper to target the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I will use that as an example. It is our police service, and those people have been brought up to treat its members as second-class citizens. They target the police on every occasion. If police are responding to something in the community, to try to help, elements there will target them. As for the protection that is given to them, unfortunately the courts are not necessarily all that lenient to and understanding of a police officer who takes action. I am not talking about breaking the law, but taking action to protect himself, his colleagues and the community. Sometimes, because of that, other people can take legal action, and they are helped, through the legal aid system, to do so. That is a major problem.

I am glad that body-worn cameras were mentioned. Without the use of body-worn cameras to provide back-up evidence, many allegations would have been upheld against the fire and ambulance services. It is vital that they have equipment to protect them to that degree. I have great admiration for those who, on the occasions when everyone else is going away from a problem, have to go in and deal with it. They should not face abuse. Abuse comes in many and various forms. It can be verbal or physical, and often the verbal abuse can be as damaging to an individual as physical abuse. We need to address that and ensure that it is a priority, and that we protect those who put themselves on the frontline to protect our society.

My father was a police officer and unfortunately witnessed abuse at first hand, to such a degree that he was injured on duty. He was given no protection. I am talking about the early times in the troubles. Unfortunately he spent quite a long time in hospital. Those who perpetrated the crime were never pursued. I hope that such a case would never happen today.

We need to highlight the situation of firemen. Young people think that it is a bit of fun to throw stones and bricks at a fire engine. We have had that happen in Northern Ireland. We have to ensure that the penalty for being involved in this is not just getting a slap on the wrist, but a penalty that will work through the rest of those people’s lives and ensure they will not be involved in it. I know that we have a short time limit, so thank you very much for the opportunity to take part in this debate, Mrs Murray.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I take this opportunity to thank all the emergency service workers the length and breadth of this country for the vital work they do day and night, under what must be incredibly difficult circumstances. I know first hand from my experiences as an MP and as a resident of Hull West and Hessle how dedicated and conscientious they all are: every day, they put their personal safety second to that of the public they serve. I will quickly mention the 12 officers of Humberside police who have been nominated this year for the national police bravery awards in recognition of their heroism. I give my personal thanks to Keith Hunter, our police and crime commissioner; Chris Blacksell, the chief fire officer; Lee Freeman, the chief constable; all the officers, staff and prison officers; and of course everybody working in the NHS.

The sad fact is that nationally, assaults on police officers increased by 20% during the first period of lockdown, and many officers will doubtless be worried when looking forward to the next four weeks. I want to share a couple of statistics with the Minister: first, from January 2018 to December 2019, 999 Humberside police officers were assaulted in the line of duty. They were punched, kicked, spat at, verbally abused and bitten, and suffered bruising, cuts, swelling and even broken bones, as did our firefighters and paramedics. During the period from April 2018 to March 2019, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service reported a total of 17 attacks, 11 of which were attacks against firefighters. Last year, on average, a prison officer was assaulted every hour, 24 hours a day.

We need to ask ourselves, “How did it come to this?” We need to look at the cuts to those services, and the fact that all our emergency services have been asked to do so much more with fewer staff and fewer resources. While no one would fail to welcome the increased investment in police officers, I want the Minister to reflect on the impact on police staff. Some of the feedback I am receiving from police staff is that police officers are being used to replace duties that were being done by police staff, because police staff numbers continue to be cut. I give personal thanks to all our police community support officers, because they do incredible work in building relationships with local schools in the area and talking to local communities. However, as the Minister knows, they are classified as police staff, and some of those positions are vulnerable as police staff numbers and budgets continue to be reduced. I urge the Minister to look not just at the investment in police officers but at the importance of police staff, because we sometimes think that police staff are only there to answer the phones but, as I am sure the Minister is aware, they do so much more.

It is quite right that there should be severe penalties for assaults on emergency service workers, but we also need to look at how, for some people, prison is a revolving door for persistent criminal behaviours. We need to consider how the National Probation Service can seriously encourage rehabilitation and stop those persistent criminals from bouncing in and out of prison and assaulting our officers. I have mentioned the 12 officers from Humberside nominated for bravery: they received their nominations for tackling a man armed with a machete terrorising staff and shoppers in the town centre. That man was severely mentally ill, and has now been detained indefinitely. No jail tariff would have deterred him, and while it may seem strange to be talking about adult mental health support in respect of the safety of our emergency service workers, it is not. If we want to reduce assaults on those workers, we need to look at the link between adequate mental health support and those people who go out there and attack our officers.

The proposed police covenant sounds very welcome, but will it have teeth? Will it be mandatory? How will it be enforced? How can we make sure it is adopted up and down the country, in every area, and how can the covenant be turned into concrete mental health support for officers and all the people involved in the emergency services? It is vital that the voices of those on the frontline continue to be heard by Government, and after that listening must come the action.

It is a pleasure to serve

under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this debate and on making such a powerful case in support of our emergency workers. This cause could really unite the people of our country. In seeking to protect those who protect us, our emergency service workers are among the finest in our society, and I am sure that Members from right across the House will join me in thanking them.

I have had the great pleasure, as I am sure have many Members across the House, of visiting my local teams, including the Yorkshire Air Ambulance, our firefighters, our NHS hospital services and West Yorkshire police and its training centre. I have been on patrol with local officers on a number of occasions, and often they help the most vulnerable in society at their time of greatest need. I have been shocked every time I have been out on patrol by how many call-outs were for people with severe mental health issues.

Emergency service workers face the most extraordinary pressures daily, and we ask so much of them. They often face appalling levels of abuse. In West Yorkshire last year, we had some shocking statistics. In 2019-20, some 2,185 assaults on West Yorkshire police were recorded in Leeds and the wider region, up 15% from the previous year. I am sure that colleagues across the House agree that any abuse is unacceptable. It should not become part of their job to face such abuse and violence from those whom they protect. I believe that the Government get that and understand that this situation is unsustainable. It is our job, our duty as policy makers, to find a solution and put an end to this trend and protect emergency workers. I have raised the issue with the Home Secretary, and I believe that there is strong understanding in Government of what needs to be done. I welcome the Government’s sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which includes proposals to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency worker from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment.

The law is ultimately moral, and as a society we should say that there is fundamental justice in abuse or violence against our emergency service workers resulting in the strongest sentence possible. I reiterate my support for what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South said, and I continue to support the Government in bringing this injustice to an end. We must protect those who protect us and thank them for all they do in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on his presentation. I remember very well as a child running about in Ballywalter in Northern Ireland—the ’60s and ’70s were my early days. If we ever had any altercations with the PSNI, or the Royal Ulster Constabulary as it was then, dear help us, it was not only the police we had to worry about; when we got home, our mums and dads would be waiting. My dad was of the old school. I know that we are now allowed to do this any more, or at least are not supposed to, but if I got it wrong with the police, I got a clip round the ear, and the one from my dad was always worse than the one from the policeman. By the way, a policeman would also have clipped you around the ear—that was a fact of life. However, it has completely changed; we are in different times, so I understand. I will just make a couple of quick point in a very short time.

I will refer to Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) did. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service reported a 20% increase in emergency calls and responses on a recent night, Saturday 31 October. Its crews dealt with hostile members of the public throwing missiles, including fireworks, as they responded to calls. There was a debate here on Monday—I could not attend because I was in the Chamber—on the misuse of fireworks, which each and every one of us will be aware of in our own constituencies. Even though it was really important that crew members were there, they had to withdraw for safety reasons.

The issue is quite clear: when it comes to the emergency services, including fire and rescue, ambulance and police services, we must have a zero-tolerance policy, backed up by the Crown Prosecution Service dealing with it. There is no better Minister to answer this than the one who is here, but it is not only about the Minister and where he is; it is about the CPS and where it is. We need the law of the land coming down hard on those people.

Some 1,600 physical assaults against the UK ambulance staff were recorded between January and July as the country battled the covid-19 crisis. Obscenely, that is the equivalent of more than seven attacks every day during the covid-19 crisis. There were also 149 sexual assaults against ambulance workers. I tell the Minister that we must legislate to ensure that the message from this House is clear: anyone who attacks emergency service personnel will be arrested and prosecuted—end of story.

There is something really wrong in society if people attack those who have been tasked to protect us, including the police and those ambulance service workers who were taking injured people to hospital. There is something wrong with society. It is time for society to grasp what is wrong and do something about it, and I look to the Minister for that response.

It is reassuring to serve under your diligent stewardship, Mrs Murray. The pandemic has shown us all the strength and resilience of our frontline emergency services and workers, whether they are in the police force, fire service or national health service. I know that I speak for everyone in the House when I say how grateful we are for their hard work, especially during this incredibly difficult time.

It is unsurprising that those who work on our service frontline are becoming physically worn out and mentally exhausted. Some nurses and doctors serving the NHS are still suffering from the trauma of the first wave of coronavirus. Worse, police officers are increasingly becoming targets of assaults and violence. In 2019, 10,033 cases of violence against prison staff were recorded. Only this summer, several officers were bloodied and wounded at the hands of Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protestors. So grave is the situation that the Police Federation is now running a campaign entitled Protect the Protectors, to raise awareness of the need for greater support for those who serve in our police forces.

Our police officers are entrusted to defend us all. As citizens in uniform, their authority is granted only through communal consent by citizens. I maintain that an attack on any officer is an attack on all of us and those who commit such heinous crimes should be granted no quarter when it comes to their prosecution and punishment.

I welcome the Government’s White Paper entitled “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which includes a proposal to double current maximum sentences from 12 months to two years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) stated, this is but a good start to the journey, not the destination.

We Conservatives have and will continue to invest in, support and defend our police forces. In March 2020, the Home Office provided £6.7 million to English and Welsh police forces to purchase over 8,000 new tasers. The Conservatives stood on a manifesto that promised to recruit 20,000 new officers. In the first wave, between November 2019 and March 2020, 6,435 new officers have been recruited.

Enabling and ensuring tougher sentences on those who attack our police officers is a continuation of our values and commitments to our police. I stand foursquare behind any decision on tougher sentences for those who assault any emergency worker. I hope to see the proposal to double the maximum current sentences implemented.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing this important debate.

This year more than most we are relying absolutely on the work of our emergency services, as we work to tackle the impact of covid-19. We are forever indebted to the people who put themselves between us and harm, whether that is the 7,300 police officers, with 194 new colleagues on the way, the 19,000 frontline NHS staff or the 2,100 firefighters who serve my constituency, Heywood and Middleton, and the wider Greater Manchester community. It is our duty in this place to ensure that we look after the people who look after us.

Eight years after the event, Greater Manchester still remembers the loss of Greater Manchester police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone. The then Prime Minister David Cameron rightly called their murders by Dale Cregan a despicable act of pure evil. On that occasion, their killer received a whole-life tariff, and rightly so, but that should never be in question. Criminals should know the consequences of taking the life of one of our bravest. I do not believe in the death penalty for a number of reasons, legal and moral, but there should be no just opposition to the idea that someone who takes the life of one of our emergency workers should be removed from decent society permanently.

I support calls led by the families of fallen frontline workers—Lissie Harper in particular—for a review of how the law works in such cases. There should either be a new law relating specifically to the killing of people in frontline service positions or reform of existing laws on homicide. The Law Commission already recommended introducing degrees of murder, along with other reforms, just over 10 years ago. While some of those changes were adopted, I feel there is an opportunity to complete the reforms and bring our legal system into line with the society it serves.

I will not speak for much longer, as I know this is a popular debate. Support for our frontline personnel is an area on which we can all broadly agree. I will conclude with an extract from the police oath, in which they promise to serve

“with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people”.

We owe them nothing less from this place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I want to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for leading the debate. Although Darlington lies a little upstream from Stockton South, he and I both represent Tees Valley constituencies, where the work of our emergency services is highly valued.

My stepfather was a fireman who served in Cleveland Fire Brigade. I recall my horror and disbelief at his retelling of incidents whereby, on certain shouts, the officers on the attending appliance would be pelted with rocks. It would not be uncommon for the shouts to have been the result of a hoax call. Sadly, the number of recorded cases of violence against our emergency services personnel continues to rise, and we must do more to protect them.

In preparation for the debate, I spoke to temporary Chief Inspector Chris Knox, who heads up neighbourhood policing in Darlington. Chris has done phenomenal work in the town I represent and will be a sad loss to our community when he retires next year, although I wish him well for a long and happy retirement. Sadly, County Durham police have suffered 298 assaults since 1 May this year, with 56 taking place in Darlington.

Order. There is a Division in the House, so I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, or for 25 minutes if two Divisions are expected. We will continue when we return.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

It is a pleasure to continue serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I was speaking of temporary Chief Inspector Chris Knox of County Durham police. Chris said to me:

“It is imperative that the law protects officers because every day we are expected to protect the public and we need the government to back changes”.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is pretty bad form for the shadow Minister in Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to be scoring political points while Members are making their speech? Surely, on an issue as important as this, we should be united across the House.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes an important point about the scoring of political points during the national pandemic that we are facing.

In my regular discussions with the chief executive of the North East Ambulance Service, Helen Ray, she has highlighted to me the fact that her colleagues want to see community sentences handed down to assailants that are served in the service that they committed the offence against. That would ensure that punishment was restitutional and perpetrators fully appreciated the impact of their offences on the people who risk their lives serving us. It is unacceptable that, in the course of this year, there have been more than 1,600 assaults on ambulance staff and more than 2,000 cases of verbal abuse.

We must do more to protect our emergency services. We must do more to prevent assaults on emergency services. And we must do more to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I would like to make a few brief comments. I thank emergency service workers in Ipswich, especially for what they have been doing as the pandemic has been happening, and in particular Suffolk police. I do not think anyone who joined Suffolk police ever thought that they would have a role in policing social interactions and enforcing social distancing rules. Indeed, I do not think any police officer ever thought that they would have to do that. It is not something that they want to do or that is very easy. I thank Suffolk constabulary for getting the balance just right and being acutely sensitive to the need to ensure that the virus is contained, but also not overstepping the mark. Huge thanks go to them and also to the Kestrel team, whom I was out with a few weeks ago on a patrol across Ipswich. They are dedicated and truly exceptional professionals.

With regard to the tragic death of PC Andrew Harper, I have been moved, like most of the country, by that story and the fantastic campaign that Lissie has run. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and other hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who have also been involved. I was very sad that I was not able to meet her. I was due to a few weeks ago, but because of self-isolation, I was not able to do so. I was very glad, though, to co-sign, with 21 colleagues, a letter to the Attorney General, calling for tougher sentencing in this area and mandatory life sentences for those who are found guilty of appalling crimes against our emergency service workers.

Many of the points that I wanted to make have been made by others, so I will just say, as cogently as I possibly can, what I truly believe and I think other people and colleagues also believe, which is that our emergency service workers are the best of the best. They have come to the fore more than ever before during this pandemic, and we need to back them up and hold to account those who commit crimes against them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing this important debate. It gives us a chance to bring into the light the real risks that our emergency service workers face.

Police officers are asked to confront violent and dangerous people every day—day in, day out—and other emergency service workers also run towards danger when other people run away. I want to pay tribute to my dad, who served more than 30 years as a policeman. I have yet to meet a braver man than him. While growing up, I listened with fascination to stories from his work. Only as I got older did I understand the risks that he took in taking on criminals on behalf of the public he served. I am equally proud of my sister, who followed in his footsteps. She is blessed with two young children, and I know that it occasionally crosses the mind of everyone in our family how horrific it would be for them if anything happened to her.

I vividly remember hearing on the news, in 2012, that two female police officers had been killed and fearing that my sister was one of those officers. The two police officers who were killed were PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone. They were called to a false burglary report and killed in a gun and grenade attack. They were killed while carrying out their duties as police officers. They were killed while working to keep us all safe.

Every time anyone who has a police officer in their family hears something on the news about harm to or the death of a police officer, we worry it might be our family member. Tragically, 1,600 police officers have paid the ultimate price while serving in uniform. In September, we had the case of Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was killed while serving in the Metropolitan police. Earlier today was Sergeant Matt Ratana’s funeral, and my thoughts and condolences—as I am sure all Members agree—go out to his family and friends on this difficult day.

Eighty-eight per cent. of officers who responded to a national police safety survey said that they had been assaulted at some point during their careers. However, we are all very aware that it is not only the police who experience assault. We all heard the disgusting stories about the abuse and assault that NHS emergency workers faced during the pandemic. Firefighters and prison officers are also assaulted. Many other workers face such abuses, and that cannot be tolerated.

I fully support the proposal in the Government’s sentencing White Paper to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting emergency service workers from 12 months to two years, but that must be a starting point. If we do not see a big drop in the assaults taking place, we need to look at that again. Anyone who harms emergency service workers carrying out their duties must face justice.

That brings me to my concluding remarks, about another area where we should and can go further. The killer of PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone was sentenced to a whole-life tariff, which means that he will never leave prison. That is justice for their families. Too often, I have come across intellectual snobbery about people who want justice—but that is a valid, legitimate and moral perspective. I am afraid, however, that not everyone gets justice.

I am mindful not to make reference to any particular case, but I am happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South in his campaign to support the widow of PC Andrew Harper, Lissie Harper. As others have mentioned, she is campaigning for life sentences with a minimum term for the killers of emergency service workers, whether an intentional act or not. PC Andrew Harper was killed in the line of duty. I pay tribute to his bravery, in pursuing criminals without thought for his safety and in signing up to be a police officer in the first place. Legal precedents already distinguish between different types of manslaughter, but Lissie has made a strong case for us to put in a new law as supported by her campaign, to ensure that proper protections are in place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this debate on a topic that I think everyone in this House can support. Our police and emergency workers do some of the most difficult jobs out there. They put their lives on the line, confronting violent situations every day to keep the public safe. They pick up the pieces when things go wrong and do their best to bring calm to some of the most challenging situations.

This morning, I heard from Jamie Thompson, who is the chair of the Cheshire Police Federation. He told me that legislation passed in 2018 has made a difference to sentencing in Cheshire, but cases of attacks on police officers continue to rise and we need to be tougher. In 2019, there were 30,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales, with 625 in Cheshire. I am particularly grateful to the Cheshire constabulary, who, over the past few months, have seen an increase in antisocial behaviour during the pandemic. I commend them for their hard work in tackling that for local residents.

To be clear, any attack on a police officer, prison officer or emergency worker is completely unacceptable. I suspect that I might be the only Member speaking in this debate who has used the legislation in a judicial capacity over the past couple of years. As a magistrate, when dealing with cases in which ambulance staff have been attacked as they carry out their work, or a prison officer going about his job has been knifed, I hear the personal impact statements from those brave members of our community who have to live with both the physical and mental consequences of such terrible incidents. Earlier, someone mentioned the impact of seeing body cam footage and, as a magistrate, having watched some of those terrible experiences, I can only imagine the heartache that those brave people go through.

I welcome the fact that the Government have been clear that Ministers will keep maximum penalties under review to ensure that they appropriately reflect the seriousness of the crime. In another point, will the Minister feed back to the Attorney General that decisions taken by the CPS when charging are critical, and that it should be encouraged wherever possible to charge assaults under section 47 rather than section 39, in order for a case to go to the Crown court for a more serious and lengthy sentence?

Finally, I welcome the introduction of the police covenant, which is a critical step. It will provide formal recognition and a clear sign of the value that the Government place on supporting police and their families.

I congratulate Back-Bench Members on actually sticking to the time—we have got all of you in. I now call the SNP spokesperson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. As others have done, I commend the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing the debate, which is very timely, particularly as we all think about the role of emergency service workers who are performing extraordinarily at the height of a global pandemic. At this juncture and with your forbearance, Mrs Murray, I pay tribute to the fire station staff in Easterhouse in my constituency, the police staff in Shettleston and Baillieston, and the Lightburn ambulance crew based in Carntyne.

As hon. Members will know, one of the obligations on the SNP, as the third party, is to provide summing-up for a debate. I appreciate that the subject of the emergency services is a devolved matter, so I hope to share a few thoughts about what we do in Scotland and how that can be of help as we have this debate here in Westminster.

The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 provides protection for emergency workers across Scotland so that they can continue to do their jobs at protecting communities and keeping Scotland safe. The SNP has extended the Act in order to cover GPs, other doctors, nurses and midwives when they are working in the community. We want to ensure that no one faces abuse or violence while at work, and we have put in place severe penalties for those who abuse emergency service workers. The penalty applicable under the Act is up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a £10,000 fine or both. For more serious incidents, the Crown Office may choose alternative common law offences that attract higher penalties of up to a life sentence. The average custodial sentence for offences against emergency workers has increased by 12% over the past 10 years, from 151 days in 2009-10 to 169 days in 2018-19. The Act has also given the police, prosecutors and courts the necessary tools to ensure that people who attack public-facing workers face reasonable and effective penalties.

At this stage, I pay tribute to NHS frontline staff, who really are under the cosh at the moment. There are a range of services that NHS Scotland staff can access for their physical and mental health, which I think we would all agree is particularly important in the light of the covid-19 pandemic. They include employment assistance programmes, trauma counselling services and pastoral support. Of course, we offer such services to ensure a safe working environment. Police Scotland have the necessary support in place and it is backed up by the chief constable, who has pledged to reduce the impact of violence, to improve the safety of officers and staff, and to provide appropriate support when violence occurs.

I will finish by saying that this year has thrown up unprecedented challenges for our frontline staff. The pandemic will undoubtedly leave many lasting legacies for us as a society, but I agree with the fundamental point made by the hon. Member for Stockton South that, be it in Westminster or in the Scottish Parliament, it is our duty as legislators to guarantee that all emergency workers receive the support they need alongside protection from any abuse or violence that is experienced while working. We would all agree that such violence is totally unacceptable. On that basis, I am happy to commend the hon. Member.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on securing this important debate. It was harrowing to hear of the incident that he witnessed when he rode out with the police. I have had similar cases in Croydon, and I agree with him entirely in his conclusion that whatever we are doing, it is not working.

As mentioned previously by hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who made a thoughtful speech, today was the funeral of Sergeant Matt Ratana. He was killed on 25 September as he prepared to search a handcuffed man at the custody centre in my borough of Croydon. Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was just a few weeks away from retirement, served in the Metropolitan police for 30 years, spending his last years in Croydon as a neighbourhood police officer and then as a custody officer, as he thought he could have a bit more of a peaceful time before his retirement. I am grateful to the Minister for visiting Croydon to meet local officers who worked with Matt. The shadow Home Secretary and the Mayor of London also visited. As others have done today, I pay tribute to Matt and all our emergency service workers who have lost their lives in service.

As part of the brief I am so fortunate to hold, I am touring the country virtually to speak to police and crime commissioners about their area and the issues. Recently I was on a virtual visit to Cleveland, where I met police officers and the chief constable from the area of the hon. Member for Stockton South. I heard about the great pressure they are under, dealing with high crime levels and the impact of covid with a much reduced workforce, following 10 years of cuts.

The messages from the Government are undoubtedly confusing and challenging when it comes to this huge covid crisis, but I think we all agree that the police have done an absolutely brilliant job of dealing with what has been a very difficult task. I thank all emergency service workers who have gone above and beyond during the covid pandemic.

At last year’s Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary said, quite rightly, that emergency workers

“need to know they have a Prime Minister, a Home Secretary, and a Government that stands beside them.”

I want to ask the Minister a few questions today about how we are going to make that commitment a reality. As has already been said, over the past five years assaults on police officers have risen by almost 50%, and there has been a 21% increase in officer assaults during lockdown. That is more than 10,400 assaults with injury on the police just last year, and 30,000 including those without injury.

That comes at a human cost, but it also has a financial cost. The College of Policing has estimated that 71,000 days were taken as sick leave in 2018-19 as a result of assaults on police officers, which has an estimated cost heading for £5 million. Between January and July this year, there were more than 1,600 physical assaults on UK ambulance workers. In London, there were 355 physical assaults on ambulance workers and 239 verbal abuse incidents.

As we know, violent crime has risen by more than 150% since 2010, meaning the police are now dealing with 1 million more violent offences with thousands fewer officers. The dramatic cuts to the police workforce have meant that single crew day patrols are the norm for lots of police forces, leaving those officers alone to deal with the risks every time they respond to a situation. Last week in New Zealand, a police officer was shot and her colleagues are asking why she was on her own in that patrol car and not with a co-worker. Heaven forbid we should see that happen here.

Cuts to mental health services mean that the police are very often the ones picking up the pieces, as has been mentioned. Only a few weeks ago, a police officer told me about an incident where a police officer was stabbed after breaking into a home to access somebody who was suffering from a mental health breakdown, having been asked by the NHS to do so.

There are five immediate priorities. First, we desperately need a bigger workforce. We welcome the increase in police officer numbers, but we know that that number will not replace those we have lost.

Secondly, the rising number of attacks on police officers is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. What work is being done to understand exactly why assaults are increasing and what can be done about it? What is the link between the reduction in the number of police officers, the use of single crewing and the increase in recorded assaults? Is there any? What research is the Home Office doing?

Thirdly, the Government need to tackle sentencing—a point that has already been raised. It was a privilege to meet Lissie Harper and I am seeing her again this month. The shadow Home Secretary and I met her to talk about her campaign, to which I pay massive tribute—it really is very powerful. The families of attacked or murdered officers would like to see a much tougher approach to assaults on police officers, and I think they are right. There should be stronger penalties for those who attack the police and the emergency services. What progress have the Government made on obtaining legal advice on the issues that Lissie Harper has raised with the Home Secretary? We welcome the sentencing White Paper, but I ask the Minister to set out a clear timeline for when they will bring that important piece of legislation to Parliament.

Fourthly, the issue of protective equipment has been raised. It has been brought to the surface starkly during covid-19, with horrible spitting at emergency service workers. We welcome body-worn cameras and the use of spit guards in policing. What work has been done to learn the lessons of what has happened during covid to make sure that our police officers are protected in future?

Finally, when will we have the legislation that has been committed to, with proper legal protections for police officers when they pursue suspects on the roads? We know that the police put themselves in incredible danger to ensure suspects are caught, and they should not be criminalised for doing that job.

Can the Minister confirm when the covenant will be introduced? It is incredibly important for the police.

I am running out of time, but I pay tribute to the Police Federation’s Protect the Protectors campaign that has been running for several years, which the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) mentioned. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who has led a lot of the work done by the shadow home affairs team, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for the private Member’s Bill that doubled the maximum sentence for assaults against emergency service workers. Our brave workers put themselves in harm’s way every day, and they have the right to get all the protection that they deserve from us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, in what is a very well-timed debate, given the increasing period of difficulty and complexity the whole country is going into, which will yet again present challenges for our frontline emergency workers, not least the police. I am grateful to Members for their heartfelt contributions and their recognition of the amazing job the police have done during the lockdown, alongside their emergency worker colleagues.

Our brave workers, across all emergency services, do an extraordinary job in the most difficult of situations, keeping us safe, day in and day out. Those jobs can be tough. Many of them face more danger in a week than most of us will see in our lifetime. I am only too aware of the sacrifices that our police officers and other emergency workers make to protect us. They face the danger so we do not have to. That has never been more apparent than over the past few months. They continue to serve our country courageously, day after day, and I cannot speak highly enough of the bravery, commitment and sacrifice they make each day during these difficult times. As somebody who has spent a lot of my adult life involved in policing, I have seen that on a particular and singular basis on the frontline, many times.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) mentioned spitting and the appalling situation of police officers being spat at, particularly with covid about. It has caused great anxiety for many police officers. Will my hon. Friend assure me that there are robust punishments in place for those individuals who use covid as a weapon?

I am just coming to that point, if my hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment. I hope that my speech will cover most of the issues that have been raised during the debate, but I will come to one or two questions at the end.

A number of Members made the point that it is completely right that we should support and protect our emergency workers to the greatest extent possible. It goes without saying that an assault on an emergency worker is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. There is no excuse for it—there is no excuse in background, circumstance, resourcing or any other wider issue.

Throughout the year, we have heard reports of people deliberately spitting and coughing on emergency workers in an attempt to weaponise the virus against those who look to protect us. Such behaviour is utterly disgraceful, and personally I cannot understand what is going through the twisted mind of somebody to do such a monstrous thing. It is vital that those offenders face the full force of the law. Their actions constitute an assault.

Throughout the year, we have seen examples of tough sentences imposed on those using coronavirus as a threat against emergency workers. In April, an individual was sentenced to a total of two years in prison for assaulting police officers, including biting and coughing at them, claiming they were infected with coronavirus. Someone who deliberately coughed at a police community support officer and assaulted another officer was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment a week after the incident.

However, the Government want to go further and send a clear message that those kinds of attacks will not be tolerated. That is why we recently announced our intention to legislate to double the maximum penalty for assaults on emergency workers from 12 months to two years—an example that I hope colleagues north of the border in Scotland will follow.

We must also look at what happens when much more serious attacks take place—so serious that in some instances they have claimed the lives of those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. The deaths of Sergeant Matt Ratana, whose moving funeral I had the privilege of attending virtually this morning, and PC Andrew Harper epitomise the kind of bravery and extraordinary sacrifice that will not be forgotten. We are determined to do everything in our power to protect those who put our safety before their own, by ensuring that the police have the tools and resources they need to keep themselves and us safe.

The Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor were pleased to meet Andrew Harper’s widow, Lissie, who has been mentioned by a number of Members, to discuss Harper’s law, and I hope to meet her myself soon. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that assaults on emergency workers are handled with appropriate severity across the criminal justice system, and that includes the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary. It might be interesting to compare the sentences given for assaults on police officers, for example, with those given for assaults on judges.

Dealing with traumatic incidents and helping people who often experience traumatic events can have real consequences, and not only for the victims. These are not jobs that can be left at the office: the pressure of the role will leave its mark on a person’s personal and family life. That is why the Government have invested £7.5 million in a new national police wellbeing service. Following two years of development and piloting, that wellbeing service was launched in April last year, providing evidence-based guidance, advice, tools and resources that can be accessed by forces, as well as individual officers and staff. There is an emphasis on prevention and on helping forces to identify mental health issues early through psychological screening, giving officers access to support before a problem takes hold. The wellbeing service offers a wide range of services, from practical workshops to individual guidance.

However, as hon. Members have mentioned, the Government are going to go even further to ensure that our police get the support and protection they need. We have accelerated work to introduce a police covenant, and remain absolutely committed to ensuring that it has a meaningful impact on those working within, or retired from, policing roles, whether paid or as a volunteer. We expect to establish a robust governance structure in the coming months to drive progress, and policing partners have already been involved in those discussions. The covenant will be enshrined in law, and the Home Secretary will have a duty to report annually on progress. Our focus will be on health and wellbeing, physical protection, and support for families. We will continue to work closely with policing partners to ensure the covenant has a lasting impact on our police.

Those of us who have been out with police officers, as hopefully many Members have been, know that they confront violent situations every day to keep the public safe. The recent review of officer and staff safety conducted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council highlighted a number of areas where improvements can be made and where partners can work together to improve the protections for our police. To carry out their vital roles and stay safe, it is essential that police are equipped with the right protection, training and tools, including the latest, most accurate Taser, body armour, and body-worn cameras, as the review quite rightly highlighted. This, along with the police covenant, provides an opportunity for us to make a significant difference to the lives of those working in policing and their families.

However, we should not forget that there are other emergency service workers who are worthy of protection, not least in the NHS. The NHS violence reduction strategy aims to protect those workers against deliberate violence and aggression from patients, their families and the public, and to ensure offenders are punished quickly and effectively. We also know from the tragic events of Grenfell Tower and from major incidents like Whaley dam the extent of the physical and psychological challenges our firefighters can face, as hon. Members have referenced.

In 2018, the Government launched the fire and rescue national framework, directing all fire and rescue services to have in place a people strategy to support their staff, including a specific focus on mental health and wellbeing. I am pleased that this has inspired positive action, and that the National Fire Chiefs Council’s wellbeing board continues to instigate positive change across the sector, focusing on prevention, early intervention and individual support.

The emergency services are among the most selfless and courageous members of our society. They deserve every support and protection we can give them, and I know it will have been heartening for them to hear the unequivocal support they have received from every Member who has spoken this evening.

I thank hon. Members for their heartfelt and valuable contributions to this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response, and for the work he is doing to put more police officers on our streets and properly equip them with the powers and equipment they need to tackle crime. All of our emergency services run towards danger when we run away, and that is why we have to do more, be on their side and protect them.

When I talk to frontline officers and doctors and nurses, they all talk about the word “respect”, and we have to re-instil that respect for our emergency service workers. The work that we do on sentencing is about creating a deterrent and about sending a signal to our society. I thank the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for a unique perspective on the challenges in Northern Ireland and on the PSNI. I look forward to the hon. Member for Strangford coming back for a “clip around the ear” debate at some point, because I think that might work.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who discussed the mental health challenges faced by modern-day emergency services, probably like never before. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), who spoke about the continuation of our values. That is what it is about: we made a commitment to put more police on the streets, and we also made a commitment to toughen up sentences for the worst crimes. There are few crimes worse than attacking the people who go out every day to help us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) is clearly a right winger like me, and wants to get tough, get real and hand out real justice. When we look at other countries—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).