Monday 16 November 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Trade Deals and the NHS
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones before they use them, using the cleaning materials provided, which they can then dispose of as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room.
Members should speak only from the horseshoe—the debate is not oversubscribed, so there will be no one sitting at the back who can speak. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups. In the latter stages, Members on the call list seated in the Public Gallery need to move on to the horseshoe. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving forward to the seats on the horseshoe.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 307339, relating to trade deals and the NHS.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This e-petition raises
“concerns that a trade deal between the UK Government and the US deal might not exempt our NHS, leaving it vulnerable to privatisation and in direct contradiction to promises this would not happen.”
It was launched on 11 May and closed on Remembrance Day last week, attracting just under 112,000 signatures. The UK Government responded on 23 June, stating:
“The government has been clear that protecting the UK’s right to regulate in the public interest and protecting public services, including the NHS, is of the upmost importance.”
The petition also highlights that if a deal quietly went through during the coronavirus crisis, it would be unethical, lack transparency and, if US finances were involved in our medical system, potentially create a direct health risk to us. This latter point relates to the fact that US Government statements have suggested that they intend to negotiate for US pharmaceutical companies to charge higher prices for medicines sold to the NHS as part of any UK-US free trade agreement. The cost of drugs to the NHS is already growing much faster than inflation, driving deficits across the service. Allowing big business and pharmaceutical companies to behave as they see fit would drive costs for new drugs well beyond the NHS’s ability to afford them, threatening our health, safety and national security.
In their response to the petition, the Government went on to reiterate their overall objectives, which were stated in their UK-US freed trade agreement document. They said that, along with the NHS, the price the NHS pays for drugs and the services the NHS provides would not be on the table when negotiating trade deals. Their response also said that no changes would be made to the UK’s
“intellectual property regime that would lead to increased medicines prices for the NHS.”
However, the timing of the launch of this petition is significant because, as the Government response also pointed out, the negotiating objectives for a free trade agreement between the UK and the US were published on 2 March, more than two months before the petition’s launch. Therefore, it is a reasonable assumption that, as the petition was launched after the publication of the UK-US trade deal negotiation objectives, either the petitioners thought that the Government had not been clear in their response, or they were not convinced that the price the NHS pays for drugs or the services it provides would not be on the table when negotiating trade deals.
Indeed, who can question the petitioners’ doubts, when we have seen the UK Government’s repeated refusal to guarantee excluding the NHS and other public services from future trade deals? For example, most recently, on 28 August, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) tabled a written parliamentary question to the Secretary of State for International Trade, asked if she will make it her policy to exclude the NHS from potential future trade deals. Unfortunately, although the question was direct, the answer the hon. Member received did not give a direct commitment.
Furthermore, the UK Government’s response said that their negotiating positions had been made clear to all their trade partners, including by the Secretary of State in her written ministerial statement to Parliament on 18 May. Although the Secretary of State’s statement on the future trading relationship with the US mentioned negotiations many times, not once did it confirm that the NHS was not a part of them. I therefore struggle to see what reassurance that statement gave.
The Secretary of State’s next statement on the matter, on 30 June, entitled “Negotiations on the UK’s Future Trading Relationship with the US: Update”, stated:
“the Government remains clear on protecting the NHS”.
Those eight words would have been welcomed across the House, of course, and we all wanted to take consolation from them. Yet our hopes were again dashed less than a month later when Conservative MPs voted overwhelmingly against an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have enshrined in law the protection of our NHS and other vital public services that this petition is calling for. That is a significant inconsistency and contradicts previous promises, which is a tenet of the petition. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on why only two Conservative MPs saw the perceived duplicity in saying one thing and then acting against it, not least because neither of the Secretary of State’s subsequent statements have repeated that assurance.
The people who have signed the petition just want that assurance. They want a cast-iron guarantee—not words that can easily be rescinded—that the vital services provided by our NHS will be protected. Those vital services have come to the fore in an unprecedented way throughout this terrible covid-19 pandemic. Quite simply, the petitioners do not want our NHS to be weakened and undermined by private companies being able to trade unhindered on the back of it, which, I think—I am sure others here agree—is a perfectly reasonable position, given what has already occurred with the Trade Bill.
It is important to note at an early stage in this debate that, because the Trade Bill was able to pass without the amendment that would have protected the NHS and publicly funded health and care services in other parts of the UK from any form of control from outside the UK, one independent MP joined 336 Conservative MPs to reject protecting the provision of a comprehensive, publicly funded health service, free at the point of delivery, from being undermined or restricted by any international trade agreement. It is also worth noting that the rejected amendment would have, among other things, recognised that an appropriate authority had the right to enact policies, legislation and regulation that protect and promote health, public health, social care and public safety in health or care services. Furthermore, it would have excluded provision for any investor-state dispute settlement, a clause that provides or is related to the delivery of public services, healthcare, care or public health. I will discuss the relevance of ISDS clauses shortly.
I want to highlight another amendment proposed to the Trade Bill that would have required the UK Government to secure the approval of both Houses of Parliament and the devolved Parliaments of Scotland and Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly before a trade agreement could be approved. Notably, 323 Conservative MPs voted down the proposal. The reality of those two amendments being rejected, which has been reported by the BBC’s Reality Check, is that Parliament does not have a statutory role in either scrutinising or voting on any future trade deals because the Government have the power to pass some aspects of trade deals without there even needing to be a vote in Parliament.
Apart from the worrying lack of scrutiny that situation presents in protecting our NHS and other public services, I believe it to be fundamentally undemocratic. Indeed, the bottom line is that, despite the UK Government’s response to the petition stating that they
“will continue to ensure that decisions on how to run public services”
will include “Devolved Administrations”, the devolved Administrations—like Parliament—will not play a statutory role in the UK Government’s international trade policy. That is undemocratic and highlights the wider implication that a trade deal could undermine the constitutional powers that devolution delivered.
It is plain for everyone to see that the NHS is a prime example of that, because health is a devolved matter. Therefore, given that the UK Government are in a position to influence devolved powers without a statutory requirement to seek consent from, or even to consult, the devolved Administrations, will the Minister today also explain the Government’s position that it is constitutionally inappropriate for devolved Administrations to have a statutory role in a reserved area, while it is not deemed constitutionally inappropriate for the UK Government to legislate in areas of devolved competence?
If the UK Government want us to believe that they will keep their promises that the NHS is not on the table in trade negotiations, they should commit to legislation that will ensure it is taken off the table. I am certain that I am not alone in finding it hard to understand why an amendment that would have ensured market access to healthcare services was restricted was roundly rejected by all but two Conservative MPs. Having discussed how trade deals could negatively impact on health services, what possible reason did the Government have for not seizing the opportunity to commit legally to ensuring that trade agreements could not be concluded if they risked altering the way our NHS services are provided?
That brings me to investor-state dispute settlements, which are a threat to public services, particularly when they are permitted speculatively or retrospectively. That was a red line when the EU negotiated TTIP—the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—with the US. The EU would never accept a trade deal with the US in which such principles were compromised, because the trade agreements that include investor-state dispute settlement clauses have the potential to undermine the procurement process and regulations within public procurement, especially within the NHS, if not restrained properly and fairly.
Indeed, the creator of the petition, Joanne Barlow, saw investor-state dispute settlements as one of the major problems of a trade deal with the US, pointing out that they could include legal challenges by any US markets deprived of access to the market or if their profits were threatened. Joanne explained that that would make it difficult to return the NHS to a fully publicly owned and run institution. In addition, Ms Barlow noted that she could not find evidence of a specific clause exempting the NHS from American investment. It would therefore be of some comfort to the petitioners if the Minister could today confirm that there will be no investor-state dispute settlement clauses in any trade deal signed by the UK.
To summarise, if this Government’s insistence that the NHS is not on the table in a trade deal with the US is indeed the case, why did they not accept the amendments that were put forward and commit their pledges in law? The petitioners want that insistence to be in legislation, to ensure that our NHS is not left vulnerable to privatisation or becomes a victim of broken promises that it will not be sold off to the highest bidder. No one needs reminding that we are still in the depths of the covid-19 pandemic, which has caused physical, mental and financial hardship to people across the UK. Given the lack of scrutiny and democracy that the Trade Bill has delivered, I urge the UK Government to respect the request of the petitioners in their negotiations with the US and not to progress a trade deal that will risk our NHS in any way.
Within the Chamber now are five Members on the call list, with two Members not in the Chamber, so it is difficult for me to calculate a time limit. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople from 5.30 pm, so we have about 45 minutes for Back-Bench speeches. If Members keep an eye on the clock and make short speeches, I will not have to impose a time limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his hard work in securing the debate.
I am sure that I am not the only Member to have been inundated with messages from constituents in recent months, urging me to do whatever I can to protect the NHS in any future trade deal with the United States. Those messages were full of gratitude and admiration for the nurses, doctors and support workers who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to save lives and stop the spread of this terrible disease. I am sure that all hon. Members would echo those sentiments. However, they were also full of fear about the fact that, in just a few short months, our health services could be laid waste by predatory multinationals and the American healthcare industry. I welcome this opportunity to restate my opposition to any part of the NHS being treated as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with the USA.
I wish I could tell my constituents that their fears are without foundation, but in Washington politicians from across the board are pushing for the NHS to be on the negotiating table in free trade negotiations. Chuck Grassley, the influential Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Finance, said that
“a trade deal ought to include almost anything”.
“I would hope that the National Health service would be open to some competitive approach that would benefit our pharmaceutical companies”.
The ambition of the American healthcare lobby is clear. It wants full market access to our national health service and an end to price controls on drugs and pharmaceutical products so that it can rinse the NHS of every penny. It also wants to exploit investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms so that it can sue the British Government for making decisions that may be in the best interests of the public but fail to reward corporate private shareholders.
The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that the NHS is not up for sale, but when the time came for him to put his money where his mouth is, he refused to support amendments to the Trade Bill that would have enshrined protections for the NHS in law. I am not fearmongering; I am issuing a clear warning that, without those legal protections, the NHS remains at risk of having “for sale” signs slapped on its services.
As a member of the International Trade Committee, I have followed the ongoing trade negotiations closely, and I know that the UK is not negotiating from a position of strength. The Government are playing a dangerous game of chicken with the European Union, our single largest trading partner. The looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit leaves us dangerously dependent on securing a trade deal with the United States. Although I welcome the end of the Trump era in Washington, President-elect Biden has been clear that he will prioritise a deal with the EU over one with Britain.
The fear that I share with my constituents is that, as the EU transition period ends, the scramble for trade deals will be stepped up, the pressure to put the NHS on the table will grow, and a deal at any price will be rushed through. We cannot allow that to happen. Our NHS must remain just that: ours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am unsurprised that my constituents have signed this petition in droves, because they have been contacting me with their concerns about the NHS and Brexit for many years.
We now have some concerning facts to go on. Following the Brexit vote, the Government had three fundamental jobs on trade. First, they had to get a deal to secure the half of our trade that depends on Europe. Secondly, they had to negotiate roll-over deals with the 40 countries and trade blocs with which we currently trade freely thanks to our membership of the EU. Thirdly, they had to negotiate entirely new trade deals with other parts of the world.
After more than four years, and with just weeks until the end of the Brexit transition period, the Government have failed dismally on all three counts. There is no deal in place with the EU, roll-over deals have still not been agreed with the likes of Canada, Turkey, Singapore and Mexico, and not a single genuinely new trade deal has been agreed with any other country in the world. The International Trade Secretary recently trumpeted her roll-over trade deal with Japan, but she failed to mention that 83% of the export growth resulting from the deal will go to Japanese exporters, and only 17% to British firms. What will that do to our current trade deficit of £3 billion with Japan?
With a potential trade deal with the US now on the back burner because of the election result, the Government’s trade strategy is in tatters. They said their objective after Brexit was that 80% of global trade would be covered by free trade deals, but as things now stand we will go into 2021 with little over 10% of our global trade agreed.
Turning to the question of the national health service, many civil society organisations—particularly trade unions and health organisations—have long warned about the inclusion of public services, including health, in trade agreements. The concerns are four-fold. Negative lists are clauses requiring that all industries can be included in trade agreements, unless there are specific carve-outs. It is not always easy to define which services count as health services. For instance, digital services may seem pretty irrelevant to health, but NHS data management is increasingly digitised, and apps for such things as GP appointments are increasingly prevalent. Negative lists have a broad scope, covering existing and future services, and therefore make it harder for Governments to regulate and to provide health services, let alone to reassure our worried constituents.
There are also stand still clauses. After the trade deal is signed parties are not allowed to reduce the level of liberalisation beyond what it was at the point of signature. Under ratchet clauses parties are not allowed to reverse certain measures brought in after the point of signature. Furthermore, failure to abide by those clauses can result in legal challenge from the trade partner or, if there is a separate ISDS clause, challenge from private investors. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) covered that very well in his speech, so I shall not repeat what he said.
The US Administration have stated publicly that they wish to use a trade deal to challenge the purchasing model. That could be done through specific market access provisions, or other clauses aimed at the pharmaceutical industry. That has the potential to increase greatly the cost of medicines, making some vital treatments unaffordable for the NHS. The benefit of our unitary model in the NHS is that it is a cover-all. However, should there be an infiltration into that unified system, that could be a slam-dunk for a “hostile takeover”, almost.
Another good example, in relation to digital trade, is cross-border data flows. Digital trade rules are aimed at limiting the ability of Governments to introduce localisation measures or stop data leaving the country. There are potential privacy and security implications—for example, if sensitive NHS patient data are held by private firms outside the UK. There are further points on technology transfer and the monetisation of patient data.
The other great point about the unified NHS system, of course, is that we have probably the best block of data in the world to understand health. The NHS, being a unified system, has information about every one of us. If we see NHS data in that way, it provides a wonderful trading tool. However, those of us who are concerned about the way data can be used—that includes every Member of the House, I am sure—have to ask the Government a lot of questions.
That brings me to my final point, on the lack of scrutiny of the principles behind the way the trade operation is working at the moment, and in relation to specific trade deals and the way they will come to the House of Commons. I worry a lot about the fact that we do not bring people, groups or our constituents with us when we do things in the Commons. We know that from the times we get to the end of a vote, and people ask what we were voting on—we are explaining backwards. The thing about trade is that we need to bring people with us. The wonderful, now deceased, Congressman John Lewis, whom I met when I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), was on the International Trade Committee, said that he felt the transatlantic trade and investment partnership failed because it failed to bring working people and trade unions with it. I think it failed for other reasons—it was quite complex—but he made a valuable contribution. The Government are trying to cut corners now, because time is running out and because they think that they will be in government forever, which many of us hope they will not.
However, we have to see this issue less in a party political way, because it can affect trade for a long period—for 10 to 15 years—and over a series of different Governments. We now have the opportunity to put in place the building blocks of scrutiny so that, in the words of John Lewis, we can bring people with us and ensure that, at the last hurdle, these things are genuinely in the interests of our communities and the people we serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for her reasoned argument, and particularly for making the point that trade should not be party political, because it is far greater than that.
On that note, one of the things I have found most frustrating about my time in Parliament so far is when nonsense attack lines that are not a true reflection of the facts are used to whip up fear among our constituents. I recall very clearly a conversation I had with Joanne, who is now my constituency office manager, the first time we met. She asked to meet before the election to discuss her concerns about a number of issues, including messages she had seen online suggesting that if the Conservatives won the election we would dismantle and sell off the NHS. We had a great discussion that day, and I managed to reassure her to such an extent that she came to work for me, but I have lost count of the number of times I have given assurances to constituents—in person, by email, in writing or over the phone—that the NHS is not for sale and never will be under a Conservative Government.
The Prime Minister, the International Trade Secretary and the Minister here today have made assurances time and again—in full, in public forums, in the media and more—that the NHS is not for sale, and nor is the price of our medicine. Nor are our NHS health services open for foreign companies. It is about time that our opponents quit with the attack lines, took off their red and yellow-tinted spectacles and started to work with us to help secure the future trade deals that will help make our country more prosperous.
The NHS, we all agree, is one of the most valuable entities in our country. It is often called a jewel in our crown, but it is even more important than that. It embodies the very essence of our society—the spirit that no man will be left behind and that, regardless of health or wealth, people will receive treatment free at the point of use. The people who work for our NHS are heroes. We have seen that demonstrated so clearly throughout this covid pandemic by the doctors and nurses working for hours on end in full PPE—some even isolating from their families to help keep them safe. Their sacrifice certainly made me think twice about whingeing about wearing a mask when going shopping for groceries. However, we must not forget the porters, cleaners, receptionists, administrators and all the others who have worked so hard to keep the wheels of our great NHS turning in this difficult time. My sincere thanks go out to every single one of them.
For years now, there has been this weird obsession with Tory privatisation of the NHS, so if hon. Members will indulge me, I will take a little trip back in time. First, on 17 April 1997, Tony Blair claimed that there were just 14 days to save the NHS. Then, on 21 March 2009, according to the Morning Star—not a paper I usually cite—there were six weeks to save the NHS. Some say that the reason the NHS needed saving was the prospect of a Tory Government, so let us go a little further forward. On 4 February 2012, under a Conservative Government, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said we had three months to save the NHS. That same month, The Mirror said there were just 12 days to save the NHS. In January 2015, The Mirror said there were four months to save the NHS, and in 2017, there were three days to save the NHS.
Yet in 2020, after 10 years of Conservative Government, the NHS still stands, and it stands strong, with record investment. In our manifesto, we pledged to build 40 new hospitals. Forgive me, but we did not stick to that commitment, because we are actually delivering 48. The NHS has existed for 72 years, almost 45 years under a Conservative Government, so it is time to end this narrative and to stop the NHS being used as a political football, because it is far too important for that.
Having started with some heavy myth-busting, I reassure the Minister that I intend to talk a little bit about trade. I have long said that trade is the answer to the UK’s future prosperity. In this globalised world, where technology has made it not only possible but easy to do business with our friends right around the world, global Britain must truly embrace the opportunity we have been granted to set our future trade policy as we leave the EU.
As we know, our single biggest trading partner is the USA, which is also the nation with which we have the biggest positive trade balance. In 2019, we exported £112 billion to the USA and imported £70 billion. By reaching a comprehensive free trade deal with the USA, we will have even more trading opportunities, which means more opportunities for businesses in all of our constituencies. I think of Equus Leather in my constituency, where I took the Trade Secretary last year: the UK exports over 80% of its leather production, and our biggest export market for finished leather is the USA. I also think of our farmers—those in Teesdale and Weardale, who work so hard to keep our country fed. The US trade deal is often sold by our opponents as though it will be harmful to farming, but on the contrary it presents a huge opportunity for our farmers. With market access to US beef being granted this year for the first time in over 20 years, the industry estimates that beef exports to the USA will be worth £66 million to our farmers over the next five years.
More broadly, I think of the benefit of trade for County Durham and the north-east. County Durham exported almost £2 billion-worth of goods last year, so the removal of further international trade barriers can help my county’s exports grow even further. Looking at the north-east region as a whole, analysis by the Department for International Trade has shown that the north-east is one of the regions of the UK that has the potential to benefit the most from a UK-US trade deal. If Members will forgive me, a trade deal can even help us to “level up” the north-east.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who secured this debate, spoke about amendments to the Trade Bill. However, he knows as well as I do that the Trade Bill was not about the US trade deal or future trade deals, but about the continuity of existing trade agreements. The amendment he referred to would not have had an impact on any future US trade deal. Furthermore, I wish that Opposition Members would talk about the work the Department is doing to allow scrutiny of future trade deals, such as the regular MP engagement events that I have been invited to and have attended—I hope many other Members will take up the opportunity to do so as well. Also, any future trade deals will need parliamentary approval. I for one certainly would not approve a trade deal that included our NHS, and it is safe to say that my Conservative colleagues would not do so either.
I hope that what I have said today acts as some reassurance to those who signed the petition. However, to reiterate the point one final time—I cannot say this enough—the NHS is not, and will not be, for sale under a Conservative Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on having secured this important debate.
This Government have repeatedly asked the public—even today, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) asked them again—to blindly trust their promise that the NHS will not be for sale in any future trade deals with the US, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. They have repeatedly been provided with opportunities to put those fears to bed, with amendments tabled to the Government’s post-Brexit trade deal explicitly stating that the NHS would be excluded from any future trade agreements. One amendment was supported by more than 400 doctors and health professionals, yet rather than deliver on their promise, not a single Conservative MP voted for the amendment, which was defeated by 89 votes.
The Government claim farcically that they voted against the amendment because it legitimises the concept of NHS privatisation, which in the realms of hypotheticals and metaphysics they claim to oppose, yet when faced with a concrete opportunity to enshrine in law the safety of our most treasured public institution, the Government sat on their hands. Now our NHS will be at the mercy of US negotiators, who are heavily influenced by the multibillion-dollar private healthcare interest in carving up our health service for corporate gain. That clearly demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensure that the NHS is on the table during trade negotiations.
However, there is an even clearer reason why we cannot trust them—or the words of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland—when they say the NHS is not for sale. That is because they have already been selling it off, piece by piece, for the best part of a decade. Since the disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012, NHS outsourcing and privatisation have been incentivised. Clinical commissioning groups are under pressure to outsource; in 2015, private firms won 40% of all contracts. In the last five years alone, private companies have been handed £15 billion of NHS contracts. Some 18% of healthcare bids go to private providers. It is true that the NHS logo remains and in some cases it is even co-opted by private providers, as happened with the disastrous so-called NHS Test and Trace, which is predominantly run by Serco. Yet the direction of travel under the Government has been towards a fragmented, underfunded and increasingly privatised healthcare system.
The danger of sliding towards a US-style private insurance healthcare system cannot be overstated. Research by the Commonwealth Fund in 2018 found that nearly half of working-age Americans—a staggering 87 million people—were underinsured or had no coverage at all. Rather than spending money on doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, dentists and other professionals who provide services to people and improve their lives, the US wastes hundreds of billions of dollars a year on profiteering, huge executive compensation packages and outrageous administrative costs. Despite widespread myths regarding the efficiency of the free market, the US spends nearly double what we spend on healthcare for generally worse healthcare results. That is the system that recently appointed advisers to the Secretary of State for International Trade believe is superior to our own.
It is common sense that profiteering and corporate greed should be off limits in services essential to human life. That reflects public polling that shows that 84% of Britons believe that the NHS should be in public ownership. The NHS is a gleaming beacon of human achievement—an embodiment of socialist universal principles—from which everyone, no matter what their position in society, benefits equally. It is therefore up to all of us who value healthcare as a human right to protect our most treasured public institution. It is incumbent on the Government to make their rhetoric a reality and legislate to ensure that our NHS is truly off the table and is never put up for sale.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I fully support the e-petition relating to trade deals and the NHS, which has been signed by more than 110,000 people, including a number of my constituents. I, too, pay tribute to and thank our superb NHS staff for their public service. I also thank Unite, Unison, We Own It, Keep Our NHS Public, Global Justice Now and other organisations for their campaigning to protect our NHS.
Our NHS was founded on a set of collectivist principles that bind our communities together. Those principles represent a commitment to a comprehensive free healthcare service that delivers excellent and professional care to all who need it in the UK. They are also an obligation to provide the best value for taxpayers’ money and ensure that services remain accountable to the public.
That seems to be at odds with the Government’s current trade strategy, however, which does not omit the NHS from future trade deals, but exposes it to competition and the market. That runs the risk of damaging standards of care and diluting the transparency of decision making. The threat posed to our healthcare system is clear for all of us to see. US officials have repeatedly stated that they regard the NHS as being on the table and that they specifically want to ensure that big US healthcare and drug companies can compete fairly to provide medical services, sell drugs and access NHS patient data.
We should not just be looking across the pond. The Secretary of State for International Trade has close relationships with right-wing think-tanks that want the NHS to be opened up to private competition, notably Daniel Hannan. In 2018, Hannan and his Initiative for Free Trade joined forces with the US Cato Institute and 10 other UK and US right-wing think-tanks to promote their ideal US-UK free trade agreement, which called for the opening up of all services in both countries to competition. Its co-editor, Daniel Ikenson, said of the report:
“Healthcare is a service, we call for opening services to competition. And I know some people are worried about what happens to the NHS…We think competition is a good thing and it would lead to better quality healthcare.”
When the Minister responds to the debate, will he explain why the other co-editor of that report, Daniel Hannan, is now a lead adviser on his Department’s Board of Trade? Is it any wonder that we do not feel inclined to trust the Secretary of State when she says publicly that the NHS is not for sale but then surrounds herself in private with advisers from the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and other right-wing think-tanks who argue the exact opposite?
We must remember that even if the US healthcare industry is prevented from directly competing with the NHS for Government-funded services, the Government’s trade agreement may open up access to NHS procurement contracts for buying medicines, delivering medical treatments and providing patient accommodation. US healthcare would then have the power to drive up the price charged for those services in future contract rounds. It is not accurate for the Government to state that the NHS is not for sale when we have already seen them privatise our covid-19 response, handing out huge contracts to companies such as Deloitte, Serco and KPMG, which have put profits and cost-cutting before care and wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The UK-US trade situation is likely to change as the incoming US Administration takes office in January. However, we must also monitor discussions regarding the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, which demands a very open approach to competition in services, potentially including healthcare. I hope the Minister will address that point and say specifically whether membership of the CPTPP will oblige the UK to accept a “list it or lose it” approach to private competition in the public sector. If so, will the Government guarantee to negotiate a carve-out for the UK from those provisions when it comes to our NHS and other essential public services?
I agree with campaigners that we must oppose the gradual marketisation and outsourcing of NHS care at all costs. Our ethical and communitarian-focused NHS is not compatible with private greed. The Labour party’s stance on this issue is simple and clear: the best way to remove the threat to the NHS, from whatever direction it comes, now or in the future, is to legislate in the Trade Bill that the NHS should be outside the scope of any future trade agreements. However, it speaks volumes that the Government refuse to do that. The NHS is more than a logo.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
First, I say thank you to those who organised the petition and to those who signed it. It is great to be able to stand here to clarify matters and reassure those people regarding the concerns they may have had about the privatisation of the NHS or any act towards that under the trade deal. The reality is that the Trade Bill has nothing to do with that; it is an extension of the existing agreement, which does not cover US activities. More importantly, this Government have not engaged in any activities to privatise the NHS.
In fact, the fearmongering that happens around this issue, as I wrote in an article earlier this year, actually causes many people anxiety. It causes fear and concern among the very people who need to be reassured that they can always access their NHS services at the point of need and for free. The reality is that nuanced debate is stifled, ironically, by the Opposition.
I do not wish to score points on this issue, because I really do not like political point-scoring, but it was the Opposition that brought in the private finance initiative. The Labour Government brought in the privatised Hinchingbrooke Hospital, and they introduced prescription charges for spectacles and dentistry. This Government have undone much of that work. We bought back Hinchingbrooke. We have invested millions, if not billions, in the NHS over the past year.
As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I have seen at first hand the good, but also the challenges the NHS faces. When we look at those challenges, one of the biggest problems I have seen over the past few decades, and particularly over the past few years, is that the rhetoric and fearmongering around privatisation of the NHS have built and built. Yes, it helps people to put leaflets through doors; yes, it helps them to make political points; and, yes, it helps to create coverage and news headlines. However, what it also does is make the people at the very heart of the NHS, who need support, worry about their futures.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about fearmongering is interesting. Has he, like me, had many NHS employees contact him with their concerns about privatisation of the NHS? They are fearful not for their jobs, but for the future of the NHS.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, they have, and where have they got that from? From leaflets and newspapers. In fact, I was about to make the point that in my volunteering at Watford General Hospital, I have spoken to staff who are anxious about what the future looks like. I was anxious to speak to them because I want to understand what their fears are. Often the fears are based on rhetoric, not on fact, and what there might be in the future, which is based on past Governments, not the current Government.
The anxiety goes deeper. Recently, while volunteering at the hospital, I held an iPad for a gentleman who had had a stroke. It was quite a moving moment. I explained to him that he had time to speak to his daughter and, as I sat there on my knees holding the iPad for him, he reached his hand over to hold my wrist and said, “Just a few minutes longer,” because he wanted to speak to his daughter for a little longer. In that moment, I realised the fear and vulnerability of the patients who are in the hospital beds, and how they, the staff and the families worry about what support they will get. In that moment, I realised also that the issue is not only about medicine, pharmaceuticals and trade deals, but about real people who are suffering and need support. What they also need is the continued reassurance that we are not privatising the NHS, even though the Government have never—not once—opted to do so, and neither will they.
We heard an excellent contribution earlier about data, which is something I am passionate about. Digital and data are the future of the NHS. We want the ability to cure cancer and diseases by looking at data in a much fairer way, and by making sure that people feel comfortable sharing their data online and with the NHS and organisations to help them solve the biggest issues in the world. Why would they not do that? Because of the fear around where the data would go. Yet every single day, people share where they are, what they eat and who their friends are with Facebook, Google and all the big corporate organisations without a second thought. However, because of the rhetoric—I will not blame it fully, to be fair—they are fearful of giving data and important information to the Government and the NHS to help them solve the big issues.
We have seen with the test and trace app that when the safety and security are created and people are reassured, they use it. Being able to use the app saves countless lives, and people can look to see whether other people need support or need to be isolated. That is about people feeling secure and safe, but the constant rhetoric—this drumbeat—just to get leaflets through doors to make the constant argument about privatisation is fearmongering at its worst. In fact, it scares the most vulnerable.
As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I hear the good and the concerning from the NHS and social care. I am not saying that it is an amazing organisation—I am not even saying the Government are perfect in every possible way— but there is scrutiny there. There are opportunities to delve into it and to have a much-needed calm and nuanced debate about what it will look like in future. What does the NHS need in the next five, 10, 20, 30 years? We must not constantly look at the next election cycle. We need to take the rhetoric out so that we can have calm, consistent and thoughtful debate about what it will look like. I am pleased to see colleagues here from the Committee. I am sure they will agree that we work closely and very well together on the Committee to be able to have debate and discussion around this. When we cannot do that in the public realm, it stifles our ability to continually improve the NHS.
The Trade Bill is about existing trade. I will not go into the details because I am sure the Minister will go into it in much more detail, but let us move forward. I urge those watching and listening to this debate and who signed the petition to please look at the facts and be reassured by what the Government have done and what we say about the NHS not being on the table. I urge colleagues to come together and have a calm debate about what this will look like in the future, because if we do not, the people who need the most support, who are the most anxious and fearful, will be harmed the most simply by words.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). I have not seen him in the House in ages, so it is good to see him back. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. I am my party’s health spokesperson, so this issue is close to my heart as part of my portfolio, but it is more than that. As the hon. Gentleman said, our NHS stands for more than just an organisation; it stands for the care that it gives. I want to refer to that in the few moments remaining.
There are valid concerns about our trade deals. I understand that. That is why we are having this debate. The vote for Brexit presented this place with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make trade deals, to enhance the wealth of the country. I believe that can happen. Others may have a different opinion, but we will wait and see to make our own decisions. As it says in scripture, to whom much is given, much is expected, and there are high standards for all of us in this place and further afield.
What unites us in this debate is our love of the NHS. We have been united together to protect it: the unions, patients, the Government, elected representatives and our constituents. Collectively, we have all made it clear what we need to do and why we are here to debate this matter. The road to attainment is difficult enough without setbacks, but my constituents have made it abundantly clear that our NHS is a treasure not to be touched, other than to enhance and improve in-house.
In the past few weeks, I have come to know at first hand what the NHS can do. I have realised how important the NHS is to my family. Many of us have family members who are alive today thanks to the contribution of the NHS and its staff. I think of my father, who died six years ago. When he was living, he had three operations for cancer. I have no doubt that the skill of the surgeon’s knife, the love of the nurses and the prayer from God’s people saved him on three occasions. The NHS is an important part of all of our lives.
I am sure I am not the only MP to be inundated with emails regarding the trade deal and the NHS. I also received a few personal messages reminding me of how truly exceptional our NHS is. I want to quote one letter. I get lots of letters regularly. It is good to get letters from people. People usually contact me to say how bad things are and to give off. That is in the nature of our job, but people also contact me to say, “Thank you for what you are doing.”
One lady wrote to me:
“I seem to be writing to you a lot recently but our NHS is very important to me personally when I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia Stage 4. What seemed to compound the problem was that when I had to have chemo treatment I had to be admitted due to the problems I have with my back problems. The care I received was excellent and would not have a bad word said against any Doctors or Nurses that give me care during my long time stay in hospital. Jim I’m depending on you and all of your colleagues to make sure that the NHS is protected in LAW and safe from any trade deals. This government says one thing”—
I want to be clear that I am not being critical here—
“and promised they’ll protect the NHS but we need to see it in law.”
This debate is really important because there is a chance to see that in law. My constituents want to know that the NHS is protected in law in the Trade Bill.
The message is clear: we have something that is worth protecting. I am not in any way dismissing the American medical staff. My parliamentary aide’s daughter was taken into hospital with pneumonia while she was on holiday in Florida. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) referred to some of what happens in America.
I will quote again, to give the comparison between our NHS and what it means in America. She said that the care she had received in that American hospital was second to none, but one memory stuck with her when she was waiting for the consultant to come and see her child after the X-ray was brought to the room. She heard the patient next door being repeatedly told that unless she remembered her insurance details, she could not be treated. Boy, aren’t we really lucky to have an NHS that looks after and saves our people, rather than one that we pay into? That stuck with her and made her thankful for the NHS, because no matter where someone is from, what their job is and what their prognosis is, treatment will never be withheld. That is what our NHS means.
We need to treasure the expertise of the staff and think about the way in which we treat them. These are all things that need to be protected. I hope that all MPs in this Chamber, universally and across all political parties, will collectively say that this trade deal will never impact on the NHS. The Minister has said that, and so have the Government, but I want him to say it in this Chamber today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing this important debate. The genesis of and support for this petition reflect our values and the esteem in which each nation’s NHS is held. The petition is also a reflection of the public’s mistrust of whether the Prime Minister and his Government will honour their word, and their concern about the risk to the NHS from corporate avarice should it be on the table in any US trade deal.
Before the cronyism, incompetence and allegations of corruption began to dog the Government, the petitioners recognised that the deals the Government had conducted during the coronavirus crisis could be unethical and lacked transparency. Although we are set to see an end to Trumpian politics, in the USA at least, the concern still stands that involving the US financially in our health system could pose a serious health risk to us and our NHS.
Save our outstanding landscapes and convivial culture, there is little more precious to the people in Scotland than their NHS. The NHS in Scotland is unencumbered by a false internal market and there is minimal involvement of the private sector. The public service ethos is rewarded by a satisfaction level of 78%—an impressive 36% higher than for the NHS across the UK.
Perhaps I am worrying unnecessarily, and perhaps the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) is right. Ministers have given repeated assurances on the record that there will be no requirement to increase private provision and no ramping up of drug costs, and that health data is safe, but if the Government are so confident and are assuring us not to worry, why are they hesitant to put an explicit protection in primary legislation?
Sadly, in Scotland we have a track record on which to judge this Government, and an ever sadder track record on which to judge promises and vows from any Westminster Government, whatever their stripe. To digress slightly, this weekend I watched the first ever episode of “Taggart” —from before it was called “Taggart”, in fact. It was set in Glasgow in 1983, at the height of the North sea oil boom, yet the deprivation on show was truly shameful. It was no fluke of filming location. Like many, I walked through those desolate scenes of economic devastation. The loadsamoney Thatcherism was less about the pooling and sharing of resources, or about any dubious acclaim for her ideology, and more about the pulling of that oil wealth from Scotland. Greed is never attractive. Of course, the true value of that wealth was deliberately concealed from the Scottish people, as evidenced by the McCrone report. As the wealth was removed, so too were jobs and hope.
I also had my usual dose of Marr on Sunday morning, and up popped my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath predecessor thrice back. It was a really odd experience, because I thought they were showing a clip from 2014, but actually it was new footage and it was, almost verbatim, the same story and script endorsed by all the Westminster parties in 2014 to disingenuously secure a pyrrhic victory that served only to drive—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying quite a distance from trade and the NHS. Can he refocus on that?
It is the next line, Mr Stringer.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
As I was saying, that only served to drive a surge of support for the SNP and Scottish independence.
Before I am accused of straying too far, what relevance has that to trade deals and the NHS? Well, one simple but absolutely essential word, when the word of another is what our future depends on, is “trust”. Why should my constituents trust this Government? I say that not just because of historical wrongs, but because of their conduct in the here and now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk set out serious questions and concerns, which deserve full and transparent answers. When the crony virus stalks the halls of power, when Ministers puff out their chest and defend their intention to break international law, when the Prime Minister refuses to answer questions in the Chamber but casually insults, when the promises of devo-max have led Scotland to a devo-destroying United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, when the child poverty that this Government have created is dismissed and hunger ignored, and when a pay rise for carers and nurses is unaffordable but an MP’s pay rise will do quite nicely, thank you, why should the people who dedicate their lives to the NHS take this Government’s word for anything? Those people’s belief in altruism and shared endeavour is in peril. They understand the implications of negative lists, standstill clauses, ratchet clauses and the ultimate con, the investor-state dispute settlement process, all of which have the potential to eviscerate the NHS.
The petitioners want to protect the NHS through primary legislation because, as we all know, to neoliberals, health is never the priority; profit is. There is no place in the Scottish NHS for profiteering. This Government must commit to legislating and protecting each part of the NHS. Only then will any trust return.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on introducing the petition to us. I also thank my hon. Friends for their excellent speeches. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins).
The petition is about omitting the NHS from future trade deals with the US. The concerns raised by the petitioners would be relatively easily dealt with were the Minister, in a few minutes’ time, to commit not just to what he has said before about the NHS being off the table, but to putting protections in the Trade Bill—to passing in the House of Lords the amendments that were turned down in this place and retaining them when the Bill comes back here in the next few days or weeks. That would be the simplest way of dealing with what the petitioners are asking for.
The petitioners are concerned about the American healthcare system, the size and scale of the industry in America, the fact that it accounts for one in eight jobs in the United States, its importance to the US economy and its importance to shareholders. Those US healthcare companies have a responsibility to maximise shareholder wealth—as do all companies, of course—so they are only doing what they must do, and that means looking further afield. It means looking with great interest at the national health service. We know that they do that, did it and will continue to do it—for the next few days anyway, with the support of the Trump Administration. Yes, it is welcome news that we have President-elect Biden, hopefully, to take over—court cases notwithstanding —on 20 January, but this petition was signed when President Trump was in office and the petitioners had no way of knowing whether that would change.
The petitioners are concerned about the US objectives published in March. They are concerned about the market access being requested by US negotiators for pharmaceuticals. They are concerned about what that market access means in practice.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way to somebody who has not been here for the whole debate.
Order. May I explain something that might be useful for future debates? If hon. Members are not on the call list, they may not intervene in Westminster Hall debates under the present rules. I call Bill Esterson.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. The petitioners are concerned about the market access to the national health service that is outlined in the trade agreement objectives of the United States. A long-stated objective of American pharmaceutical companies is to take away the NHS’s influence on drug pricing, not just in this country, but across the European continent. That is a very real concern.
The petitioners are concerned about access to data. Alan Winters from the Trade Policy Observatory has set out those concerns in real detail: a potential cost of £10 billion to the national health service to get access to our own patient records; the payment of royalties to silicon valley, and legal action against the national health service to boot; and the dilution of data privacy rules if the American trade negotiation objectives are put into law.
Those are the many concerns that led people to sign the petition. Their concern applies not just to US healthcare companies, but to UK right-wing think-tanks and their link-ups with their American counterparts and allies. We have already heard the name Daniel Hannan this afternoon. He is a co-author of “The Ideal U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement”, a document that was launched in London with the Cato Institute on the same day as the Secretary of State for International Trade spoke at the Cato Institute’s Washington office. I do not believe in coincidences, and I suspect I am not the only one in the room who feels that way. Like the petitioners, I am greatly concerned that this is not just about US healthcare companies, but about UK right-wing think-tanks and their representatives.
Let us remember what Mr Hannan and his friends have had to say. When the Cato Institute launched the report, the co-editor who spoke at the launch, Daniel Ikenson, said:
“Healthcare is a service, we call for opening services to competition… This is a free trade agreement, the purpose of liberalising trade is to expose incumbent business to competition, including healthcare.”
Including healthcare—it is there in the words of the think-tanks with which the Secretary of State works and which advise her on the Board of Trade, to which she appointed Mr Hannan only a few months ago.
I turn to the so-called comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or CPTPP, because this is not just about a potential trade agreement with the United States. We do not know what stage such an agreement is at—with the potential for a fast-track agreement under the current regime, or something else later on—but we know that the Secretary of State has made clear her desire to sign the CPTPP, an agreement with 11 countries on the Pacific Rim. The service chapter of that agreement includes negative lists, ratchet clauses, ISDS and health. There is no opt-out or carve-out for health. As the Nuffield Trust tells us, negative list systems, ratchet clauses and ISDS lock out the potential for Governments to bring public services back in-house once they have been privatised. Indeed, they drive further privatisation and prevent a reduction in it. They take away control, rather than giving back control, as some might say.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the term “for sale” is used as a cover? Obviously, the NHS is not going to be put up for sale like a house, but parts of the services that it provides will be contracted out to a range of different private providers, who will suck up the funding in profits rather than ensuring that those investments go where they are properly supposed to go—to resource healthcare services.
That is right. That is the problem in America, where so much money goes to executive wealth or is wasted on administration costs, instead of going into patient care and medical activity. The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point.
I shall quote what the British Medical Association says about CPTPP. The BMA tells us that the UK would be unable to negotiate any additional carve-outs for healthcare services, and it says:
“We do not believe that the NHS is adequately protected under CPTPP.”
As a member of the CPTPP, New Zealand has an ISDS carve-out on health that will not be available to us, because the CPTPP is an existing agreement and the member countries have made it clear publicly that they will not give carve-outs to new joiners.
On 8 October, the Minister was asked about that in the Chamber. He told us he had met the lead negotiators for the 11 countries and had enjoyed discussions with them. Can he provide reassurance that what the BMA has said is not the full story? Did he ask the question and get an answer about whether carve-outs on health would be possible, given the existing agreement? When he responds, can he tell us whether he asked that question and what the answer was?
The Government’s answer to the points that my hon. Friends and I have raised is that the NHS is not on the table. If it is not, why did the US negotiating objectives state that it was? The Government say that the NHS is not in the existing agreements, and that is true. It is not in the agreements that we are currently signed up to, but this petition is about future trade agreements. For us, the CPTPP would be a future trade agreement. Right-wing think-tanks with links to the Secretary of State and Government also want this to happen, so a lot of reassurance is needed by the petitioners and by many more people besides.
The issue requires far greater scrutiny. I heard one hon. Member describing the process for the scrutiny of trade agreements, which we debated in the Trade Bill. In fact, the Minister and I have debated these matters more than once, in relation to more than one Trade Bill, and no doubt we will do so again. The reality is that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which provides the framework under which we operate, gives no guarantee of a debate or vote on trade agreements. It requires the laying in Parliament for 21 days of a trade agreement that has been negotiated. It does not provide a guaranteed mechanism for debate, because it relies on the Opposition being granted an Opposition day debate by the Government. The Government control the agenda in Parliament. Members will have noticed that, for the last few weeks, we have not had an Opposition day debate, and we went for a long period in the last Parliament without any Opposition day debates, so there is no guarantee of that process being implemented.
Whether a debate at the end of negotiations—if we are allowed one—is adequate scrutiny is another matter entirely. I come back to where I started. If the Government are serious about exempting the national health service from future trade agreements, they should put that in the Trade Bill, support it in the House of Lords and support it when it comes back here, because they have the opportunity to do just that.
We know that the CPTPP is a Government priority in the absence of an agreement with the United States. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government will refuse to sign it without carve-outs? As to the lack of scrutiny, that is in the Government’s hands. So far, there has been a refusal to put the exemption in the Trade Bill, key Government advisers are committed to privatisation and we have concerns about the CPTPP. That all suggests that those who signed the petition were absolutely right to do so, and to have concerns not only about the United States, but about CPTPP as well. They are right to be concerned about the future of the national health service in trade deals.
Minister, before you start your speech, I ask that you save two or three minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) to wind up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening this debate, as well as the more than 110,000 members of the public who raised this topic, which is hugely important to us all. There have been a lot of rumours, confusion and misstatements about this subject, so I am more than happy to set the record straight.
The NHS is this nation’s most popular institution, but it is far more than an institution. For more than 70 years, it has been there for all of us, from cradle to grave. It has played a very personal role in all our lives, in some of the most joyful and, indeed, saddest moments. In the midst of this terrible pandemic, the importance of the NHS has become even more acute. I pay tribute to the extraordinary staff up and down our country who are battling the coronavirus outbreak so valiantly and selflessly, and I extend my deepest sympathy to those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, including, I might add, to myself: my father died of coronavirus on 13 April this year. However, it is thanks to the bravery and expertise of our world-class doctors, nurses and hospital staff in containing the virus that we are able to meet here in this House today, and I am hugely grateful for that.
Let me be very clear: our NHS will not be for sale in any future trade deal with the US or, indeed, in any trade deal at all. For the sake of parliamentary time, I can be very brief—the word “no” is one of the shortest in the language—and say no, not at all and never. Protecting the NHS is a fundamental principle of our trade policy. The NHS, its services and the prices it pays for drugs are not for sale, and we will not agree measures that undermine the Government’s ability to deliver on those commitments. The NHS is not, and will never be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic, and no trade deals will ever be able to alter these fundamental facts.
The Government have been consistently clear about our commitment to the guiding principles of the NHS—that it is universal and free at the point of need. As set out in the October 2017 White Paper “Preparing for our future UK trade policy”, the Government will continue to ensure that decisions on how to run public services are made by UK Governments, including the devolved Administrations, and not—this has never been the case—by our trade partners. No trade agreement has ever affected our ability to keep our public services public nor forced us to change the way we run them, and that is not going to change now. Safeguarding the UK’s right to regulate in the public interest and to protect public services, including the NHS, is of the utmost importance. That was, is and will remain the Government’s position.
I turn to the points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned two or three points. First, he is right to say that the NHS is devolved in Scotland and that trade policy is reserved. We recognise the fact that trade policy impacts on areas of devolved competence, and that is why I work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that we have a common understanding. We work well together in those spaces.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned an ISDS threat to public services. The UK is already subject to the ISDS in more than 90 agreements. We have never had a successful claim brought against the United Kingdom through an ISDS court. No ISDS court could overturn Parliament or force any change to the law. This has been stated before, but the Trade Bill refers to the continuity of existing trade agreements; it does not refer to future free trade agreements. The EU does not have a trade agreement with the United States; therefore, the United States is not within the scope of the Trade Bill.
I heard some brilliant speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Watford (Dean Russell). My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland talked about how the Labour party and others are whipping up fear. That is absolutely correct, and I have seen it in my constituency. At the last four general elections, the Labour party has run on the fact that Charing Cross Hospital will be either demolished or close—the last four! I can report that Charing Cross Hospital is doing very well and, actually, the Secretary of State for Health announced a floor-by-floor refurbishment of the hospital just a couple of months ago. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there has been record investment under this Conservative Government and that trade is the answer to our long-term prosperity.
We had a passionate, knowledgeable and superb speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Watford about his local NHS, which I know quite well. The excellent Watford General Hospital has served my family—they come from Amersham in Buckinghamshire—for two generations. It is a brilliant hospital, and he spoke with great passion about it.
We heard some of the fears from the hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins). I will deal with the question from the hon. Member for Luton South about the CPTPP. In the negative or positive lists, one is expressly allowed to exclude public services that one does not want to be subject to a trade agreement. The UK could and would negotiate specific exemptions in CPTPP for the NHS and other public services that we deem to be important to us. Of course that lies within our rights.
The NHS in Scotland is devolved, as we know, but the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), in his summary, quickly moved on to talking about separation. In almost record time, even by the standards of the Scottish National party, he showed that separation is more to him important than either the NHS or trade.
I turn to my old friend—certainly not my hon. Friend, but he is a friend—the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). I am not quite sure whether he has noticed the subtle change in Labour’s approach to trade policy as it has moved across north London from the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). On drug prices, the UK has a robust intellectual property regime for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. We will not make changes to our IP regime that would lead to increased medical prices for the NHS. Our negotiation objectives—a lot of people have referred to the US’s negotiation objectives, but no one has referred to our objectives, which were published on 2 March—state that the NHS will not be on the table, the prices paid for drugs will not be on the table and the services that the NHS provides will not be on the table.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about a set of dates—he told an incredible story involving the Cato Institute and an astonishing series of dates. He said that he does not believe in coincidences, but perhaps he might believe in conspiracy theories.
As we are an independent global Britain, the Government are working hard to build our trade policy. As set out in the Government’s manifesto and again in our negotiation objectives, the NHS will not be on the table. Decisions on how to run the NHS and all public services are made by UK Governments, including the devolved Administrations, and no trade deal will change that.
Will the Minister give way?
I am coming to a conclusion.
The UK’s high standards of data protection will be maintained. The Government are clear that health and care data should only ever be used or shared lawfully, treated with respect and held securely, with the right safeguards in place. I am going to leave a few minutes for the response, Mr Stringer. It is absolutely clear that any trade deal could not be ratified without scrutiny by Parliament. There is also a separation between international and domestic law, so any changes made to the NHS through a trade deal would need domestic implementing legislation, just as much as if those changes were to be made without a trade deal. There is no way to sidestep Parliament. The Government will never agree to a trade deal with the US or any other country that risks the future of our national health service or which could undermine the Government’s ability to deliver on our manifesto commitment to the NHS.
There are, however, benefits of trade for the NHS. The whole debate has been focused on fears and threats, but there are benefits. To continue supporting public services such as the NHS, which we all value and from which we all benefit, it is crucial that we have a strong economy. Now that we have left the EU, we find ourselves with a golden opportunity to strike free trade deals around the world, which will help to fuel our economic recovery from covid-19.
In conclusion, the question is asked over and over again, but the answer is not going to change. The NHS is not on the table in any future trade deal. The price it pays for drugs is not on the table and the services it provides are not on the table. The Government will not accept any trade deal that changes our ability to regulate the NHS or any public services, nor will we agree to any measures that would put NHS finances at risk or reduce clinician and patient choice. Scare stories otherwise simply do not fit with the facts. The Government will always put patients and the sustainability of the NHS first.
As an independent trading nation, the UK is reaching out to partners around the world that support our shared values of freedom and democracy and making great trade deals, starting with our friends in the United States, Australia and New Zealand and the deal with Japan that we have already delivered. It is by working together as a global community and embracing values-driven and value-generating trade with like-minded partners that we will be able to beat this dreadful virus and build back a stronger economy to sustain our vital public services, not least our beloved national health service.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, may I put on the record my gratitude to the Members from all parts of the House who took part in today’s debate? If we have learned one thing from the debate and the petition, it is that there remains a degree of public uncertainty. What the public are looking for is more than words, so I will say again: what we need is a cast-iron guarantee protecting the NHS. It is not too much to ask. If we are all in agreement, as appears to be the case from what has been said, that the NHS is not on the table, the public will be left wondering why we are not putting that into law.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 307339, relating to trade deals and the NHS.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students, HC 527; Third Special Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report, HC 780.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. I want to thank Miriam Helmers, Sophie Quinn, Wiktoria Seroczynska, Maya Ostrowska and Georgia Henderson for creating the petitions, which have more than 980,000 signatures, collectively—a very significant number. In the order of the names I have given, the petitions are to “Require universities to reimburse students’ tuition fees during strike action”, to “Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19”, to “Refund university students for 3rd Semester Tuition 2020”, to “Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19” and to “Lower university tuition fees for students until online teaching ends”. Each petition differs slightly from the others, but a common thread runs through them, and that is the fact that hundreds of thousands of students are aggrieved because they have not received adequate value for money from the universities. I want to make it clear that, as the Committee has heard in evidence, university staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide teaching during the pandemic. To many petitioners, the fault lies at the door of the universities.
For the last 30 years, school leavers have been told repeatedly by Government and the media that a university degree is the best, if not the only, option to take them towards a fulfilling career. For many, gaining a place at university is the culmination of a lifelong dream. However, it comes at a cost. English universities can charge up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. So if, for example, someone did a three-year course at £9,250 a year and got £6,378 a year for their maintenance loan they would graduate with £46,884 of debt, and that is before interest is added. By any stretch of the imagination that is a massive amount of money. We would think that if someone is investing that type of money, they deserve an adequate return on the investment, and that if they do not get it, they should be properly compensated. Students simply want value for money.
I want to explain two of the ways in which many students feel they did not receive value for money, because of the pandemic and strikes. The Petitions Committee conducted a survey of people who had signed relevant petitions and received more than 25,000 responses from current students. Most students who responded told the Committee that teaching hours at the universities had fallen because of the pandemic, and they were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the quality of the education they were receiving. A student enrolled on a clinical course expressed disappointment at the quality of the teaching. Clinical practice did not take place, and they described the fear that this raised:
“It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be.”
The drop in teaching hours affects arts students as well. Seminars and debates are difficult to translate into online teaching, especially when there are international students, who are often in different time zones because of the pandemic. That has meant for some that the interactivity of discussion, which is vital to subjects such as history or English literature, is lost. For those who are affected by strike action as well, teaching from January 2020, through to the summer, was minimal.
In a written submission, the National Union of Students expressed a concern:
“A whole cohort of students would lose faith in the UK’s education system if they are not financially reimbursed for missed teaching.”
Wiktoria Seroczynska, the creator of the petition to refund student tuition fees for the third semester of 2020, has told me that among those she has spoken to across different universities,
“comparing the quality of education we were promised to what we have right now, is shocking.”
She has explained that students feel very let down and have found it difficult to engage with their learning in the same way. Reduced contact hours, a struggle to engage students in online learning, a lack of mental health support and a lack of connectivity with tutors have all contributed to a far reduced experience. The pandemic has meant that universities have been forced to adapt the way in which they provide teaching, but the Government’s delay in giving clearer guidance has often meant rushed decisions. Georgia Henderson, who created the petition to lower tuition fees until online teaching ends, has echoed this, saying that there has been a lack of clarity from the Government regarding plans of action for students.
Students were encouraged to return with the promise of a mix of in-person and online courses, but many found themselves being taught wholly online. This has not only cost them rent, but left many isolated in a new place they have only just moved to, without any form of support system. As we have recently seen in Manchester, with a rent strike and the occupation of Owens Park by students, it is clear that many feel let down. One student, Izzy Smitheman, told the BBC:
“They brought us here for profit rather than our safety”.
Another has said that students feel they were “tricked” back into university in September. Students feel greatly mistreated by the Government: blamed for the rise in covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for. The Government’s lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging.
The lack of clarity, and the difference between what students were led to believe and the reality of their teaching, have hugely affected students’ mental health. Since the beginning of the academic year, a student has died every week from suicide. Let me repeat that horrendous statistic: since September, every week, a student has taken their own life. Every week, parents have been told that their child died alone at their university; every week, friends and families grieve for a life cut short; and still the Government have not addressed these students’ issues. Their petitions voice a “desperate cry for help”, as Georgia Henderson says. The Government have repeatedly failed to plan for the safe learning of students at universities, leaving those universities to navigate a way to deliver high-quality teaching at short notice, often with devastating effects on the mental health of students. The Government need to realise that, without proper planning, it is the student—the young person—who suffers.
Petition 300528 would
“Require universities to reimburse students' tuition fees during strike action”.
The petition argues that if universities were forced to issue students with refunds for missed teaching due to strike action, that might strengthen the case of striking teaching staff. Ultimately, universities should take their teaching staff’s complaints seriously and negotiate with them in good faith. However, far too often, striking staff feel that this is not the approach being taken. In February, during strike action at universities across the country, University and College Union chairperson Jo Grady said:
“We are on the same side in this dispute and we hope students will put pressure on their vice-chancellors”
to send their representatives back to the negotiating table
“with a clear mandate to work seriously to try and resolve the disputes”.
The universities Minister has said that this situation is neither of the universities’ making, nor the Government’s. However, the Government have a duty of care. Just as the most vulnerable are rightly going to receive funding through the winter grant scheme this year, so too should the Government look after their students. The Government have stepped in to provide financial aid for other essential sectors of our society that have experienced financial difficulty due to the pandemic, but have not given any aid to higher education. Petition creator Georgia Henderson has told me that students understand that it is up to universities to lower tuition fees. However,
“as the government was responsible for increasing the cap on said tuition fees, I see it only fair for the government to lower these in the light of Covid.”
Universities are vital to our economy and vital for our country to continue to thrive. We pride ourselves on our educational institutions and on the contributions that our universities make and have made to the world. Surely we ought to make sure that their integrity is maintained, that students feel they are being treated fairly, and that higher education in England is not only rigorous but good value for money.
Currently, if a student wishes to seek reimbursement from the university, they have the right to take up an individual complaint. Many students do not know how the system works, and even if they did, placing the responsibility on the individual is not efficient, reasonable or fair. Many have argued that the current processes set up to deal with complaints are inadequate for the volume of complaints expected as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator received 2,371 complaints in 2019. If even 1% of students in higher education were to complain to their institution and have that passed on to the OIA, that would represent a roughly tenfold increase in the number of complaints it had to deal with. Even if the OIA’s capacity were increased, the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear, which would mean a vast number of lengthy, time-consuming and confusing cases. If the financial burden of those refunds falls entirely on the universities, it will cripple them and inevitably lead to staff redundancies.
The Petitions Committee produced a report on the impact of coronavirus on university students. One of its recommendations was that the Government put in place a new process to consider complaints that would cover complaints arising from covid-19 and other out-of-the-ordinary events that affect the courses of large numbers of students, including large-scale strikes. That would at least mean that students who believe themselves to be entitled to a refund would have a clear method of pursuing it.
Universities already face a fall in revenue. If they are to maintain their high-quality staff and facilities, they will not be able to reimburse all students. Therefore, conversations need to be had to ascertain the level of refund that students could reasonably demand based on the teaching they received, how feasible it is for universities to do that and how much the Government should give to support universities and students.
The petitions have made it clear that students feel “forgotten about” and
“cruelly mistreated by the government”,
as Georgia Henderson wrote to me. If, as the Government say, they believe that students should be at the heart of higher education, they need to act on their concerts. If they do not, they run the risk of tarnishing this country’s long-held reputation for excellence in academic institutions.
I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.
I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.
In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on 23 May called “Has COVID19 Injected a Degree of Uncertainty into University Education?”. I spoke to a list of students, including Emily Bethell, who spoke on behalf of many and relayed some of the things that had happened. In March, the week before lockdown, she was told that if we went into lockdown, the university could cope—that it could move online, it had a good online portal, they could carry on working and it would be relatively normal. However, that was not the case and it did not work out like that.
Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.
She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.
Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.
Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.
She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.
Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.
I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.
Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?
On 11 November, the SAFER—Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response—report came out. It said that our universities have prioritised profit over student welfare, and that the cost of an online honours degree at the Open University would be over £9,000 cheaper at the end of three years. It said there is a lack of adequate support in the halls, of regular testing and even of food. We are talking about vulnerable 18 and 19-year-olds for whom this may be the first time they have moved away from home, and this is how they are being treated.
My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.
They say that a student’s time at university will be the best years of their life, but for thousands of students across the UK at the moment, it is a nightmare. Those of us who enjoyed our time at university are probably thinking that we are lucky that we are not them. They are locked up in their halls of residence, attending freshers events over Zoom and running the risk of contracting the virus during face-to-face teaching.
This year’s first-year university students already had to put up the hellish scandal of A-level results day and now they must contend with the shambles that is this Government’s advice to universities on covid-19. While the pandemic is no one’s fault, the way we deal with it must be. Tuition fees have been a controversial topic of debate over the past couple of decades—I was against them then and am against them now. Although it has been stated time and again, it cannot be said enough that education should be a right and not a privilege. We should not charge for it. Ironically, the Cabinet Ministers who were the driving force behind tripling tuition fees some years ago probably went to university free of charge and at the expense of the taxpayer. They have effectively pulled up the drawbridge behind them.
The commercialisation of higher education is a big shame for this country. Lumbering 21-year-olds with £50,000-worth of debt is absolutely disgraceful. When we look at other countries across the world we see thriving, high-income countries investing in their higher education while we push the cost on to students and their families. We will hear again, “It’s fine. You won’t have to repay it until you start earning £26,000-plus a year,” but the psychological toll that that massive amount of debt leaves on an individual is not mentioned. We all know that pay now or pay later, debt is still debt, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds will always take longer to pay it back and will suffer harsher consequences.
At the moment, university students are paying £9,250 a year to attend university, or, as some of them say, £9,250 to effectively live in prison-like conditions. Students in Manchester have dubbed their university “Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester University” because fences have been put up to keep them in. Students are paying to stay in halls while watching their lectures online over Zoom and many other platforms. International students from Europe have been asked to come to this country, but, having left their countries, they are attending their lectures online.
I studied biomedical sciences for my first degree, and I think of all the biomedical scientists at the moment who are in their first year of university and probably struggling to attend lectures online. I think about how they get on without all the laboratory work that they have to do. They are simply not getting the education that they need for that course, and I expect that that is the case for many courses. That is all off the back of shoddy advice that called for face-to-face teaching to resume, despite everyone saying that it was a terrible idea. As a result, approximately 2,600 university students and staff have contracted the virus, and many more have had to self-isolate.
The decision to return to face-to-face teaching was dangerous, as has been said by the University and College Union and unions at Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. They have explicitly stated that it has put staff and students in harm’s way. It is ridiculous to tell students to return to face-to-face teaching, only for them to get to university to find that they are sitting in front of their laptops in their halls of residence. After sending students back to live in communal halls, what happened next was inevitable: a spike in coronavirus cases in university cities. Once again, that was entirely avoidable if we had planned properly for the second wave. It is a scandal that students are literally being made to pay for this.
It is ludicrous to expect students to continue paying extortionate tuition fees when they are not receiving a full service. With any other service, if a customer was dissatisfied or something prevented them from receiving a service to the advertised standard, it would be reasonable for them to demand a refund, so why is it any different for students? We cannot treat university education as a commodity in one respect and not in others. It is either a market commodity, in which case a refund can be requested for a poor service, or it is not, in which case it should be free.
Charging individuals overall to pursue higher education is wrong at the most basic level, but to continue to charge them now is profoundly wrong. It is simply outrageous. The Government must ultimately consider cancelling tuition fees entirely, but in the meantime they should consider refunding the cost of tuition for the entire time that students’ university experience is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this important debate.
Taken together, these five petitions reflect the inexcusable way that students have been treated during this pandemic. I share the sentiment behind each of them, and I stand in solidarity with the students in Leicester and across the country who have stood up against their mistreatment, but I believe that the demands of the petitions, which focus on partial rebates of tuition fees, do not go far enough. After all, the current crisis is not the fault of students. It was this Government who failed to listen to trade unions and scientific experts and allowed students to attend universities just as coronavirus cases were beginning to rise.
In late August, the University and College Union warned against students returning to university. It rightly raised fears that the migration of more than 1 million students across the UK risked doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes. That was especially the case given the Government’s failure to introduce a properly functioning track-and-trace system and the fact that they do not have any UK-wide plans to test students and staff regularly. A few weeks after the University and College Union’s warning, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a shift to online learning
“unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”,
yet that was ignored too. The result has been as devastating as it was predictable.
I studied mathematics, statistics and computers for my first degree in Coventry, and I can tell hon. Members that the numbers do not add up. To date, there have been more than 45,000 positive cases of coronavirus on university campuses, including 500 at the University of Leicester and a further 500 at De Montfort University in my constituency of Leicester East. Leicester has been in perpetual lockdown, or special measures, for the longest time of any city, yet we still face those problems.
I pay tribute to all university staff across both universities in Leicester, who are producing innovative solutions, including in-house regular testing, which is unique to the University of Leicester, flexible accommodation contracts and blended learning. They are doing all that in exceptional, difficult circumstances to provide for our students in Leicester.
The fault does not rest with universities. According to the National Union of Students, 20% of students have confirmed that they will not be able to pay their rent and essential bills this term, and three in four students are anxious about paying their rent, which demonstrates that they are desperately in need of urgent financial support from the Government. As we have heard, students have been forced to stay in their university halls, which has placed an intolerable strain on their mental health. In some cases, fences have been built around the accommodation that, just months ago, students were assured would be safe to attend, and they are being forced to pay £9,000 per year for the privilege.
Under the Conservatives, universities have been treated as private businesses and left at the mercy of market forces while top salaries soar and students pay more for less. Tuition fees have trebled and maintenance grants have been scrapped, leaving the poorest graduates with an average debt of £57,000. A University of Manchester student said recently:
“We’re being treated as though we exist for profit, for money, and nothing else.”
Will the Minister tell universities to halt in-person teaching as soon as possible, help students stay at home after Christmas if necessary, and issue clear guidance about moving as much non-essential work as possible online, in line with other workplaces? The Government must work with student representatives to ensure that students are not forced to pay for the suffering that they have been forced to endure.
Will the Government move beyond that and scrap tuition fees for good? We all benefit from an educated society. Education is not just vital for our economy; it lets people develop their talents and overcome injustices and inequalities, and helps us understand each other and form social bonds. The last decade of extortionate tuition fees has been a failed experiment, which has saddled young people with debt, deterred working-class people from gaining a higher education and turned our universities into profit-seeking businesses. Can the Government simply follow the example of most of our European neighbours by scrapping fees and ensuring that young people are not punished for seeking an education?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this timely and important debate.
Covid-19 hit the student population hard in spring and summer this year, particularly the three universities in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. The immediate response was to shift to online learning wherever possible. Students were advised to return home for their third term and some—although by no means all—university accommodation offered refunds. The House of Commons Petitions Committee’s second report, “The impact of Covid-19 on university students” published in July, acknowledged that, although it shifted the responsibility on to individual universities and student accommodation to assess all calls for refunds from individual students. Seventy-eight per cent of students surveyed reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their learning experience in that period, compared with 84% being satisfied or very satisfied in the previous year. I think that if the survey were done again now, we would find the levels of dissatisfaction to be even higher.
Despite the lack of an effective test, track and trace system, hundreds of thousands of students were encouraged back on to campus in September and we saw the impact of that almost immediately. Rates of infection spiralled among the student population, particularly for first years in halls of residence. Forty thousand students have tested positive for covid-19 and thousands more have been forced to self-isolate. Far from experiencing the same quality of student experience in freshers’ week, as so many universities promised, for many students the reality was being locked down in small rooms, only having access to online teaching and a socially isolated experience, with deteriorating mental health. We have seen young adults, most of them away from their homes for the first time, being locked in and their premises patrolled by guards as they are charged extortionate amounts of money for poor-quality food parcels. Two weeks ago, we saw the situation in Fallowfield in Manchester, where the university students were fenced in in their halls.
Now, students are being encouraged to leave for home between 2 and 9 December; encouraged to vacate their accommodation three weeks early. None of that is the students’ fault. They were encouraged by the Government and the universities to return full time to campuses, despite warnings from student bodies and campus unions, concerned about those scenarios. There is no certainty that university life—social or teaching—will return to normal for the second term. That is not worth £9,000-plus of anyone’s money, and it is not good enough for the Government to put the responsibility of the crisis on individual students to request refunds. The Secretary of State for Education must take responsibility and develop a system for refunding fees for students who have suffered from a lack of face-to-face teaching, and students must be compensated for breaking their tenancy agreements, so that they can return home where they will get the support they need.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for opening today’s debate so well. I also thank the University of York and York St John University for the support they have given students at this challenging time. They have worked closely with the student bodies to overcome insurmountable challenges and to make the campuses and the universities as safe as they possibly can. However, that does not detract from the experience that students have had over the past few months. Isolated, often challenged with mental health crises and having to conduct their social life and teaching in a strange city and a strange place. It is not the expectation that students have come to deserve, let alone have to pay for. I am pleased that the extraordinary efforts in our city have meant that, despite the initial peak in infection, infection rates have fallen significantly, but we are not over the hurdle yet and could be in this situation for another 12 months or—who knows—even more. That is why the debate is so timely, in order to help us get things right for the future.
I thank the thousands of students from York who signed the five petitions before us, some of which call for the reimbursement of fees during periods of industrial action that were clearly intended to improve the working environment of our teaching staff—who are dedicated to students—protesting casualisation in the sector and its impact on their terms and conditions. Hundreds also signed petitions about refunds, partial refunds and the lowering of tuition fees, which the Treasury must look at. However, I will look at the far more fundamental issue behind it: the broken model of university funding. I put it firmly on the record that the issues highlighted in these petitions point to why tuition must be free. The risk currently falls on students, and if universities were to reimburse their students, they would become bankrupt, so the Treasury and the Minister must find a solution. Labour has a solution.
The university sector is underfunded. Higher education is the engine to economic success, and we need it to attract investment that produces a high economic yield and recognises how both tuition and research places the UK’s economy on a global footing. Investment brings return, but there is still no certainty over the future of research funding. With no future EU agreement, what will happen to the Horizon programme? We are yet to hear of the Government’s shared prosperity fund and the impact it will have on university research. We also know that the international purchase of UK education, through our international students, is significantly at risk: numbers have reduced. Universities have put incredible investment into supporting those students, who obviously pay extortionate amounts for that service yet arrive in a locked-down, strange country before they commence their online studies. What are we doing to our students and young people? Signing these petitions shows that students have lost confidence in a sector that was once the jewel in the crown of the UK. We have also heard about the real impact that this is having on the welfare of students, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn set out, and on their mental health and wider wellbeing.
The whole funding model, with the spotlight being shone on it, must be reviewed. We are all aware of the discourse over undergraduate, masters and research programmes in the light of the online provision that we have heard much about. However, online provision does not replace in-person tuition, which helps people to nurture students to reach their best, which we want for this generation of students and for those who are applying to university at this time.
We face a serious economic crisis. This is not new, but the UK’s performance has consistently lagged behind similar economies for the past decade. In addition, the productivity of the economy has been low. Education—at all levels—is proven to be the single biggest factor in significantly improving economic performance. It is the one thing that brings about social mobility. It also opens up new doors and new avenues for people to learn. However, as these petitions have shown, having to pay for tuition is a major cause of discord and has meant that many who could benefit from a university education will not access it due to the fees structure.
Therefore, we as a country need to invest in the skills to deliver the economic output to which we aspire. Much of that will need to be in new areas of growth—digital, biosciences, advanced technology—as well as where there are recognised skills shortages, in areas such as engineering. We need therefore need to attract students to fire up our economy, and I want to ensure that in my constituency, we also find a pathway—through both further and higher education—for all those who are falling out of the labour market, as we re-orient skills for the future economy.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the BioYorkshire project, with which I know she is familiar. That investment will bring 4,000 job opportunities in York and Yorkshire, will ensure that start-ups and spin-out companies innovate 1,200 businesses, and will return £5 billion in gross value added to the Treasury. This not about cost to the Treasury but about investment in skills for those kinds of outcomes, not least in the light of what our economy now faces. Putting fees in the way of that is neither smart nor beneficial. This is our one opportunity to pivot the fortunes of our economy significantly.
Someone who is currently out of work will be nervous about what is on the horizon. They will not want to risk investing in their future if they do not know what it will bring apart from significant debt. That is why the petitioners’ call shines a light on why university tuition should be fully funded in future. Universities have a serious role to play in our economic recovery, which must be the Government’s prime focus, and no barriers should be placed in the way of that.
Although many students can engage in online learning, 40% of courses offered in my city include an element of laboratory or clinical practice, so students need to be safely present in person to complete their studies. Many students are frustrated that, because of the practical nature of their degrees, they have not been able to complete them and qualify, particularly those whose courses included teaching and clinical practice. For clinical practice, those students were not able to help the NHS in their final year because of the current situation. We need to ensure that recompense is in place to enable students to recoup their losses. They clearly have an important role to play in supporting the infrastructure of our country through this pandemic.
I am sorry to put it in these terms, but we now have a marketised education system, which is why students are right to call into question the value of their investment. It changes the relationship between student and university, which should be one of co-production, working together to create academic success, leading research, and stretching and growing people, with universities working hand in glove with students.
Online learning provides opportunities if properly invested in. About eight years ago, I spoke with a medical academic about the possibilities of remote learning. He told me about how he had organised global seminars, bringing together the world’s top surgeons and academics to advance medical practice and join clinical techniques and research with practitioners who wanted to advance the frontiers of medicine. Cost barriers restrained opportunity, however. If we place those costs on our NHS at a time like this, we will lose out on those kinds of opportunities. That example can be extrapolated to engineering or environmental science. We could have high-quality online learning, drawing from the best in the world, to advance people’s opportunities to engage in a future economy.
The world of education is changing significantly, so we must look once again at how we invest in skills to ensure that students are at the core of the future economy. There must be no barriers, which fees create. That is a failed model. Vitally, we must look not only at what should happen with recompense now, but at how we can get things right in future. Unlocking our economy and giving people every opportunity they deserve: that is the game-changer.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank everyone who took part in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for—I am going to say his constituency wrong—Islwyn (Chris Evans) highlighted the amount of debt that students leave university with; issues raised by students; the anger and resentment that they feel at the moment; and the issue of mental health support. It is a shocking statistic that every week a student takes their own life. Regardless of any political opinions, we should be united in saying that we need to do something about that, so I thank my hon. Friend for drawing it to our attention.
The right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) was right to highlight the cost of a university degree and the need to move publications online and make things more accessible. I agree on the need for openness and honesty about the experience that students can expect, so that we do not repeat this problem in January and they have full knowledge of what to expect before they get there. Then they can make the decision, if they wish, to go to the Open University or their local university.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy). As people know, the Labour party is against the use of tuition fees. My hon. Friend spoke about the impact on people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, how they often have to spend longer repaying the debt, and how the system is therefore very unfair, and about the need to plan properly for the second wave. We must not repeat this problem in January.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) highlighted the damage from not having a plan for the return in September; the need for test and trace to protect staff and students; the difficulties that of course people have experienced in Leicester, given the restrictions that they have been under for an incredibly long time; and the need for us to recognise publicly the value of our universities. We all benefit from an educated society.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson). I am slightly biased because I went to the University of Liverpool, but it is a great city to go to. She referred to shocking statistics on the decline in student satisfaction; the need for effective test, track and trace; the issue of mental health; and the problems that there have been with accommodation.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), whose words are always so considered, thoughtful and thought-provoking. I really loved the final message in her speech, about getting this right for the future. She spoke about the need for people to be part of a co-production, working together towards academic success, and about how marketisation has damaged that relationship, which is so important.
I am, of course, grateful to the Petitions Committee for bringing this matter forward. I thank all the staff working in universities at the moment, given the incredibly difficult situation that they face. Often, the discourse is just about the tutors working in universities, but of course there are also the people working in catering, who are finding themselves redundant at the moment, the people working in security, the people working in the libraries and the people working in administration. Many of the staff in those jobs are currently on furlough, because of the uncertain situation we are in. I express our thanks to each and every one of them.
The existence of these petitions will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the unfolding events in higher education. Many students are angry and frustrated, and they have every right to feel like that. This year’s intake had to deal with the fiasco over A-levels, which resulted from a combination of stubbornness and a prejudice that meant that the Government could not bring themselves to trust the judgment of teachers. Just like the need to fairly determine GCSE and A-level grades, the reopening of universities in the autumn was bound to need addressing. The movement of almost 2 million people around the UK and their randomised mixing in confined shared spaces such as halls of residence and houses in multiple occupancy were guaranteed to result in a rise in covid cases. Such mass migration could have been seriously contemplated only in the presence of a fully functioning test, track and trace system, as many hon. Members mentioned. That means one that is fast, accurate and easily accessible, but what we have had has been utterly shambolic.
At the time when universities reopened, people were being asked to drive hundreds of miles for a test while local test centres stood empty. Universities had been promised thousands of testing kits, but they never materialised. The mushrooming of cases was predictable and predicted. It led to the experience that students were promised and so naturally expected being radically different from that which they had to endure. For this experience, they are being required to take on large amounts of debt by the current funding system, which was also mentioned by hon. Members. The system not only leaves students owing debts that in large part will never be repaid, but leaves universities competing in a marketplace for students and reliant on the income that each student brings with their fees. Labour has said time and again that that system is neither fair nor sustainable. The current situation makes that abundantly clear.
The financial pressures on students were a matter of great concern before the end of the last academic year, and that is set to continue. The NUS survey of 10,000 students in March and its follow-up in September showed that 50% of them relied on income from employment to support themselves. Half reported that
“the income of someone who supports them financially has been impacted by Covid-19”,
and three quarters expected to struggle financially over the coming months.
Students cannot top up with universal credit, and yet there has been no acknowledgement by the Government of the impact of, first, the tier 2 and tier 3 restrictions or, now, the national lockdown on a student’s ability to support themselves financially. Many students with part-time work in bars or restaurants would work right up to Christmas before returning home. Now they must return by 9 December, which is another blow to their finances that has been unremarked on by this Government. A bad situation is set to get worse while the Government sit on their hands.
The insecurity coming from the struggle to pay bills, find rent and put food on the table can only make worse the mental stress resulting from the chaotic circumstances around isolation and accommodation lockdowns. A huge group of young people have found themselves away from home for the first time, with limited opportunities to make new connections and build friendships. This is an extremely toxic situation, and I am deeply concerned for those who found themselves adrift in it.
In a letter I received in September, the Minister assured me that the Government’s “commitment to supporting students” is “unwavering” and demonstrated in “a range of initiatives” put in place to support “financial hardship” and “mental health”. However, I see no evidence of such commitment. The only thing that could be described as “unwavering” has been use of the figure of £256 million, as highlighted by Jim Dickinson from Wonkhe.
The £256 million has done an awful lot of work. It was first employed on 27 April, in answer to a question on what support the Government were providing to help students meet the extra costs involved in the switch to online learning, and then on 1 May to help prevent digital poverty; on 6 May to provide laptops to vulnerable and disadvantaged young people; on 11 May for employment and student income support; on 13 May to combat any increase in the drop-out rate of low-income students; and on 15 May to provide emergency hardship grants to university students from low-income households —this is all the same fund of money, by the way.
That £256 million was also employed on 8 May to support rent repayments for unneeded student accommodation and on 19 May to support those at risk of homelessness. On 21 May, it was accommodation costs again, and on 29 May it was making educational websites free—that was a great proposal by Jisc, which I hope the Minister revisits. The money was back on 2 June for laptops and 4G access; on 9 June to support students who have lost income from job losses; on 17 June for the reimbursement of students who have paid accommodation deposits; and on 18 June to support students in institutions that have moved to online-only teaching.
The same pot of money went, on 23 June, to support repayments on unneeded student accommodation again; on 29 June to provide support for international students in difficulty; and on 30 June to help with widening participation and access. Interestingly, that widening participation and access is the actual purpose of the fund of money, but on 2 July it was to provide support for mental health; on 20 July, incredibly, to support UK universities facing financial failure; and on 21 July to act as a justification for the lack of bespoke support packages for universities.
On 7 September, the money is now the answer to postgraduate student support, both PhD and master’s, in two separate answers. On the same date, it is doing double duty as support for students facing hardship given the lack of part-time jobs. On 9 September, it is helping universities with their applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and on 16 September it is helping universities with resources to combat the covid-19 outbreak. On 18 September, it is back supporting student mental health. On 25 September, it is to support access to online learning, now for the new first-year students. On 29 September, it is to support university students unable to provide a guarantor to secure their accommodation. That was a brand-new one—I had not heard it used for that before.
The 29 September was a very hard day for the £256 million, as it was also the answer to the question of student hardship and mental health support for the coming academic year. It probably needed a little lie down after that, but it was back at work on 30 September, against student hardship, and on 1 October for first-year students and debt worries. The £256 million on 8 October was to cover student wellbeing and mental health, twice, and digital access, and on 12 October it was to cover the affordability and availability of e-books, as well as digital access.
On 13 October, the Government said:
“We have asked providers to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of students during this period”
and that the DFE had provided them with financial support in the form of £256 million. On 19 October, the £256 million was to support digital and online learning. On 20 October, the Government said that students who are care leavers or estranged from their families can rely on support from the £256 million. On 21 October, it was for accessing counselling and support services, and on 23 October it was for supporting mental health and support services. On 2 November, the DFE was asked whether it was providing additional resources and funding for universities in tier 3 and tier 2 areas. It said that, yes, it was—from the £256 million. Finally, on 9 November, the £256 million was providing support for students who are required to remain at university during Christmas. I forgot to mention that the fund was reduced this year—it would be funny if it was not so serious.
Time and time again, the Government have spurned opportunities to do the right thing and provide concrete help for students. A cohort of young people are looking for emotional and material support, and they have so far found themselves abandoned by this Administration, who shamelessly repeat “£256 million” in response to every single question asked of them about students.
When will the Government finally provide new and adequate funding to be directed towards university hardship funds? The extension of funding for the Student Minds website is welcome, but the mental health challenges facing students are more severe than was anticipated only a few months ago. What further support will the Minister provide? When will the Government properly invest in eradicating digital poverty and ensure that all students have the technology to learn? Will they look again at the proposals for providing free internet access for online learning resources?
I want to take this opportunity to mention the fantastic work of student unions up and down the country. I know from my conversations with them that, although the Government did not anticipate the problems that students and universities would face, they did. They delivered freshers’ week, whether online or in person, with extra covid restrictions and at very short notice. That made new students feel welcomed and able to settle in as best they could. They set up covid-secure social spaces so that new students could continue to meet. Many student unions have been delivering food parcels to students while they were self-isolating and in lockdown.
When the lockdown was first introduced in March, the Government refused to get universities around the table to agree a joint approach and offered only the flimsiest of advice. It was the student unions across the UK that launched a campaign to get their universities to commit to no-detriment policies and ensure that students get the grades they deserve. They successfully lobbied universities and accommodation providers to release students from tenancy contracts for accommodation they no longer required. They continue to show their value as a voice and a source of support for the students they represent. What discussions is the Minister having with the NUS so that she can listen to the advice they can give about the real issues facing students right now and support them in the excellent work they are doing?
Students have a right not only to be heard but to be given answers. What is the Minister doing to ensure that universities have plans to make up for lost learning and to guarantee students’ learning outcomes for the duration of their degrees? Instead of endlessly issuing guidance, when will she sit down and work with universities and provide the support they need to ensure students get what they are entitled to—what they were promised by universities and the Government?
The Minister has said that the Office for Students regularly reviews online tuition, so how exactly is that being conducted? How many courses in how many universities is it looking at, and how often is it doing that? What is being done about those who need placements to complete their qualifications, many of whom have been badly affected by the pandemic? What is being done to help PhD students who are yet to complete their projects due to covid restrictions but who are running out of funding and are having their requests for extensions refused? What about masters students in a similar position? And please do not refer to the £256 million pot again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)—is that right?
It is the most difficult one to pronounce.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a number of the points that he and other hon. Members have made.
I acknowledge the significant impact that covid-19 has had on staff, students and higher education providers. The Government do not for one minute underestimate that. This pandemic has been hard for all of us, but in so many ways young people have been disproportionately impacted. Students have been left facing a number of challenges. I am hugely grateful for the resilience, innovation and dedication shown by staff and students over the past nine months. The constant uncertainty has made things worse, but the improvements in mass testing and constant scientific advances, including a potential vaccine, offer a glimmer of hope.
We have heard some compelling speeches today focusing on the case for a tuition fee refund. I repeat that the Government get how hard the ramifications of covid have been. In fact, they have been at the forefront of my mind throughout. Since March, therefore, I have emphasised the importance of keeping universities open during the pandemic, as I reiterated in my recent letter to higher education providers. We simply cannot ask young people to put their education and lives on hold indefinitely. The human cost of lost opportunity and damaged social mobility would be immense. The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up; curtailing the ambitions and dreams of our young is not the way to achieve that.
We listened to the scientific advice, which informed our higher education guidance at every stage, including the return to university. The hon. Member for Islwyn and many other hon. Members have called for a blanket tuition fee refund, but it should be noted that the Government do not set the minimum level of tuition fees. We set the maximum, and we have been very clear that if higher education providers want to continue to charge the maximum, they must ensure that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition is maintained. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to ensure that, and we will continue to do so.
We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund. Without the first stage, institutions would not have the opportunity for early resolution of complaints with students, so it is important.
I hear the concern, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), that students may be reluctant to come forward. I reassure all students, however, that the OIA’s good practice framework is clear that there must be appropriate levels of confidentiality without disadvantage and that providers should make that clear to all students.
OIA cases will normally be completed within 90 days, and the process is designed to make it simple and easy for students. The form is online. It asks for basic information and a summary of the complaint. The OIA requires the provider rather than the student to send it all the information. Some hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students.
As a point of clarification, it will not stay anonymous if the first stage is for the student to go via the university for redress.
The whole purpose of having that first stage is for the university to have a chance to deal with the complaint, as there might be opportunities to do so that do not include refunds. I was trying to express the fact that, in the formal process with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, there are protections for students against any potential backlash that might be feared from going against the university. The degree of anonymity is hindered—if it is completely anonymous, it is impossible to pursue a complete complaints process—but there are protections for students.
As I was saying, hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students and that we should instead adopt Government finance-backed refunds. I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down. Tuition does look different, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but different does not have to mean inferior.
Universities have invested heavily in innovative and dynamic learning and have utilised technology. I have seen many examples of interactive lessons that staff have worked tirelessly, hour after hour, to produce. In fact, a recent survey by Unite showed that 81% of students were happy that they did not defer, and four in five agreed that, although it is not how they expected their first university year to be, they valued their time there.
I am not for one moment suggesting that there have not been some institutions, or some faculties within them, that may not have given students the learning they deserve, as we have heard in accounts today. For those students, the process is in place; that is exactly why it was set up. The majority of students, however, have been supported by hard-working staff, who have invested hour after hour to support students in their learning. There has been an enormous effort made throughout the higher education sector to maintain the high quality expected by this Government. In fact, when done well, online learning takes many more hours to produce and costs more, as the fixed costs—including labour—remain the same and are combined with additional technology costs.
Yes, universities are autonomous institutions, but as a Government, we have a responsibility to the millions of students studying across the country to ensure that their education can continue and that it continues in a way that meets the high quality bar that we usually expect, and that they expect.
The findings of the Petitions Committee inquiry were clear that although students who are entitled to a refund should be able to access information about how to claim, a wide-scale refund should not be the way forward, and we agree. A range of guidance for students and providers already exists—from the OFS, the Competition and Markets Authority, the OIA and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—and we have been working to highlight and co-ordinate that advice even more for students. Universities must anyway adhere to consumer law and make their complaints process, and the OIA’s process, clear to students. The NUS has promoted this process during the pandemic, as have I, especially on student-facing media.
As the Petitions Committee recommended, we have established a working group that includes the NUS, the OFS, Universities UK, the OIA and the CMA. The OFS is working on a comms campaign, and a new page is now on its website that pulls together existing guidance on consumer issues. The OIA is consulting on new arrangements for dealing with complaints from groups of students, to speed up the process and ensure that those students who have a degree of commonality can be brought together in one complaint. I am also working on additional ways to further promote the rights of students and the processes they should follow, including working with Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Expert team.
Further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, I want every student to know that they do have consumer rights. The CMA produced guidance on this issue earlier in the year and, for higher education providers, it is clear: universities should have been clear before the start of the academic year about what students could expect in these extraordinary circumstances. If students feel they have not got what they expected, they should follow the process. As outlined by the CMA, each student has a contractual agreement, and that agreement will differ per institution, which is another reason why a blanket system of refunds would not necessarily work.
Once again, let me be clear: it is not acceptable for students to receive anything less than the high-quality education they expect from our world-leading sector. A change in the mode of delivery to online or blended learning should not mean that quality declines. This is not a case of “pay the same and get less”; this is about providers changing their mode of delivery in an unprecedented situation to prioritise public health.
Providers will be best placed to be informed about decisions regarding the proportions of online and in-person learning, working with their local Public Health England teams. There are so many examples of innovative providers and the work they have done. I will highlight just a few. The University of Leeds utilised virtual classroom technologies, enabling students in Leeds and those studying remotely to engage together, and this has been seen in many universities. The University of Northampton used webinar software to successfully replicate a mock courtroom scenario, and the University of Sheffield’s faculty of engineering developed an approach to remote teaching of practical elements, shared with the sector. Some universities, such as Cambridge, have sent science, technology, engineering and mathematics students items of lab equipment to work with at home, and there are many, many more examples.
The OFS has stipulated that quality must be maintained and that the conditions of registration must continue to be met. It is directly engaging with those providers that have moved their provision online due to the coronavirus restrictions and is assessing material to check that the quality and quantity of provision are maintained and that it is accessible. Students can raise their concerns directly with the OFS.
However, tuition fees do cover much more than simply teaching: they include the support services that universities offer, such as mental health and wellbeing, as well as the provision of study spaces, library resources and much more. It is clear that these important services must be maintained, especially when students are isolating, in regards to wellbeing, mental health and communications. We as a Government have been very clear about that.
To answer the question asked directly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton regarding my engagement with students, which was also posed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), I have regularly engaged with the NUS. I have engaged with the OFS student panel and with students who are present for the various visits I make on a regular basis, particularly the working groups of care leavers who are students. I have also done a magnitude of student-facing media, answering questions in online forums. I believe that is essential, because I should be speaking to students and the sector, detailing our policy and responding to their queries.
Rather than focusing on wide-scale refunds that in reality would make little difference to the money in students’ pockets—and let us not forget that more than 50% of students never pay back their full student debt—the Government are focusing on the outcomes of the higher education experience. We are focusing on ensuring that the courses lead to qualifications, and working hard so that students are supported and safe. Drawing on the expertise of the higher education taskforce that I set up, we have been providing robust public health advice and guidance to universities, so I dispute the claim made earlier in the debate that the Government have not given clarity to universities.
From the start of the pandemic my priority has been to protect student mental health and wellbeing, and we have asked providers to prioritise that. We have worked closely with the Office for Students to create the Student Space to address the additional mental health challenges that covid presents. That is a £3 million project, to be delivered with Student Minds, and it has recently been extended. That is on top of wider Government support that includes £9 million for charities. We monitor it all the time. My heart goes out to all the families who have experienced student suicide in the past few months, and to the friends and all the people who knew those students. It is an awful tragedy, and no words can give an account of how I, or other hon. Members here today, feel about it.
The hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised the issue of student hardship and the £256 million fund. We have clarified that providers can use that money for the entire academic year. It is for student hardship—for digital devices, for mental health support—so it is right that we keep referring to it. We were quite up front at the beginning about how it could be utilised. Before the beginning of the academic year—before August—we also outlined that £23 million per month could be utilised. I am afraid I shall continue to use that figure, because it was for the entire academic year. Student hardship is something that we continue to monitor, and each university normally has its own hardship pots as well. The Department has also allocated £195 million for technology devices for educational settings, for which care leavers at higher education providers qualify.
I have made the point that I think the £256 million fund is a little stretched at the moment. Unless I am mistaken, the £195 million fund for digital access is available only for students who were care leavers; it is not available universally for all students.
Yes, that is exactly what I said. The Department has allocated that money across educational settings and care leavers in higher education can access that. However, we have encouraged universities to prioritise digital poverty and accessibility. Accessibility is something that the OFS has been strong on, because everyone should have access to education of quality. The Secretary of State has also commissioned the chair of the OFS to conduct a review of digital learning and teaching, including digital poverty.
Is the Minister aware that, more generally, a number of schools did not receive the devices that were promised by the Government before the end of the summer, and that when many of them came back in September they were sent emails saying that the number of devices they had been promised for the children, on the basis of what is allowed for care leavers and so on, was reduced?
You will correct me if I am wrong, Sir David, but I believe that question is slightly out of scope for a petition on higher education. In relation to higher education, my understanding is that the care leavers who have needed those devices have received them. If any hon. Member knows of cases to the contrary, I would be more than happy to pick that matter up.
I agree with many of the points that have been made about the crucial role that universities play in social mobility, including the point, made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), about the economic recovery. Universities will be vital in that mission as we progress.
This has been an unprecedented year, so it is really important to recognise the tireless work of university lecturers, administrators and support staff over the past few months, and how students have adapted. However, I will make one message clear today: students have not been forgotten. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that universities uphold their obligations under consumer law. We must ensure that students and staff are safe and supported, and that students receive the high quality of education that they rightly expect.
Sir David, you have chaired many debates over the years, including many I have spoken in, so you will know that my constituency has been referred to as “Iswine” and “Islin”. Indeed, in a debate on diabetes that you chaired—it was a number of years ago, so I do not know whether you remember it—I was referred to as the hon. Member for insulin. [Laughter.] I make that point just to apologise to some of the petitioners, because I tripped over their names and hope they will forgive me. They were making really important points.
This has been a very passionate debate. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), and the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). We had a fantastic summing-up speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), as well as the response from the Minister.
The wonderful thing about petitions debates is that we know we are debating something of central importance to people. The various petitions we have discussed today received nearly 1 million signatures, which proves how deeply parents, staff and, most crucially, students are concerned about these various issues.
Personally, although I heard what the Minister said, I am still concerned about the number of complaints that have come through, and I am really worried that the system will positively groan under the weight of the number of complaints that are bound to come. As I said in my speech, if complaints to the OIA go up by just 1%, that would be a tenfold increase. That would be a real problem, so I hope that the Government will understand it and develop policies to address it.
Ultimately, however, the problem we have is that universities have marketed themselves over the years with an idealistic view of student life. Because of covid-19, which is nobody’s fault, such an idealistic view can no longer be achieved. If people hope for the type of student experiences that I enjoyed, and that I think everybody in this room enjoyed, that is not going to happen. However, what people do expect and should receive is the top-quality education that this country is renowned for throughout the world. There should be no excuse about that. When people sign up for university, they are making a massive financial commitment, and the Government should step up to that as well.
Members made many other points tonight, but I will focus on the point that my friend the right hon. Member for Tatton made about the Open University. The way things are, if people are just going to enrol and end up doing only online courses, they might as well stay with the Open University. That will be a real challenge for universities in the coming years. It will cause a fall in revenue and the Government will have to revisit some of the issues that we have raised today.
I will end by thanking everybody who has taken part in what has been a fantastic, measured and, at times, impassioned debate. I thank you all on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Finally, may I thank you, Sir David, for your measured and fair chairmanship of the debate?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.