Wednesday 18 November 2020
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Union Learning Fund
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them, and dispose of them as they leave the room—that is the cleaning materials, not the microphones. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe and only if they are on the call list—that applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list, and they are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches.
Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members can sit in any part of the Chamber. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken—that is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond after their speech, but they should be aware that doing so might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe.
This is a heavily subscribed debate, and there will be a time limit, so I discourage interventions on the Member in charge’s opening speech. I call Lillian Greenwood.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Union Learning Fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Paul Glover works as a refuse driver in Nottingham. He struggled with dyslexia at school and left without any qualifications. At work in the depot, he found it hard to read instructions, fill in forms and access training. Paul realised that he was not alone and that, in some cases, his colleagues were completing safety documentation that they did not fully understand, as they were unable to read.
With the support of his union, GMB, Paul trained as a union learning rep. Now other workers approach him for help with their learning problems. He has been able to signpost them to appropriate courses, and he has set up a group for people who struggle with literacy to help them understand safety procedures, building their confidence and skills as well as making the workplace safer for everyone. In 2018, Paul won the award for midlands TUC learner rep of the year. There is a photo of him grinning from ear to ear—I would say he is bursting with pride.
Most of us in this Parliament know what educational success feels like. We have passed exams, got the certificates to prove it and been to graduation ceremonies—maybe our own or maybe our kids’. We are not afraid to learn new skills. For too many people in this country, however, school was not a happy experience. Like Paul, they left with few qualifications and even a sense of failure. That is a terrible waste of talent and, for many people, it can be hard to overcome. However, union learning and union learning reps—volunteers in the workplace—are uniquely well placed to help their workmates do just that.
That is not hard to understand. If someone thinks education is not for them, or struggles with reading and writing, numbers or using new technology, they might not want to tell their supervisor or someone in human resources, but they will talk to a colleague—someone like them—especially if they know that their colleague faces the same problem. That is the beauty of union learning: it is incredibly effective at engaging those hard-to-reach learners. Believe me, once they get going, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
I spent 22 years as a trade union officer before I was elected to Parliament. For a period in the late 1990s, I was regional education officer for Unison. I remember when the union learning fund was created and the difference it made. Our union had always offered education and training courses, but the union learning fund and the statutory support for union learning reps enabled us to do so much more. We were able to build partnerships with employers; to share more widely information about the opportunities available, which are not just for trade union members; and to grow the network of learners and advocates for learning.
I saw the difference that union learning made. Participants grew in confidence and went on to get promotions or new jobs. Some progressed from basic skills courses to A-levels, professional qualifications and degrees. Once they had got the learning bug, they wanted to share it, and I saw how they inspired their colleagues and worked with employers to spread the word. I saw industrial relations change for the better, workers who felt more valued and employers who welcomed an opportunity to collaborate with the trade unions, particularly at a time of change when their staff were being asked to adjust to new demands and roles were changing.
I could easily fill 90 minutes with wonderful case studies that showcase how the ULF has developed over the past 20 years; the difference it has made to millions of working people of all ages in every part of the country, in sectors from retail to manufacturing; how it has supported people to acquire basic skills, digital skills and better English; and how it has helped people to complete apprenticeships and professional training.
I wish I could do that, because the Minister needs to confront what the decision to withdraw funding from the ULF really means. Every year, she will be depriving more than 200,000 working people—many of them low paid—of access to transformational learning opportunities. That is not because basic skills courses in maths, English and digital skills will not be on offer—the ULF is not about training provision per se—but because union learning is key to getting reluctant adult learners to take up those opportunities.
The Prime Minister has announced that from next spring all adults will be able to study for their first level 3 qualification free of charge—a new lifetime skills guarantee—but what he cannot guarantee is that adult learners will have the confidence to take that step; how they will get the level 2 skills that they need to go on to the level 3 qualifications; how they will overcome practical barriers such as finding the time to learn, managing caring responsibilities and understanding their entitlements; how they will have the confidence to think it is for them; and how they will get the support to stick with it if the course feels tough. Those are precisely the things that union learning does well.
Independent reviews of the ULF show that unions excel at supporting less confident learners, especially those with few or no qualifications, eight out of 10 of whom said they would not have taken part in learning or training without trade union support. The Government have announced that they will spend £2.5 billion on the new national skills fund, but they suddenly cannot afford £12 million for the tried and tested successful programme that will help them ensure it is effective. That is why I find the decision to scrap the ULF so incomprehensible, so counterproductive and such a mistake. I can only assume that Ministers in the Department for Education could use some training in evidence-based policy making.
Before scrapping a programme that has been working effectively for more than two decades, I imagine that Ministers would consult the trade unions delivering it, but they have not. Have they consulted employers? No. Since the decision to withdraw funding was announced, dozens of employers have written to the Secretary of State to share their concerns. For example, Paula Stannett, Heathrow airport’s chief people officer, said:
“The announcement that funding support for the Union Learning Fund is to be ended is as disappointing as it is perplexing. The unprecedented impact that this pandemic is having on jobs across the UK means there has never been a more critical time to invest in upskilling. We urge the Government to rethink its decision.”
How about training providers and HR professionals? Another blank. The ULF has received support from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Learning and Work Institute and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. At a time of huge change, when the country faces an economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic, with millions of jobs at risk, one would imagine a cross-Government approach to skills was essential.
The Treasury would of course want to ensure that public expenditure provided value for money. The latest independent review of the ULF by the University of Exeter estimates that every £1 invested in the ULF generates a total economic return of £12.87, benefiting both individuals and employers. Has the Treasury called for the ULF to be scrapped? No. Has the Department for Education conducted a new evaluation that contradicts the independent review’s findings on value for money? No.
As the country seeks to respond to a massive economic shock and to build back better, workers will be required to retrain, reskill and adapt as never before. The industrial strategy depends on investing in developing the skills and infrastructure that we need to support the growth of new sectors. Has the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy been consulted? Has the impact on the success of the Government’s industrial strategy been evaluated? It appears not.
In its June 2020 report on skills, the Industrial Strategy Council made a number of observations about the benefits of learning reps and the ULF to meeting its objectives. It specifically recognises the success of Unionlearn in recruiting low-skilled workers into training and the value of trade unions in helping to shape local skills strategies.
So why is the ULF being scrapped? Since that shocking decision was communicated to the TUC last month, numerous Members of this House and the other place have tried to understand. There have been many questions, but no credible answers, which leads me to believe that the decision is motivated by politics—that the Secretary of State wants to scrap the union learning fund because it is led by unions.
A few weeks ago, the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, stood alongside the Chancellor of the Exchequer outside 11 Downing Street backing a package of support for jobs. It seems strange to react to that by scrapping a successful scheme. Doing so looks like unnecessary union bashing rather than supporting a skills programme that delivers good outcomes and value for money—that is not my analysis but that of a Conservative MP, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is Chair of the Select Committee on Education.
I wish there were more time. I would like to talk about the incredible work of my former colleagues, Angela and Gavin, and all the Unison learning team in the east midlands. I would like to tell hon. Members about Neil Chapman, who began his own learning journey with retail union USDAW, and now works with learning reps at the Boots site in Nottingham. There, thanks to the ULF, they have an on-site learning centre and support learners to access training through a range of local providers and further education colleges, including, increasingly, in mental health awareness.
I would like to tell hon. Members more about Fire Brigades Union member Laura Wilton, who uses her training to help women in Nottinghamshire prepare for the physical demands of being a firefighter. I would share information about the important work of the Federation of Entertainment Unions, which uses the ULF to equip freelancers with the skills and knowledge they need to run businesses as self-employed workers.
However, many of my colleagues want to speak—some have not even been able to make it into the room today—and I am keen to hear their contributions, especially as many of them, like me, have direct experience of the union learning programmes. But before I conclude, I want to pose some questions that I hope the Minister will address in her response to the debate.
How will cutting this vital support for the hardest-to-reach learners help the Government to roll out their offer of level 3 qualifications? Which organisation will replace Unionlearn in engaging reluctant learners? How will scrapping the union learning fund help this country to “build back better”? What assessment has the Minister carried out of the impact of removing funding for the ULF on the industrial strategy? What discussions has she had with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on this decision?
If the Minister is concerned that the programme is available only in unionised workplaces, how will scrapping it improve the uptake of training in non-unionised workplaces? If she is concerned that union learning levers in investment only from larger employers, what discussions has she had with the TUC about addressing those concerns? Has she challenged it to reach smaller, non-unionised workplaces? Has she given it the opportunity to respond to such a challenge?
I am sure that the Minister’s numeracy skills are top-notch. Can she confirm what proportion of the Department for Education’s £54 billion budget the £12 million spent on union learning represents? If she really is worried about how her Department can afford that, what discussions has she held with other potential funders? For example, has she consulted Mayors and combined authorities about the impact that this cut will have on their plans to boost skills and productivity in their regions?
Union learning makes a massive difference to workers, employers and our economy, but it is the individual human impacts that get me every time. I want to give the last word to Sam Biddlecombe, an NHS healthcare assistant in Derbyshire. Sam joined a Unison women’s lives course, went on to a level 3 access to higher education diploma and ended up going to university to study nursing. She said:
“I think you have to be in the right mind-set to learn, school was wasted on me when I was young but after the two UNISON courses, I felt I’d been given a toolkit to further myself…My learning experience has made a real difference to my life, not just at work but at home too. My little girl sees me doing my homework and so she’ll pick up a book and read. In our house, free time isn’t just for sitting in front of the TV; it’s also for talking, reading and learning something.”
It is never too late to learn, even for Ministers.
The debate can last until 11 am. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would close no later than three minutes before 11 am, that will give Lilian Greenwood a chance to sum up the debate. There are 12 Back-Bench colleagues seeking to contribute until 10.27 am. If there are no interventions, we can have a time limit of three and a half minutes and everyone will be able to contribute. The clock will be operating to show you where you are during your speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I support the arguments powerfully laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), as do employers, the RSA, the CIPD and others.
Last month the TUC was told that Ministers had decided not to continue funding Unionlearn beyond the current financial year. That is a termination of £12 million annual funding, which supports over 200,000 learners in workplaces across the country every year—learners who undertake all sorts of job-relevant learning and training, including basic literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology, apprenticeships and traineeships, vocational training, continuous professional development, and many other informal and formal courses. At the heart of the model is a union learning rep, a trained worker who understands the workforce, the nature of the business and the skills gaps that exist.
I know that the Minister is aware of work that I and other Members of Parliament around Heathrow are doing in response to the current pandemic to support a learning offer. Unite and others are involved in developing a new Unite learning hub at Heathrow, and it is one of the best examples I have seen, with hundreds of tailored courses based on learning surveys with people in the workplace and in the community. How many Unionlearn projects has the Minister visited? How many reps has she spoken with? How many employers and employees using the model has she talked to? What published assessment has been made of the return on investment or the impact? And what assessment has she has made of that impact?
To add to the comments made by my hon. Friend, I received a contribution from Catherine, a learning rep for Unite. She says:
“I would like to add some information that may be of use to you through my own personal experience…and the students I have worked with… the ULF is more than delivering maths, English and ICT… it is about giving someone the opportunity to learn, who for whatever reason may not have had the confidence within themselves, time or energy to go to college or do a course online… We are not just about gaining qualifications, we are about giving someone the ability to read to his grandchildren, we are about helping to deliver equality and diversity training to an entire workforce, we are about delivering vital skills to vulnerable and low paid workers who cannot afford to go to college, or whose working hours don't fit with that of colleges. We are about giving someone the belief in themselves that they can achieve.
By providing education delivery in the workplace and in the community, we are opening up countless opportunities for workers… who may have thought they were not available to them.
I say workers and not members because not everyone who takes part in one of the courses is a union member… because ULF workers are at the frontline… we can adapt and respond to the needs of workers in a work place and that too of the company… when working together and deliver education”
that is in line with the initiatives put forward by the Government. She adds:
“Many of the students would not be able to attend regular colleges due to cost”.
I do not need to say much more. With some policy choices, there are grey areas to consider. With this one, once we understand the work of the fund and what it achieves, there is only a downside.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing this important debate. I know many hon. Members want to speak, so I will keep my comments brief.
I declare an interest as a GMB member and a former officer who was responsible for setting up Unionlearn projects at Heathrow. I fought to lead that project because I believe in the transformative power of in-work learning, If the Chancellor wants the country to rethink, reskill and reboot, he should be backing Unionlearn, not scrapping it. We should not wait until people are unemployed to reskill and retrain. We should be doing that when people are in work, allowing them to climb up, succeed and progress in their lives. That is not just a huge benefit to an individual; it also benefits companies, employers and the UK economy. Pre-pandemic, our economy was limping along and productivity was sluggish. The answers to that have been, time and again, a skilled workforce.
I will talk about Mark Church and his story, and how Unionlearn changed his life. He left school without being able to read or write. He spent most of his adult life just getting by and avoiding situations where he could be exposed. These are his words:
“I couldn’t pick up and read a book or a newspaper like other people. I also had great difficulty writing.”
Years after leaving school, Mark was redeployed from his manual role into a technical role, and he realised he could no longer avoid confronting the problem. He said:
“I panicked. I realised I would no longer be able to get by with the level of skills I had.”
He then turned to his union learning rep for support. The union arranged one to one training to help Mark improve his essential skills. He gained the qualifications he needed, and he got on. He did not just get on in his workplace; he actively encouraged other people to take on training as well.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South, people like Mark trust their union. The idea that he could go to his employer and say, “I’m struggling with reading and writing,” is an absolute fantasy. People trust their union, which is why Unionlearn was such a success.
I ask the Minister to look at the benefits of Unionlearn and to rethink scrapping it. If we really want to “build back better”, we need a skilled workforce to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing such a vital debate, for speaking so passionately, from her own experience, and for thanking all the union learning reps up and down the country who are making significant differences to our communities.
I speak not only as the Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale, but as a former Unison convenor for careers services across Greater Manchester, some years ago. The union learning fund was introduced by the Labour Government in 1998 as a national scheme, but it was operated by the TUC in 1996, under the dying days of the John Major Government. It was a real game changer, and it still is. It is about promoting lifelong learning, which is something the current Prime Minister has referred to when he talks about “build back better”.
I have seen the difference it makes at the chalkface. We have already heard stories about the real difference it makes for people who have traditionally been failed by mainstream education and schools. For people who cannot do some of the basics, like reading, writing and basic maths, it is a real game changer. We have spoken about the trusted relationship with the trade union brand, but it is also a partnership with employers, Jobcentre Plus and training providers, who I have personally worked alongside in delivering these schemes in the past.
Recently, we had redundancies at Thomas Cook. Unite put together a fantastic scheme with those partners to upskill people and look at opportunities elsewhere. It would be absolute economic madness to shut the scheme down at this time.
I know the Minister is genuinely passionate about apprenticeships and has direct experience of them. She is the former co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships—I am a member too. I am not convinced that the Minister wants to go down in history as the Minister who shut the door on the people we are talking about—on the hundreds of thousands of workers a year who benefit from the scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South rightly spoke about investment. Every pound invested creates £12.87 in return. To me, it is the right thing to do not only for education but for the economy. It is life-changing for many of our key workers who we rightly applaud. I certainly hope that the Minister does not want to go down in history as a key player or architect in shutting the door on hundreds of thousands of workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing this important debate about something we all feel passionate about.
The union learning fund has helped millions of workers across the UK, so I and many hon. Members present were shocked when the Government announced that they were going to scrap the hugely successful programme. It is a brilliant initiative that encourages the greater uptake of learning within the workplace. It engages workers and employees alike to build the right structure and culture within an organisation by upskilling its employees. We have heard many powerful stories about it today.
Scrapping the fund is most painful to the millions of employees who have benefited from it, some of whom are constituents of mine. In the midlands and in my union, the GMB, members have learned to read and write through the scheme, which has given them empowering and life-changing opportunities for themselves and their families. Needless to say, the union learning fund has had a positive impact on the workplace environment for employees and employers.
I appreciate and welcome the Government’s focus on establishing a new national skills fund, but I put it to the Minister that the union learning fund could be part of that programme. In today’s climate, with covid-19 ravaging jobs and our local economies, a programme such as the union learning fund can have a powerful benefit and be an asset, not a hindrance, to the Government. In the financial year 2019-20, the fund improved the English, maths and digital skills of many employees across the country. It allowed them to develop and grow in high-quality apprenticeships and traineeships. It improved support for infrastructure projects, workplace development and skills progression.
The union learning fund has allowed many of my constituents to reach their full potential, which is something all hon. Members want for our constituents. It has demonstrated excellent value for money in return for public funds—£12 for every £1 spent. The Government always talk about ensuring that spending is effective; there is no better way than that.
More importantly, the fund has had a massive impact on the lives of many constituents across the UK, which is, honestly, truly priceless. I will quickly mention some statistics. The TUC has stated that 80% of employees said that they had developed transferable skills, 62% had acquired more effective jobs, 19% had gained a promotion or increased their responsibility, and 11% had gained a pay rise.
The Government have spoken a lot about upskilling during the pandemic, especially for those who have lost their job. I believe that the union learning fund provides employees and workers who have been furloughed during the pandemic with the opportunity to take part in online learning and training, which is something that we want for our constituents. My plea is for the Government to reconsider scrapping this brilliant programme and instead commit to funding it—and, perhaps, to go further and find a home for it as part of the national skills fund.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing this important debate and for making a compelling case for the union learning fund. We live in an increasingly uncertain world where employment is more insecure, and long-established industries are giving way to new sectors and new forms of working. One of the most powerful tools that we have to help workers through the uncertainty and navigate the swirling tides of economic change is education and training. We need to be able to help workers throughout their working life to retrain, to reskill, and to update their capabilities so that they can take on new jobs.
Digital skills in particular are necessary in modern workplaces of all kinds, and in all fields. To take one example, local government has needed to make the changes quickly. There has been the most significant shift to digital working in our lifetime in just the last few months, and in my local authority in Newcastle learning zones have been set up so that staff can get online—many for the first time—so that they can continue to provide services. It is union learning reps who have provided the human support to make it possible and support people with digital skills. We know how important that is. I do not know about other hon. Members, but since we have moved to a more virtual Parliament I have been on the phone to the Parliamentary Digital Service almost every day. We need people to speak to, and that is the role that many union learning reps have similarly played for local government. The pandemic has supercharged the process, with so many people having to transition so quickly to working remotely.
As well as being vital for staff development, it is crucial to the economy to ensure that we have the workforce to meet skills requirements and develop the UK’s competitive edge in key industries in an increasingly uncertain and onward-developing world. The difficulties caused by the pandemic, and the growing number of redundancies, will leave many needing to retrain. They will turn to their union learning reps to support them in that. Lifelong learning is more important than ever, which is why the decision to cut the union learning fund is disappointing. It seems incredibly short-sighted and frankly unfathomable. It is also completely at odds with the Prime Minister’s professed intentions with respect to a lifetime skills guarantee, and to build back better—and, indeed, to level up—after covid-19. The union learning fund is particularly, and uniquely, well equipped to support those workers who might not otherwise be engaged with workplace learning, ensuring that everyone can get access to the opportunities and that no one is left behind. I urge the Government to listen to hon. Members today and to reconsider the decision—and to continue the vital union learning fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing what is clearly an important debate. It is for exactly such debates that we need Westminster Hall up and running. I hope that participation here will be extended to those unable to be here in person because of the pandemic.
Other Members have clearly done an excellent job already of making the case for the union learning fund, but as a Liberal Democrat I want to add my voice. I am in agreement about being at a complete loss to understand why the Government have decided to scrap the fund. There are so many compelling reasons to keep it in place, which have already been set out—not least the fact that the change is happening during a huge shock to the economy at exactly the time when employees need to retrain and reskill. Indeed, the Government are spending other moneys on a campaign to encourage people to do just that.
One of the particular attractions, to me, of the union learning fund and the way it is delivered is the fact that it is co-ordinated by internal union learning representatives. All good businesses and organisations should have strong learning and development resources in place. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament I worked in capability development in manufacturing, and I know the positive and important impact that that can have on employees and organisations in their turn. When I was studying for my Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification a decade ago, the institute recognised union learning representatives as a positive and collaborative means of working. I note its support today.
The union learning fund is, in effect, a power-to-the-people approach to learning and development and a devolution of the powers of learning and development training to employees themselves. However, given recent comments by the Prime Minister, perhaps it is no surprise that the Government want to scrap it. Given the Scottish Government’s expected commitment to continue to fund the STUC’s union learning until at least 2023, denying people elsewhere in the UK access to the same provisions is another perfectly avoidable own goal.
I hope that the Minister will set out in full the reasons why the Government are intent on dismantling the fund. There is clear demand for reversing it. The TUC’s campaign is supported by businesses big and small—Tesco, Heathrow and Tata Steel. The early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) had, when I last counted, been signed by more than 80 Members.
The fund itself consistently delivers value for money; it is a tiny amount, but it goes very far. Value for public money matters to my constituents in North East Fife, who pay their taxes and expect the Government to deliver that value in return.
I will conclude by echoing some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham South in her opening remarks. Where is the £12 million for the fund being diverted to? Is it going into this national skills fund? Is there any form of direct replacement planned? What assessment did the Government carry out before they made this decision? Do they accept the analysis of the University of Exeter that the fund is effective? Finally, what assessment have the Government made on the impact of scrapping the fund on their levelling up agenda? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate; what a pleasure it is to speak in Westminster Hall for the first time on such an important issue. I declare an interest as a life-long trade unionist, as a former member of the Unite national executive and as someone who has greatly benefited personally from union learning on many occasions over many years.
This debate could not have come at a more important time; when tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs or are under threat of losing them because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, the last thing that the Government should be doing is cutting funding to training.
The union learning fund, as has been said, was created over 20 years ago and has been a great success in enabling millions of working people to improve their skills and their lives, both in and outside of their workplaces. This is not a partisan issue; the union learning fund has always enjoyed cross-party support, receiving continued recognition for its contribution to work-based learning under the coalition Government and previous Conservative Administrations.
The statistics speak for themselves with regard to the fund; the most recent independent evaluation showed that 68% of learners with no previous qualifications gained a qualification due to the support of the fund, while 47% with entry or level 1 qualifications gained a higher qualification. That is not just beneficial for the employee; 77% of employers said that the union learning fund had a positive effect in their workplace. The fund supports working people to better their lives at all levels; one of my own team members is doing a part-time master’s degree that is partly funded by Unionlearn through Birkbeck College. With postgraduate qualifications out of reach for so many working people, the way that Birkbeck College utilised this fund alongside their evening study hours is commendable.
We need to be looking forward to a post-pandemic economic world, where this country’s skill base will provide the foundation for economic regeneration, growth and employment opportunities, and increased prosperity for all. A fully skilled workforce will be vital in spearheading the UK’s economic future in this new and challenging global economy. That is why the union learning fund should remain as an important section of the UK’s overall training program.
I hope that the Minister will listen closely to the contributions made here today and hear the overwhelming arguments for the union learning fund to continue and, in the words of the Prime Minister,
“offer a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain—at any stage in their lives”.
A decision to continue funding and to abandon these plans to cease the learning fund in 2021 would be a positive step in achieving that ambition.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important and timely debate.
The Government have declared that they will put reskilling workers at the heart of their economic recovery plans after the pandemic. That was a significant and welcome announcement, so why are they now proposing to scrap one of the most successful schemes for encouraging workers to upskill? Since it was launched in 1998, the union learning fund has provided training and qualifications to around 200,000 workers every year—almost 4.5 million new qualifications that contribute not just to the worker’s confidence, skills and knowledge, but to the business they work in.
As a former Unison rep, I have witnessed first-hand the success of the ULF. Last year the union learning fund cost £12 million—a mere £60 per learner. Learners undertake all sorts of job-relevant training, including in basic literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology skills, apprenticeships, traineeships, vocational training, continuing professional development and other informal and informal courses.
At the heart of the model is the union learning representative, a trained worker who understands the workforce, the nature of the business and the skill gaps that exist. They work with employers, their own union and Unionlearn to broker access to relevant learning opportunities for workers in their workplaces. There are more than 44,000 in England. And the model works; 37% of union members regularly access workplace learning, compared with just 19% of workers in non-unionised workplaces.
The essential food industry is reliant on migrant workers and those with no or low-level qualifications. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has provided Unionlearn-funded training to more than 31,000 workers over the past 20 years, including functional literacy and numeracy skills and English to speakers of other languages. Like other union partners, it provides a route back in for those failed by the education system, those with low confidence, and those whose first language is not English but who are likely to be key to the success of the business. An independent study in 2018 from the University of Exeter found that 68% of learners with no previous qualifications gained a qualification.
It is incredible that the Government—who were prepared to put billions of pounds into contracts with Serco for test, track and trace, and millions into precuring personal protective equipment not fit for use—made the decision to scrap the ULF. I urge the Minister to reconsider that decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing this important debate and setting out superbly why the union learning fund has such an impact on workers’ lives, particularly in the workplace. I say this as a member of the CIPD and from my working life as a head of human resources and organisational development. The power of workplace learning is so important. The ULF supports teams across more than 20 unions, developing workers in NHS wards, offices and factories, on shop floors and in so many other workplaces. It offers hundreds of lifelong learning courses on a range of subjects, focused job-related training and upskilling to thousands of workers—union members and non-members alike. The workers who receive the most benefits from the ULF are predominantly low-paid, seeking educational opportunities. As TUC general secretary Francis O’Grady puts it so succinctly, the ULF is
“the Heineken of adult learning—it gets to people other approaches cannot reach.”
Through joint working between employers and ULF representatives, skills gaps in the workforce are identified and workers are provided with access to training that fills them. An independent evaluation of the ULF’s work in 2018 found that for every £1 spent on the ULF, workers gained £7.60 through better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the Government gained £3.57 from welfare savings and revenue gains. In pure financial terms, that is a win, win, win. However, instead of recognising the benefits of the ULF to workers and employers, the Government have announced that from March 2021 they will cut its funding. In one breath we have the Government stating they want to build back better across the country, then in another they undermine workers’ ability to develop the skills needed to drive our recovery.
I am pleased that there is huge support across the labour and trade union movement for saving the ULF but, as already mentioned, the campaign is backed by large employers such as Tesco, Heathrow, British Steel and Tata Steel. Given the successful track record of ULF over the past two decades and its positive return on investment—and given the support from employers and workers—why are the Government cutting the ULF and replacing it with the national skills fund? Why fix it when it ain’t broke? The answer is not one that is focused on improving development opportunities for workers. Instead, it smacks of a politically motivated attack on trade unions in the workplace and is another avenue to weaken their ability to support workers—and a shameless attempt to disrupt organised labour.
The Bank of England has warned that the UK faces the worst recession in 300 years, so scrapping a scheme that is not just oven-ready but already cooked to perfection, flies in the face of building back better. I urge the Government to listen to workers, employers and trade unions by safeguarding the ULF’s future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and I concur with every word uttered in the debate, not least those of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).
We are here because we have all witnessed something so transformative and so life-changing in workplaces across the country that we want the Minister to go on the union learning fund journey. It is no ordinary learning scheme. The Minister may be asking why trade unions would make such an investment in union learning. What do they gain from it? Why would people volunteer to be learning reps? Is that not somebody else’s job?
Let me tell the Minister about the transformative power of union learning reps and the union learning fund: for just £12 million, it returns £1.4 billion to the economy. Unions invest because that is what they do. Unions invest in health and safety reps because they want working people to be safer at work. Unions invest in workplace reps because they know that better workplaces are more productive workplaces, and provide more secure labour. Unions invest in union learning because they unlock the potential of others, give them life chances that they have never had, help them discover their skills and talents, and open up to them a new world of possibilities. That is what trade unions do. After going through training in which unions have invested, union learning reps ensure that effective programmes are available to workers that are matched to their needs.
I used to be Unite’s national officer, and I saw how many men and women who had no qualifications and would shy away from learning, began their learning journey with the support of union learning reps. They first gained basic skills thanks to the investment, encouragement and support of the union learning rep, working patiently alongside them to give them confidence and support. I would then see barriers fall, and the fear of learning turn into a new hunger. They then embark upon courses and improve themselves, becoming more confident workers and bringing real gain to their workplaces, as 80% of courses do.
I have witnessed tears of frustration turn to tears of joy. I have heard testimonials from employers who have confessed that they would not have been able to do what the fund does without the union learning fund. It is not just about the course or the qualification; it is about the learning journey—the support, the encouragement, the friendship and the fulfilment of the hidden dream. It is powerful. At a time like this, when we are going to have to use every resource wisely and see workers diversify their skills, the union learning fund has never been more needed. That is why employers want to keep it, and that is why employers have set up learning centres and learning agreements. The union learning fund does things that no learning programme can do: it brings together employers, workers and reps with a life of possibilities.
Before the Minister takes out her pen I want her, in her response today, to commit to immersing herself in the world of the union learning fund. She will witness something so moving, effective and valuable. I know she will change her mind as a result.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing this honourable and important debate. I am proud to be a trade unionist and to have the support of trade unions, and I declare an interest: I am a member of Unite the union.
It is through trade unions that working people advance our collective interests, from winning rights and better pay at work to building up our skills and talents. That is what the union learning fund is all about. Every year it supports 200,000 workers, enhancing literacy, numeracy, ICT skills and professional development, amongst much else. As hon. Friends have said, it is a proven success. A 2018 evaluation found that for every £1 spent on the scheme, workers gained £7.60 in better pay, employers gained £4.70 through higher productivity and the Government gained £3.57 from social security savings and revenue gains. That is why it is not only workers who back it, but businesses like Tata Steel. The fund pays for itself and enriches everyone else. It was needed in normal times, never mind times like these, when Britain has entered the worst recession on record, unemployment is surging to levels not seen in decades and the climate emergency is already with us. While people are losing their jobs in record numbers, work needs to be done. Our public services are in ruin: 10 years of Tory cuts have brought them to their knees. We need to build them up, skilling workers along the way, from the care sector to education to the NHS.
Our society is hooked on deadly fossil fuels. We need to break that addiction, decarbonising our economy with a green new deal, training and investing in our young people, so that instead of being trapped in unemployment, they are building the wind turbines that we need to power our country forward, building the clean public transport that is fit for the future, and retrofitting our country’s homes to reduce energy bills and emissions. There is work to be done, and it is the Government’s job to see that it is done. That is why, instead of scrapping the union learning fund, we should be investing in and expanding it.
Government Members like to pretend that they are the champions of the working class, but when it comes to concrete policies, such as the self-organised training of working people or feeding working-class kids during the school holidays, that façade vanishes and they show their true colours. However, they could prove me wrong and I would be very happy if they did. So, instead of their claiming the mantle of supporting working people only when it means pitting white working-class people against poor black and brown working-class people, I urge them to stand up for all working-class people, by committing to maintaining and expanding the union learning fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest, as a member of Unison.
Today I join employers, businesses, and especially workers, across the country in being staggered by the decision—out of the blue—to scrap the union learning fund. In-work poverty is one of the main sources of poverty in my constituency. So many people are working two or three jobs but still cannot make ends meet. Workplace learning is a proven route out of poverty and the ULF is a proven provider of such learning. In-work learning removes the barriers to learning for those who need it most, so that low-paid workers and their families can get vital qualifications and skills. As the General Secretary for USDAW has said:
“Learning and re-skilling will be at the heart of helping the country recover from…this…pandemic…Unionlearn reaches the people other schemes do not”.
Will the Minister today explain how else the Government will provide such a highly successful route to learning for 200,000 learners every year? What is the alternative? I understand that the fund is being diverted or moved to colleges. Colleges need more funding, but this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Local colleges cannot provide access to learning that is equivalent to the access that the ULF provides. The ULF is in the right place, where workers actually are. It operates around working hours and pools the resources of employers, education providers and trade unions. That makes it amazing value for money, so it should be valued in and of itself. And it provides more than training; it also provides mentoring, to increase people’s confidence and inspire reluctant learners to change their life and achieve their potential.
The ULF has been a successful provider of union learning for more than 20 years, during which time it has been built up. If it is removed now, and cut next year, that would be really hard for all involved; it would take another 20 years to build up such an amazing resource, including the network of providers and courses. The ULF benefits 200,000 workers every year and is a key route to apprenticeships. It is valued by employers from Tesco to Heathrow to Tata Steel, and so many more employers in industries that will be key for building back better.
In fact, the fund is needed now more than ever, as workers reel from the impact of covid. Scrapping it will undermine the lifetime skills guarantee and any promises about green jobs. I urge the Minister to stop, review the fund, value it, and keep it instead of scrapping it.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing the debate. First, I declare an interest—I am a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary of Unite the union.
My experience in the workplace over many years has given me an insider’s view of how valuable the union learning fund has been to so many workers. Currently, the fund supports 250,000 workers, through the provision of first-class training and skills courses. The Government’s announcement last October that the fund would end in March 2021 flies in the face of the country’s needs, as the pandemic still rages. That is why the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted to maintain the fund.
As the virus tears apart our industry, resources need to be put into rebuilding our skills base, retraining our workforce and developing people capable of taking up new jobs in new industries. At least, that is the view of the devolved Governments, and I must ask why that view is not obvious to the Conservative Government. If they really believe that we must build back better, how can they also believe that taking away a key means of achieving that goal is a good idea? It will not save them money, but will cost them considerably in terms of an educated workforce, capable of meeting the challenge of the green industrial revolution that must lie at the heart of rebuilding our economy. Even now, the ULF more than pays for itself, contributing an estimated £5.4 million in improved productivity. For every pound spent through the fund, an extra £3.57 per worker is taken in taxes, as a result of improved wages and welfare savings from securing employment through the fund.
Not surprisingly many employers, including Tesco, Tata Steel and Heathrow, are supporting the trade union campaign to save the ULF. I warmly welcome the campaign and strongly urge the Government to change course on this issue.
As well as the big-picture arguments about the ULF’s economic value, I want to talk about the benefits from a human point of view. In my years as a trade union activist, I have seen and dealt with many individuals. I have had to support them personally as well as collectively. The beauty of the ULF is that it gives properly trained and accredited union learning reps the chance to help people directly in the workplace.
I have spoken to colleagues who have suffered a disability and panicked about their inability to carry out their job. I have spoken to people who cannot read or write, though many find ways to disguise that fact from their employer and colleagues, out of shame. I have met people whose potential to advance in their work has been cruelly hampered by a lack of education or being scared about learning new skills to do with new technologies.
It is simple: from the point of view of educating the workforce of the future and supporting the workforce of today, the ULF is a precious resource, which we must not give up. A sum of £12 million is not a lot of money, but it is worth its weight in gold to the people who use the fund. Stop being petty and reinstate the fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate.
Three themes have emerged from all the excellent speeches that have been made. First, there is the timing and the general situation in which the decision has been made. Secondly, there is the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace-based learning. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, there is the perversity—if not prejudice—of the decision. I will deal with each aspect in turn.
On the timing and the situation, which many Members have mentioned, even pre-covid we lived in a fast-changing world where things did not stay the same, but were accelerating. The days are gone when people turned up at the factory gate at the age of 13 or 14—more recently, 16—and remained there until they got their gold watch at 65. Even those in a workplace with a more IT basis will likely have many employers and, more importantly, the nature of their work will change. For those leaving school or graduating at 16, 18, 21 or 22, how many jobs will they experience, how much training will they undertake and how vastly changed will their work be by the time they are 30, never mind 40, 50 or even 70, as the retirement age is likely to be?
That is why it is so vital to post people in retraining to allow them to better themselves. As others have also said, it is even more vital post-covid, because we all know that unemployment is rising and we are just at the beginning. It is going to go up significantly and hard times are coming. We also know that the nature of work is changing, which has been mentioned by many Members. The need for homeworking, the change in IT and the delivery of Zoom have changed within the period of my membership of Parliament, compared with what went before. The pace of change is significant and it is going to be driven.
We know that aircrew are being told that they have skills, and that they can retrain. I recall that it was difficult to keep senior police officers in the north-east of Scotland because, trained in command and control, they were perfect for many who wanted experience like that in offshore oil and gas. It will always be necessary for people to have that opportunity to move on and change. The world in which we live is changing. The nature of what people do will have to change, and we have to be able to support them.
That takes me on to the second issue, which has been touched on: the principle of lifelong learning and the importance of workplace learning. I have to confess to being an autodidact. That is because I did a degree in law and, as I frequently say, I have spent a lifetime trying to get an education. That is the nature of a law degree, or perhaps of myself. Education is something that we should value in itself. It is important that we educate people for the work that they do, so that they can improve the work that they do and improve themselves per se. That is necessary. This is not simply about education for education’s sake; it is about providing for workers. The two aspects are equally important, and that is why the fund is crucial.
Hon. Members have commented that the jobs that have been delivered are significant, and they have outlined the skills that have been provided for the whole of society, not just simply the individual or their employer. The individual’s general knowledge and the self-confidence that goes with it is unquantifiable and cannot be put in any briefing from the House of Commons Library or a trade union. Workplace learning environments are important because education has to be put in context. Hon. Members have mentioned the people they have come across who have benefited.
The context of this issue is longstanding. The fund was established in 1998 to institutionalise what had been ongoing for many years. Ruskin College was established, if I recall, in 1899, as we were coming into a new age of the industrial revolution. Scotland’s equivalent, Newbattle Abbey College, took a few more decades to come along. I know it well. Many people went there for reasons that many hon. Members have narrated: the opportunity to better themselves, perhaps after having left school without qualifications, and the opportunity to return to education. That was important not just for those individuals and the Scottish economy, but for Scottish society. Before the trade union learning fund, we had the Workers’ Educational Association, which still exists. If my memory serves me well, it has been around since the early 1900s. I know people who worked there and did a remarkable job, and people who went there. The trade union learning fund provided a context and some institutionalisation of that, because the benefits are clear.
I have studied Jimmy Reid extensively and have written a biography about him. He would be regarded as one of the greatest Scots of the 20th century. He was a most educated man, but he never went to university, other than gracing the University of Glasgow as its rector. He said that his university was in the shipyards. It was there that he met other worker representatives who directed him towards what to read, what to study, where to go and how to access it. The trade union learning fund brought together all the benefits that Jimmy Reid had.
I met many of Jimmy Reid’s colleagues. Many of the old CPers were the best if someone wanted to get an education. I recall being challenged by a CPer who was no longer able to work because he was blacklisted. At that stage, I was a young law graduate, and he asked what books I read. I have to say that I was humbled and shamed, but I have remembered that ever since, because my love of radical American literature came from that man, steered in a workplace environment, who told me not just about Steinbeck and Jack London, but about the benefits of reading John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright and all those other greats who I now pass on. It is that environment that the trade union fund brings together: the opportunity for people to better themselves and be improved as individuals. That is why it is important that we seek to protect it.
That is the basis of why we hope to hear from the Minister why the fund is being ended. It is important that we conceptualised this idea and put it in a framework. The days of someone turning up and the shop steward being there to advise them is much harder to deliver when they are working in a home environment or a working environment that is much less organised. It was important that we were able to bring together the benefits that we got to those comrades back then.
I appreciate that colleges and universities have expanded, that they provide much more, and that they do a remarkably good job. The college near me that provides for my community would tell me that the average age is well into the 20s and that many of the hardest working are the women who left school, had a family, realised that they have the skills and attributes, and want to better themselves for them and their families—they want to go back. That is why the decision seems—if not perverse—almost prejudiced.
I am conscious of time, so I will simply conclude with some questions. Is this simply prejudice based on a desire to do down the trade union movement? The Scottish National party is not affiliated as such, but it is a huge supporter of that movement and recognises the benefits. As I say, I think those who work today and those who went before are extremely praiseworthy. Equally, if the decision is not prejudiced, does it not seem perverse at a time when we require ever more lifelong and workplace education?
Perhaps most importantly, is the decision reversible? If not, the likelihood is that it will cause significant harm, not just to individuals or to employers who require their skills, but to us as a society, who can only benefit from having people as educated, well read and trained as they can be. That is the society we need: it will build us back better and it is what the fund was created to allow to happen. I leave those questions for the Minister.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) for securing the debate and for her contribution.
The sheer number of speakers in the debate says a lot. The Minister should be concerned not just about the number of Labour and Scottish National party Members who came; she should hear loud and clear that not a single Conservative MP was willing to come to the debate to speak up for the decision. The fact that the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is not here to speak up for the decision should say more to the Minister than every single eloquent speech that we have heard from my hon. Friends and colleagues. For the 200,000 learners each year who will see barriers placed before their careers by this incredibly short-sighted move, the debate will provide reassurance that there are people in this place who are more interested in supporting them than in picking fights, settling scores and preventing that ladder of opportunity.
I will not have the opportunity to refer to every speech, but so many important points were made by colleagues, some of which I want to mention. As my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, the union learning fund has enjoyed cross-party support throughout its time, going right back to 1998. As other hon. Members have said, the programme has demonstrated the potential to enhance and transform the lives of workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South said that the programme reaches people whose statutory education has failed and who arrived in the workplace without functional literacy and numeracy. Those are the people the programme has supported.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, a Government who were truly committed to a skills-led recovery would recognise that Unionlearn is an example of building back better and of the very best of trade union and Government co-operation, helping workers to help themselves. Of course, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but whatever that will be, we know where the decision comes from. She might read the words, but the decision was made by the Secretary of State.
There is not much that I would say to commend the Secretary of State, but in fairness, he has been quite upfront and honest about that fact. There has been no attempt to hide behind the Treasury or an economic argument. This is a political decision by a politician who would rather settle scores with the trade unions than work with them constructively. In his own mind, he is the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, preventing workers from accessing literacy and numeracy skills. This is his Orgreave; this is the moment that he came into politics for. The evidence that we have heard is about the real people who will be affected by this decision. He is not the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher; he is a mean-spirited Frank Spencer. That is who is making this decision.
The decision is so misplaced. It hits the workers, not the unions. Unionlearn is not a profit centre for trade unions. It will not hit the sustainability of the unions. In communities up and down the country, it will prevent people from accessing the skills that would enable them to better themselves. What idiocy!
All Governments will, on occasion, have arguments and fights with trade unions. That is the nature of being in government. But what a fight to pick! Why, if they want to fight the trade unions, do they fight to prevent them from helping people to better themselves? It is incredible to think that the premiership of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) might be looked back on as a more enlightened time than what we have now, but with regard to Unionlearn it was.
Let us remind ourselves what the Minister’s predecessor, Anne Milton, said a couple of years ago:
“The aim of the National Retraining Scheme is simple—to produce the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the changing world. To do this the Government, the CBI and the TUC all have our parts to play.”
“That’s where Unionlearn comes in and why we regard it as an external partner in the national retraining scheme.”
That is a sensible, Conservative approach to recognising that Unionlearn is about unions and Government working constructively together. That is what a sensible Secretary of State would say now. Even in the teeth of austerity, when it seemed there was nothing the Government were not willing to cut back on, George Osborne decided to continue funding Unionlearn. That was the approach they took then. He was a poor Chancellor, but he was a skilful politician. The Secretary of State we have now is no such thing.
No fig leaves can cover the motivation for this decision. The most recent independent evaluation of Unionlearn, to which colleagues have referred, was published by the University of Exeter this month. It said that the £12 million spent on Unionlearn has an overall benefit to employers and individuals of £1.4 billion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, every pound invested in the union learning fund in round 20 generated a total economic return of £12.87, benefiting workers and their employers almost equally.
The latest evaluation found that 80% of employees said they had developed skills that they could transfer to a new job. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said, 19% of those who accessed the fund gained a promotion or increased responsibility after their learning. Some 11% gained a pay rise. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) spoke about work-based poverty and the number of people working two or three jobs who are still unable to pay their bills. The union learning fund was a solution to that, with people getting pay rises as a result of the extra skills that they gained.
Like most acts of vandalism, this decision will come at a cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) referred to the fact that the evaluation showed that for every pound the Government spend, they receive £3.60 back. This decision will literally cost the Government money. It is not about them having to find an alternative way to pay for it; they are losing money through this decision.
The Government have not even pretended to investigate the impact. Last month, Baroness Berridge admitted that neither the Secretary of State nor any ministerial colleagues had met employers, trade bodies, sector skills bodies, individual trade unions, further education organisations or trading providers in advance of this decision. If they had taken the time to consult, however, they would know that there is a huge coalition opposed to the decision.
Can the Minister recall a time when such a broad coalition of employers has come together to back a union-led initiative? There is a long list of companies already opposing this decision: the British Ceramic Confederation, Cogent Skills, Ingenuity, British Steel, the Food and Drink Federation, Catapult, Make UK, the Manufacturing Technologies Association, Tesco, LIBERTY Steel, the Workers’ Educational Association, Heathrow airport, Tata Steel, Arla Foods, Milk & More and Müller Milk & Ingredients. How many more organisations need to come out and say that this is a retrograde step?
The challenges of the pandemic demonstrate the urgent need for retraining and upskilling. In Unionlearn, there is the very model of lifelong learning, yet the Government are axing this programme, which supports the learning of over 200,000 workers at a cost of just £12 million a year, while the community learning budget, which is 20 times bigger than Unionlearn, reaches fewer than twice as many people. There could not be a better example of the Government’s not spending money wisely.
This decision is not about the money. The Department has just sent £80 million that was allocated to providing help to retrain back to the Treasury because it could not spend it. This is a Government who rip up the rules on procurement to load cash into the pockets of their friends and Tory party donors, but when it comes to a tiny investment to help workers who earn in a year the sort of money these Ministers will pay as a day rate to consultants, the message from the Government is, “Your career is not worth it.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said it is the opposite of a levelling-up approach. It says more about this Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said, and more about this Secretary of State than any shiny new initiative. We can all see the truth: this is a decision that pits the Government against 200,000 low-paid workers, it will cost rather than save money, it is the opposite of levelling up, and it stinks. The truth is that the Minister could get to her feet now and confirm that she will cancel this divisive and regressive stupidity, and I hope that she will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate. Like her, I grew up in the north-west in the ’70s and ’80s, and I am very familiar with Paul’s and Mark’s experience of school—it is one that I also had, with more than 90% of my school friends leaving our Knowsley comprehensive school with few or no qualifications, so I am familiar with the challenge.
We all know, too, how rapidly the economy and employment can change, with the decline of jobs for life; instead, it is a life of jobs, requiring new skills. Hence the need for people to have those new skills and qualifications in order to be more resilient to change and better able to take advantage of the opportunities in their area. Of course, that means that access to education and training is essential for young people and adults to get the skills they need to equip them for the future and to allow them to take advantage of the opportunities open to them.
I hope it comes as no surprise to anybody here that I am passionate about this subject. I have my own experience as an apprentice, and I know that gaining skills and training develops confidence and opens the door to so many opportunities. Apprenticeships are now available at any age, to any worker, up to degree and masters levels in almost every occupation we can imagine.
However, getting into work, getting on to a training course and getting those qualifications mark a stage in learning, not an end. Now more than ever, things are changing at a rapid rate. New technology means new industries and the decline of some others. Jobs change, jobs are lost and jobs are created. We are living in a period of rapid change, and the impact of coronavirus has created another level of instability, which means that everyone needs to react to take advantage of new opportunities or to minimise the risks that change can bring.
The Government are committed to ensuring that every adult has the skills they need to progress. That is why we are investing £1.34 billion through the adult education budget in 2020-21 alone. That commitment is not just about ensuring that all adults can get a full level 3 qualification, but about basic skills. We know that any adult without basic skills and qualifications faces an impossible challenge in securing employment, and that is why, since the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, we have fully funded adults without English and maths at level 2 to gain those essential qualifications. Since August this year, we have added a similar entitlement for every adult to gain basic digital skills at level 1.
Unionlearn, through the union learning fund, has done some really good work over the years in helping and supporting adults to gain the basic skills they need. It helps people to find out about learning opportunities and how to access them. Of the 200,000 people it helps each year, about 95,000 are supported in English, maths and information and communications technology up to level 2. In fact, almost all the Unionlearn help is at level 2 and below. It has been able to do this thanks to Government support. Since 2015, the Government have provided £74 million for the union learning fund, including £12 million for the current financial year.
There are limitations to the Unionlearn model, however. Although it is open to all, important information on opportunities is invariably circulated via the trade union network. Programmes are undertaken by the same set of unions each year. Typically, Unionlearn has supported 19 to 23 projects each year, but over time, only 24 unions have been involved. That is not to say that the projects are not good or worthwhile, but the support is going to the same unions for the same cohorts. Efforts to widen the range of programmes and unions securing project funding have not succeeded.
The Government want training opportunities to be genuinely open to all adults, rather than confined to a particular cohort by the limits of the union learning fund. Although many individuals feel that their learning journey would not have started without the support of Unionlearn, which I am sure is right, almost half of those training through it are qualified at level 3 or above, plus significant numbers said that they would have done the learning in any case.
We are not scrapping Unionlearn; we have decided not to continue funding it from taxpayers’ money. Of course, others could fund it, such as trade unions, employers and devolved Administrations. Indeed, it was established in 1998 and has been funded by taxpayers only since 2008, so there were 10 years of it being funded another way.
I referred to the work that Unionlearn has done to support people to gain basic skills, but I also spoke about the adult entitlement to financial support for them to get English, maths and digital qualifications. That was brought in after the establishment of Unionlearn, which brings me to a key point. At its heart, the Unionlearn model is a brokering one that helps to identify learning needs at an individual level or in a particular location, then to link those individuals to providers who deliver the training. It does not fund training, except in a few circumstances where it is not available through the adult education budget.
I will not, but the hon. Lady will get three minutes at the end. I only have limited time; I think she knows that I would usually.
Unionlearn is a signpost to learning opportunities. I would be selling it short if I did not recognise that it has provided support, mentoring and advice to people over the years, but times and needs change. We need a solution at scale. Unionlearn was set up to help individuals to find out about and access training opportunities.
In 2006, only about a quarter of people in the UK used the internet every day. There was low-speed connectivity and smartphones were new—Apple launched the iPhone only in 2007. Now, more than 80% of households have high-speed broadband and a smartphone, which has driven a change in behaviour. People can access all kinds of information online. They can sign up for training online and take courses online, which was unimaginable 14 years ago. There has been a massive change in the information and basic courses that are available.
In some ways, covid-19 has accelerated that behaviour. FE provision went online—I joined virtual lessons during lockdown—and we have established a skills toolkit. People can go online to find things out. There has been a clear behaviour change in less than two decades, which means that there are now many ways to get support and information. On top of all that, there is an evolving adult entitlement that means that everybody is entitled to digital skills as well as English and maths.
There will always be a need for some personal support, which is why the skills recovery package includes £32 million of extra support for people to get more help from the National Careers Service. Today, it does not make sense to fund Unionlearn, with an additional set of admin costs, to support particular individuals in a unionised environment, while we have unprecedented access to information online, support from careers services and a basic entitlement.
We also want people to be more ambitious in their aspirations. English, maths and digital skills are essential, but are not enough for many people to secure the career or job that they want. That is why the Prime Minister has announced, as part of the lifetime skills guarantee, that adults lacking a level 3 qualification, equivalent to an A-level, will be fully funded from April 2021.
The size of the challenge is such that it requires significant investment and solutions. Small-scale inter- ventions will not suffice. That is why we have announced the creation of a £2.5 billion national skills fund to run over the lifetime of this Parliament. That is why we have set up a £500 million skills recovery package to support and encourage employers to offer apprenticeships and traineeships, to expand threefold the sector-based work academy programme and to help more than a quarter of a million more people to get advice and guidance on careers. That is why, against the backdrop of £3 billion of funding to support large-scale national investment in further education that will work flexibly for working people, it simply does not make sense to continue to support a niche Unionlearn offer.
I am enormously grateful for the support and consideration that the hon. Member for Nottingham South has given today, and she will have her time to respond. She has raised some important concerns about adult learning and access to skills, and it is clear that the Government share them. We have considered how the union-led fund might have addressed these, but we must go further than this model.
The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that everybody, irrespective of who they are or where they come from, whether they are working in a unionised environment or not, can get the qualifications and skills they need to progress. That is the only way that we are going to build back better, meet our net zero by 2050 target and recover from the global pandemic. With £3 billion of support for further education, Members should be in absolutely no doubt that, as learners progress, this Government will be there with them, now and in the future, every step of the way.
I know that Members are disappointed, that they support Unionlearn and that many of them have had involvement with this model, but we cannot limit the scale of our ambition or limit access, when it is a basic entitlement for every adult in this country, which has been provided since and after Unionlearn was set up. These things are widely available in all communities, to those who are working or not working, and to those in unionised environments or non-unionised environments. They are available to everybody, and we must make sure that we are there to encourage people to come forward. There is a lot of information available now, in every way.
We are committed to training adults in this country. We are investing more than we ever have, but it needs to be a large-scale solution to a large-scale problem.
I cannot decide if the Minister actually believes a word of the speech she has just delivered. It is as if she was not listening to a single one of the contributions that we heard.
We know that Unionlearn is not primarily about delivering courses. It is about connecting people to opportunities and giving them the confidence to take up those opportunities. Even where courses are provided free of charge, the number of adult learners is falling. For example, the number of adults achieving first level 2 qualifications in English and maths has fallen by 30% since 2010, despite those courses being free. If the Minister is serious in thinking that the union learning fund is not on the scale required, she should be investing more in expanding it to enable those workers to take up those opportunities. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) nodding along with that.
The Minister did not answer my questions about which organisation will engage reluctant learners. The careers service does a good job, but it cannot reach the same people. She did not explain how scrapping the union learning fund will help us to build back better, the impact it will have on the industrial strategy, the discussions she has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or how it will increase the uptake of training in non-unionised workplaces. She did not answer my maths question about what proportion of the Department for Education budget that £12 million provides.
I am so disappointed. I read and hear many contributions about the difference that union learning makes, and people describe how it has transformed the way they feel about themselves and the opportunities open to them. I read someone saying: “I honestly feel like this is a new beginning for me. I am buzzing. I can’t wait to get back to work and start implementing everything I learned on the course.” That is what her Government are taking away. She should be ashamed of herself, a Skills Minister who wants to take away the opportunity for working people to improve their skills and transform their lives.
Mr Hollobone, I do not know what more to say, other than that I hope that other people can prevail upon the Skills Minister and her boss, the Secretary of State for Education, to wake up and do something positive, and change their minds about this appalling decision.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Union Learning Fund.
Worker Exploitation: Leicester Textile Industry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling worker exploitation in the textile industry in Leicester.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Leicester has a proud heritage of textile manufacturing. By the middle of the 20th century, the success of our hosiery and footwear industries, including companies such as Corah, Wolsey and Byford, led to Leicester being called the place that clothed the world and the second richest city in Europe. Although no longer on that scale, the textile sector still employs around 10,000 workers in 1,500 firms in Leicester and Leicestershire, the second largest concentration of textile firms in the country outside of Manchester. I want my constituents and people across Leicester to have the highest possible standards of employment. I want them to be paid well and trained well, and to work in a safe and welcoming environment. I want our local businesses to be the very best and to have the support that they need to expand and thrive, and I want a sustainable and productive economy for our city and country as a whole. That is why I am so concerned about poor and exploitative working practices in some parts of the textile industry in Leicester and why I believe more effective action must be taken.
I want to focus my comments today on the fashion retailer Boohoo, which is a major part of the problem experienced in the city. I want to talk about the company’s shareholders, who, with one notable exception, have failed to fulfil their responsibilities, and I want to talk about the Government, who have a crucial role to play in ensuring an effective system of regulation and enforcement, backed with sufficient resources.
I wish to put on record that, although I admire the fact that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, which is very pertinent to Leicester, the issue very much affects all of the consumers who purchase items from these retailers. The items are manufactured often in Leicester and procured in Leicester, and it is vital for everybody to know that these goods are being produced in the right way and that the workers are being treated properly when we make those purchases.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. This issue does not just affect the workers in this industry. It does not just affect those of us who have pensions that are invested in these companies. It also affects us as consumers, which is why it is so important that we get this right.
There have been long-standing and serious problems with workers being exploited in some textile factories in Leicester. In the last five years alone, they have been highlighted by the University of Leicester, the BBC’s “Dispatches” programme, the Financial Times and the Environmental Audit Committee. Many, although not all, of these appalling cases had been in the supply chain of fashion retailer Boohoo. The latest issues were exposed by The Sunday Times in July. Following those revelations, Boohoo finally commissioned a review into the supply chain, carried out by Alison Levitt, QC. The findings of this review, published in September, were utterly damning.
Ms Levitt found that repeated allegations of unacceptable working conditions and illegal underpayment of workers were
“not only well-founded, but substantially true”—
something that Boohoo had denied or downplayed for many years, which I know personally from my meetings with the chief executive and director of sustainability. The review found that a significant number of Boohoo’s suppliers and subcontractors had been paying their employees less than the national minimum wage and had serious health and safety violations, including the risk of fire that could lead to loss of life, and that employees’ rights had been ignored and neglected on a wide scale. The review concludes that these problems are endemic and
“exist across the best part, if not the entirety, of Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain.”
Ms Levitt says that Boohoo’s monitoring of its supply chain has been “inadequate” for many years, and that is down to “weak corporate governance”. She says:
“Commercial concerns such as growth and profit were prioritised in a way which made substantial areas of risk all but invisible at the most senior level.”
From March 2019, Boohoo knew there were problems in their supply chain, and,
“By December 2019, at the latest, senior members of the Boohoo Board knew for a fact that there were some serious examples of unacceptable working conditions and poor treatment of workers (including illegally low pay).”
Despite all that, in late June 2020, astonishingly, Boohoo unveiled a plan to pay bonuses of up to £100 million to its two co-founders, Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane, and £50 million to its other senior executives.
Ms Levitt says that when the covid-19 pandemic struck,
“Boohoo was quick to take advantage of the commercial opportunities afforded by the increase in demand during the pandemic”,
“at no point was any assessment made as to how the Leicester workforce was to cope with the increased volume of orders.”
She rightly concludes that that was “inexcusable” and that,
“in truth Boohoo has not felt any real sense of responsibility for the factory workers in Leicester…because they are largely invisible to them.”
An under-reported part of the review relates to the behaviour of Boohoo’s chief executive, John Lyttle, and the executive chairman and co-founder Mahmud Kamani. Ms Levitt questions why John Lyttle failed on three occasions to tell her about an email that identified extremely serious health and safety concerns in Leicester supply chain. She says:
“It was my view that, given that John Lyttle could not possibly have forgotten this, his failure to tell me about it was significant.”
Ms Levitt highlights Mr Kamani’s “lack of knowledge” or even “interest” in reports by Boohoo’s internal auditor about problems in the Leicester supply chain or the checks carried out by their independent auditor, Verisio. Significantly, she says that
“the Board has found it difficult to stand up to the current Chairman and to ensure that the best interests of all the shareholders are acted upon.”
She concludes that
“for too long, Mr Kamani’s priorities have been allowed to dictate company policy.”
Perhaps Ms Levitt’s most striking finding is that:
“No member of the Board I interviewed mentioned that the responsibility for what is happening in the supply chain derived from the duty of the company’s officers to act in the best interests of all the shareholders.”
She also highlights
“the failure of the company to grasp that their responsibility for the factory workers does not derive from a nebulous ‘moral’ duty but from their obligations as officers of the company.”
I am going through this in so much detail because it beggars belief that the very people who denied and brushed aside this appalling exploitation are still in place and, far from suffering any penalties as a result of their failures, have instead given themselves a huge pay cheque. Hiring independent directors, however good they may be, will not solve fundamental governance weaknesses where boards are still in the power of an all-powerful founder chairman, as others have rightly said today.
Boohoo is still failing to take sufficient action and fobbing people off with warm words. It promised to implement all the recommendations of the Levitt review, but to take just one example, I have repeatedly asked Boohoo to send me its emergency plan for a second national lockdown and to spell out exactly how many people are now physically inspecting the factories in its supply chain—a key recommendation of the Levitt review—but I cannot get any clear answers. This is a serious question for the chief executive, the executive chair and other members of the Boohoo board. It is a serious question for Boohoo shareholders, too, because shareholders have a responsibility for the companies that they own, and fund managers should be held to account for their promises to champion responsible investing and environmental, social and governance—so-called ESG—issues.
Following publication of the Levitt review, I wrote to all of Boohoo’s major shareholders to ask what action they were taking as a result of what I think is one of the worst ESG scandals in modern UK history. I said that I did not think that those who had turned a blind eye to these problems over many years were the right people to take the company forward. To be clear, the executive chairman and the chief executive officer should be removed.
The response has so far been extremely disappointing, to say the least, save for the notable exception of that from Standard Life Aberdeen. Of those shareholders that have replied, Jupiter Fund Management has told me that it is in “close dialogue” with Boohoo. Fidelity Investments claims that it has had “positive engagement”. Invesco also says that it is “engaging”. And BlackRock says that it is
“following the situation with the company closely”.
None, however, has changed any of its actual investment decisions. That makes a total mockery of their promises and claims to champion responsible investment. This matters, because these are the companies that manage the retirement savings of millions of ordinary Britons.
In contrast, Standard Life Aberdeen has sold all the shares that it owned in Boohoo, because of the company’s failure to take proper action. It told me that it had over time made specific demands of the company to improve its supply chain practices and management. It met regularly with the company to monitor progress. It demanded an extension of the audits carried out on the company’s UK supply base and said that Boohoo should engage with industry-led supply chain initiatives. It said that its patience with the company’s response on these issues had been diminishing during all of last year, that that patience finally evaporated in the summer, when the allegations by The Sunday Times were published, and that that was why it took the decision to sell its remaining shares. Standard Life Aberdeen also told me that it voted against the appallingly hubristic pay package for the co-founders and senior executives when it was introduced at Boohoo’s 2019 annual general meeting.
Standard Life Aberdeen is to be applauded for its decisions, because fund managers need to champion responsible investing—not as the latest marketing gimmick, but because they intend to drive real change. Otherwise it is all just warm words and not worth the paper, or website, it is written on.
Let me turn finally to the role of Government. Although most of Ms Levitt’s review focuses on Boohoo, she makes it clear that inaction by Government has also contributed significantly to the problems of worker exploitation in the textile industry in Leicester. She concludes:
“Legislation is not merely a system for regulating society but also the mechanism by which society’s values and priorities are communicated. If the law is not enforced, this sends a clear message that the violations are not important and the people affected do not matter.”
I think Ms Levitt is right, yet over the last decade the very bodies responsible for tackling worker exploitation and enforcing workers’ rights have faced considerable budget cuts from this Government, which has significantly reduced their capacity for inspection and enforcement. For example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, responsible for enforcing the national minimum wage, has seen its budget cut by 17%, and the Health and Safety Executive has seen its budget cut by a staggering 46%. The HSE was also explicitly told by the Government to reduce its proactive inspections in the textile industry by a third, because Ministers wrongly considered this sector low risk. On top of this, Ministers have refused to implement recommendations from key reports such as the Environmental Audit Committee’s “Fixing fashion” report, which made some really important proposals, especially about improving supply chain transparency. The Government have also been far too slow in sorting out the mess of different regulatory bodies involved in this area.
Ministers proposed a new single enforcement body almost two years ago, but we have yet to see a response to the consultation on that important change, let alone the Government’s actual proposals. There are lots of important questions about this body that need to be answered: how much of a local presence it will have, how much it will engage with the local community and trade unions, what kind of sectoral expertise it will have, and what its enforcement powers will be. The Minister will know, as I met him to discuss this yesterday, that I think there is much that could be learned from the work being done by Leicester City Council as the Government develop their proposals for the single enforcement body.
Although local authorities have no powers to check on working conditions inside a building, enforce the minimum wage, or monitor the legality of the workforce, Leicester City Council has nevertheless been working hard to do what it can within the current framework and legislation. It has appointed a co-ordinator to bring the various national enforcement agencies together to improve intelligence sharing and enforcement—the very first post of its kind in the country. The city council is working closely with trade unions, local community and voluntary groups, the citizens advice bureau and Crimestoppers to raise awareness about the problems, better engage with employees, and give exploited workers the courage to speak out, because we know the fundamental problem is that many people are too scared to say what is really happening.
The council is also proactively helping the textile industry modernise by providing bespoke business advice, holding training sessions with factories and supporting businesses with nearly £600,000 of grant financing, for new equipment in particular. It is also investing £200,000 into setting up a new skills and training centre for the textile sector, and seeking investment and support from the industry and others.
Before I finish, I particularly want to emphasise to the Minister the importance of working with trade unions to support the positive changes we need. If we want greater openness and transparency, if we want a partnership between employers and employees to improve workplace safety and standards, and if we want all workers to have the courage and confidence to speak out, we must increase union representation in the textile industry. I hope that when the Minister speaks he will commit to working on these issues with trade unions such as Community and the GMB, because this is a critical issue for the future.
In conclusion, the responsibility for tackling worker exploitation in the textile industry—not just in Leicester but across the country—lies with the boards of textile companies and fashion retailers, with the shareholders of those companies and with the Government. Action is required by all three to end exploitation and ensure that not only Leicester’s but the entire country’s textile industry improves its standards and has an ethical, productive and sustainable future. I hope the Minister agrees, and look forward to hearing his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for securing today’s important debate. I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet with her and Councillor Clarke from Leicester City Council to discuss the issue, share our thoughts and plan together. I know it is not going to be the first or last time that we meet to do so. I welcome the opportunity to hear about the work on the ground in Leicester, and their insights as well—it is so important that we learn from the experiences there.
I did have permission, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on securing this important debate. The Minister says that we need to learn, but while the pandemic has thrown the crisis into sharper light, exploitation in Leicester’s textile industry is not a new phenomenon. The reality is that it has been widely reported and studied for at least a decade and there has been a shameful failure to act, despite widespread, long-standing evidence of employer misconduct. There has been a failure to address institutional exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry, which has been brought to official attention over many years and has posed an obvious injustice and health risk to workers.
I thank the hon. Lady. We did have an exchange yesterday in a wider debate about workers’ rights and I was pleased that she was able to raise the important ongoing issues in Leicester. I shall cover some of the historic enforcement issues and what we have done, involving a variety of bodies, as well as some of the problems with getting the evidence to a point sufficient to get people to speak out and make it possible to mount prosecutions.
We are committed to ensuring that workers receive their employment rights, and that employers act responsibly. It is important to realise that some workers are particularly vulnerable. That is where our enforcement bodies have a role. The Government already spend more than £35 million a year enforcing the national minimum and living wages, protecting agency workers, administering a licensing scheme for labour suppliers in the fresh food supply chain, and protecting workers from the worst cases of labour exploitation. In 2017 the Government created the office of director of labour market enforcement, to ensure greater joint working and set the strategic direction across the three labour market enforcement bodies—HMRC national minimum wage enforcement, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.
The labour market enforcement bodies play a crucial role in protecting vulnerable workers. In 2019-20 alone, HMRC recovered more than £20.8 million for more than 260,000 workers and issued 1,000 penalties to non-compliant businesses with respect to national minimum wage. The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate recovered more than £61,000 for agency workers, dealing with almost 1,700 complaints, and led more than 300 inspections. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority recovered more than £166,000 for workers and was involved in more than 260 criminal investigations, which resulted in 29 arrests for suspected labour market offences.
Those figures show only a fraction of what state enforcement bodies achieve on a daily basis to protect vulnerable workers, but there are challenges with so many different bodies playing a role in this space. That is why we have committed to the creation of a new single labour market enforcement body that will bring together what is currently a fragmented landscape, as we have heard, making it easier for workers and employers to know where to get help. It will do even more, enforcing holiday pay for vulnerable workers and also with respect to umbrella companies. By bringing together the existing bodies we can also develop a more comprehensive picture of non-compliance, making better-targeted, proactive activity possible.
We consulted on proposals for the new body last year, as the hon. Member for Leicester West said. We planned to take them forward in the forthcoming employment Bill. Progress on that has been slower than I would have liked, because of covid-19, but the delay gives us the opportunity to learn a huge amount from the situation in Leicester, as well as from the covid-19 pandemic situation. That will strengthen the plans for the new body.
I have only a little time to cover the points raised, I am afraid.
The allegations of abuse in textiles manufacturing in Leicester that are the subject of today’s debate are not new, as the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) said. On the recommendation of the previous director of labour market enforcement, Sir David Metcalf, the main enforcement bodies undertook a pilot project with Leicester City Council in 2018 to address the issues. In response to the most recent allegations, as we have heard, a multi-agency taskforce led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has been set up in Leicester. It works closely with Leicester City Council. Partners include HMRC, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, Leicestershire police, the National Crime Agency, Leicestershire City Council and the Department for Work and Pensions.
The work plan includes targeting enforcement activity, strengthening intelligence gathering and improving community engagement. The taskforce has identified more than 200 premises of interest for investigation and has so far conducted more than 140 visits. In those visits, it has identified issues with non-payment of national minimum wage, unsafe working conditions and small amounts of potential illegal working, but so far it has seen no indication of modern slavery offences. The enforcement bodies will fully investigate all concerns and bring appropriate enforcement action against non-compliant employers.
Historically, HMRC has recovered more than £215,000 in wage arrears for 411 textile workers and issued more than £325,000 in corresponding penalties to employers, including in Leicester. Since 2015, HMRC has facilitated 19 director disqualifications relating to the textile sector. Early evidence suggests that the visibility of enforcement activity is having a positive effect on employer behaviour, with some factories making changes to become more compliant. That is an encouraging development, but the enforcement bodies clearly are not complacent.
One of the major challenges is a lack of reporting from workers, many of whom may be worried about speaking to law enforcement because of a perceived fear of reprisals. Leicester City Council has been leading work to improve community engagement and encourage people to come forward, and has launched a campaign with Crimestoppers to raise awareness and promote workers’ rights. In recent weeks, the taskforce has seen a small increase in reporting from workers, although we remain conscious that there is still work to be done.
This is a key issue that we need to look at as we develop plans for a single enforcement body; it must be seen as being approachable to workers and employers. We need to build stronger links—as we have seen in Leicester—with local authorities, workers and community groups, who can share valuable insights and information. There is much that we can learn from Leicester City Council here. I am also grateful to the director of labour market enforcement, Matthew Taylor, who is chairing a series of workshops to gather views on how we can make the body approachable to different groups and build links for effective ongoing engagement. Getting that right will be key to the body’s success. Through those workshops, Mr Taylor will also consider what sort of sectoral engagement and approach might be needed.
Alongside enforcement action, however, retailers of course have an important responsibility to promote compliance in their supply chains. The findings, as we have heard, of the review by Alison Levitt, QC into Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain are very concerning. I welcome Boohoo’s commitment to implementing the recommendations in that report, but, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said, there is much more that we need to do. We must not be complacent, but work to see that that is carried through.
Since the publication of the report, the engagement with Boohoo has been encouraging, but there is more to do. Boohoo and other retailers, including Missguided and New Look, have raised issues with the taskforce as they have become aware of them, which has been instrumental in building the intelligence picture. The apparel and general merchandise public and private protocol is the main form of engagement between the taskforce and the sector, and is aimed at tackling all forms of labour exploitation in the garment trade. That group is undertaking a programme of work looking at improving worker engagement, business accountability, intervention mechanisms and the regulatory framework; I very much support its work and look forward to seeing the results.
The Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership is also playing an important role, working with the city council to support businesses and improve working practices. It is keen to set up a textiles hub in the city, supporting local businesses and employees through the sharing of best practice, skills provision and business training. The Government have provided £1.4 million to the enterprise partnership since 2015; I welcome these initiatives and I encourage local partners to join in and deliver those plans.
It is in shareholders’ long-term interests to promote responsible behaviour from the companies they own. The share price often suffers if companies are found wanting. As reflected in the revised stewardship code, which took effect from the start of the year, I expect asset managers to take more account of environmental, social and governance factors in their investment activities.
The Government have acted to drive stronger business transparency so that companies are more accountable to shareholders on corporate responsibility. For example, in 2018, our corporate governance reforms introduced new company reporting requirements on executive pay, including pay ratio reporting and new reporting on how directors are having regard to employee, environmental and other interests in pursuing the success of their company within the meaning of section 172 of the Companies Act 2006. The hon. Lady talked about consumers, as well as shareholders, having a responsibility beyond the value of the company. It is important that consumers get that right and are very aware about supply chains, albeit that some supply chains are incredibly complicated.
The behaviour of brand names is not only affecting Leicester. I engage regularly with retailers and manufacturers from across the country on the issue and I stress the importance of preventing abuse in supply chains. I know the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is doing some important work on that as well. My officials are engaging with the British Retail Consortium on options to improve compliance in UK textile manufacturing, including proposals for a licensing scheme.
We are also committed to strengthening our approach to transparency in supply chains overall, under section 54—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. (10(6)).
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Transport Committee, The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation sector, HC 268; and the Government Response, HC 745.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the aviation industry.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Before I start my remarks, I offer my congratulations to the Minister on his recent appointment. He was a very good member of the Select Committee and he is a very welcome addition to this role, even if the challenges he faces in it are pretty big at the moment. I wish him well.
The aviation industry is a vital part of our economy. It employs—or rather it did employ—hundreds of thousands of people around the country. It is an essential part of regional economies, which is why we see colleagues from around the United Kingdom here today, and it provides vital connections from the United Kingdom around the world. Today, it is a sector on its knees. Last weekend, I cast a quick glance at the Plane Finder app that some of us have on our phones. That afternoon, there were three aircraft in the air over the south of England—just three aircraft, and one of those was en route from France to the United States.
That is a disaster for this country. It is a disaster for all the staff and airline personnel who have lost their jobs, a disaster for the airport services companies and all their people, and a disaster for the suppliers to the industry, such as the catering services firms and the construction workers, who should be preparing to work on capital investment projects at our airports in the coming months but capital budgets have evaporated. They now face a bleak year ahead. The entire future of individual UK airlines is now under threat, and of course there is the broader issue of the impact on the aerospace sector as a whole.
We all accept that there was no way this pandemic could have passed without a major impact on aviation, but taking every step we can to mitigate that impact has been, should be, and must now be a national priority. However, as a loyal supporter of the Government who is sympathetic to them about the challenge they are trying to deal with, I must say that it does not feel like that at the moment. Public Health England, for example, produced what can only be described as highly questionable figures to justify the current restrictions. Only a couple of weeks ago, a Government Minister told the House of Lords that it is the view of the chief medical officer that travel is not a priority.
Although I really do understand the huge challenges that our medical community is facing, and they are doing a fantastic job in dealing with this pandemic, I fundamentally disagree with their view on this point about the sector. I urge the Government to change tack, to make at least the start of the reopening of our aviation sector an absolute priority and to use all the tools at their disposal to do so. That does not mean a mass opening of borders overnight, nor an instant return to mass holidays, but it does mean making a rapid move to restart key economic routes and to allow the return of travel without unnecessary restrictions to low-risk destinations.
The first key step that must be taken is to replicate what other countries are doing on testing. The current UK rules are simply too restrictive for low-risk destinations. I very much hope that the reports in the media about a reduction of the two-week quarantine rules are correct, but a decision to travel that still includes a period of several days when someone cannot leave their home, makes an important business trip, a short family holiday or a visit to an elderly relative in another country extremely difficult. Other countries are not asking for the same period of isolation.
I applaud my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary for the work he has done in expanding our test capabilities to the extent he has; it has been a phenomenal achievement and he deserves huge personal credit for that expansion. We have now by far the largest testing capability and the broadest range of testing capacity in Europe—well done. But if we can test the whole population of Liverpool quickly and effectively, why can we not open a handful of key economic routes quickly using those same technologies?
Why can we not reopen routes to New York and Washington, for example, setting aside the quarantine rules for those people who travel those routes and test negatively? Those are blue-chip routes for our industry; they deliver the highest level of profits and they are particularly vital for our economy. Are we really going to be putting the health of the country at risk by introducing the same kind of test rules that exist in other countries today and putting the same measures in place for those key routes?
Sir Edward, you or I could fly to Madeira tomorrow, taking with us a 72-hour-old test certificate. We would be allowed to enter the country freely, travel around and enjoy our visit. There is not a massive epidemic of the virus in Madeira. Why can we not apply the same rules for those key international destinations here?
The industry is starting to take steps itself. Heathrow airport, for example, is now providing travel to destinations such as Hong Kong, Cairo, Bahrain, the Seychelles, Japan, Italy and South Africa and pre-departure testing at the airport. The average turnaround time for test results is 67 minutes, and travellers have a certificate they can take with them to prove they have tested negative that same day.
British Airways is showing how it could be done on transatlantic routes by starting voluntary testing on key routes to the United States. Why not make those approaches official? Does anybody seriously think that that would be a less effective way of screening for risk than the current system, when it is patently clear, I am afraid, that many people are not following the self-isolation rules anyway? Allowing testing and restriction-free entry to the UK for those with negative results could unlock key routes and start the long rebuild of this vital industry.
I am not going to speak for long because many people want to contribute, but my message to the Minister is very simple; I also have one for the industry itself. Introducing airport testing and accepting a risk-based approach—which all the evidence suggests is low—is the easiest way to rebuild confidence in the airline industry and save jobs. That is the crucial piece: ultimately, the issue is about the welfare and employment of our fellow citizens. It is vital that we do this. Are we really going to continue to stand aside while entire airports risk closure and entire airlines risk disappearing? We have to act, and act now.
There is another issue for us as a Government and a nation. The first of January marks our first day outside the ambit of the European Union. The transition period will have ended and the post-Brexit world will begin—whatever the result of the negotiations. On the first day of global Britain, will there really be only three planes in the sky over the south-east of England? Will our global hub airport, and airports such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Bristol, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Cardiff, all be operating at a tiny fraction of their capacity? These are our global connections and have to be back in place for Britain in a global world post Brexit. For the sake of our economy, jobs and future role in that post-Brexit world, my message to Ministers is to make airport testing, and the flexibility that should come with it, the urgent priority that it should be.
One final word for the industry is that recovery must come and we have to do everything we can to make sure that it does, but it has to come with an eye for the future. I want to see that Plane Finder app full again, but aviation must rebuild with a focus on the environment as well. There is no magic technology solution that will make it a net-zero sector by 2050, although I welcome today’s announcements about support for improved technology in the sector.
I am hopeful that, before too long, hydrogen will power some short-haul planes, that all airports will have electric and hydrogen vehicles on their entire premises and that new technology for engines will continue to bring down emissions. I also believe that the industry needs to strengthen its offsetting strategy further to reduce its environmental impact. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, was a start, but is a long way from what is needed and is too remote a concept for consumers starting to worry about whether they can, or should, fly in the future. That is a big item on the agenda for the industry.
Immediately and over the next few weeks, the priority has to be getting planes flying again; the environmental strategy is a challenge we should be thinking about now, but the priority is that. That first task lies with the Government. My message to the Minister, to the great team at my old Department and particularly to the Department of Health is that we need airport testing and a regime that allows the industry to start to recover. Quarantine is killing it, and it will kill the first few months of global Britain. Things have to change, and they have to start changing right now.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for bringing this topic to the floor today.
I would like to focus on a number of areas. Aviation is a wide area; it is not just about airports and passengers—there is also the manufacturing end. It is vital that we look after that and get the planes flying. Otherwise, our manufacturing industry will collapse. Northern Ireland depends heavily on one of our major manufacturers. That company employs many in the aviation industry, but it depends on planes being built and sold. That is vital.
There are many areas to look at. One is connectivity, not just with the wider world but regional connectivity. Northern Ireland is suffering at present with a reduction in the number of flights we can get. There is even difficulty in coming to London, our capital city. We used to have five or six flights a day coming out of the international airport to Gatwick, but that has been rationalised down to four a week. Those numbers make it difficult to grow business.
There is good news in relation to a vaccine and trying to bring back some confidence to the public when it comes to making use of flying. Flights could go ahead safely if we can get people vaccinated to ensure that it is safe to fly. Many within the industry have done everything asked of them to try to encourage people on to planes. Unfortunately, sometimes the Government have not moved with the industry when it has made recommendations about what can be done, and it has had to take measures itself.
One tool vitally important from a Northern Ireland perspective is air passenger duty. A study by York Aviation on the removal of APD at a national level showed how that would be of benefit: it could save 130 routes that might otherwise be lost. The cost to the Exchequer would not be exorbitant—in fact, 3.3 times gross value added would be created by reducing the duty, given the increase in those who would travel. APD costs an additional £13 on every flight from Belfast to Bristol. When flying to Dublin, we would not see that because Dublin has been very active in reducing APD and encouraging people to use flights.
Interestingly, the Republic of Ireland Government made an announcement about injecting €80 million into the aviation sector—in a country with a population of about 4.5 to 5 million people. That is their predatory approach to sucking the life out of the aviation industry in Northern Ireland. We really need to wake up to that and see how we can put measures in place to ensure that, after the pandemic, we have an industry that is still vibrant and one that people will be willing to use.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important debate on the future of aviation—an issue that the negative impact of the covid-19 pandemic has put into even starker relief.
I have the privilege of representing Gatwick airport, which is in my constituency, and it is truly suffering as a result of the pandemic’s impact. I established, and am honoured to chair, the all-party parliamentary group on the future of aviation because the issue has not only had a devastating impact on my local community; it is, as my right hon. Friend said, of vital importance for the whole UK economy. Before the pandemic, aviation accounted for about 4.5% of UK GDP and, as he also said, many hundreds of thousands of people are employed directly in the sector and more widely as well.
Business at Gatwick airport has reduced by more than 61% since the start of the pandemic. In August—its peak time—when it would normally have more than 5 million throughput passengers, it had fewer than 1 million. Some 40% of jobs have been lost, as they have been at some of the airlines that operate from the airport, such as Virgin Atlantic, which is headquartered in my constituency, and easyJet, whose largest centre of operations is there too.
That is why I very much echo the solutions to deal with this unprecedented challenge. I do not think anybody doubts the sincerity of the Government and the incredible challenge that they face in these unprecedented circumstances. We need to move from quarantine, which was a natural response in the early days, to a testing regime. Our competitors, such as Germany and France and, further afield, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, are testing, which is putting the UK aviation industry and business more widely at a competitive disadvantage.
Last week in the House of Commons, I asked for the global travel taskforce, which the Prime Minister rightly established, to report as soon as possible. I hope that testing will be part of that. Anything that requires a quarantine of more than three days effectively means that travel does not happen in any meaningful sense.
I echo the remarks about air passenger duty. We charge the highest air passenger duty anywhere in the developed world—twice as much as some of our competitors such as Germany. Many of our competitors do not charge any at all. We need that to be reduced or, indeed, scrapped for at least the year to come, and, I would argue, for longer still.
Business rates relief is important. In England, airports should be subject to business rates relief. Gatwick airport is operating only from the north terminal. The south terminal is completely shut down, but it is still paying business rates on that. I echo what the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell have said about building back better and greener. I welcome the UK aviation industry’s commitment before the covid-19 pandemic to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, and the Jet Zero Council. If we invest in technologies such as hydrogen, we can build back better, greener and more sustainably, which is good for our economy and contributes to the global environmental effort.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this timely debate.
I completely agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said about testing and the opportunity for testing at scale at our airports. He focused on long-haul routes, but on the routes that serve my constituency in the northern isles, it could be even more transformative. If we as an island community with few points of entry, and much lower rates of infection at the moment, could allow people in and out with confidence, it would be of enormous assistance. I very much hope that his words and mine will be heard in the parts of Government here and in Edinburgh where they need to be heard.
It is not rocket science; it is pretty straightforward. In an island community, if we get transport right, just about everything else—economic development, public services and the rest of it—falls into place. Aviation is critical, both within the islands to shift doctors, vets and teachers around the smaller island groups, and between the islands and mainland communities. Those are my principal areas of concern, but we need the same level of connectivity and interlining that other communities have. It is about us getting not just to Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow, but onwards to Heathrow or wherever else we may wish to go. For our businesses and communities, that connectivity is absolutely critical.
The situation facing Loganair, the operator of the lifeline services throughout the highlands and islands, is pretty serious at the moment. I should say parenthetically that I bow to nobody in my appreciation and admiration of the staff and management of Loganair, which just before the pandemic took on some of the Flybe routes, so it may soon be more familiar to other Members in this Chamber. I appreciate their professionalism and dedication and the approach they take to the business. They understand that they are there not just for an economic purpose, but for a social and community purpose. They are an exemplar for others, and a flying example of what corporate social responsibility means.
Loganair tells me that it faces a pretty bleak future. It has done well to provide a skeleton service throughout the lockdown, but as it looks towards bookings in quarter 1 of 2021, it sees very little to inspire confidence. It has the same fixed costs as all other airlines, including airport charges, standing charges and the cost of plane purchase and rental. Like other businesses it has the opportunity to put staff into furlough, but that is just part of the story.
In the Northern Isles, we are about to enter the third of three winters for our visitor economy. When we get to the end of the furlough period, at the end of March, we will be looking to open up and get our visitor economy going, because that is absolutely crucial to our running again. The availability of good, frequent, reliable air services in that time will be crucial.
On reliability, in the few seconds that remain to me, I place on the record yet again my exasperation at the fact that the Scottish Government, through Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, continue to insist on the removal of air traffic control officers from airports throughout the highlands and islands, to centralise them all in Inverness. The service is not just good but reliable, so that should be put on the back burner for the foreseeable future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I apologise for my lateness; I had to be in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important and timely debate. I will focus my remarks on aircraft manufacturing, as Filton in my constituency is at the heart of the UK’s Aerospace Centre of Excellence, which is in the south-west of England.
The south-west hosts one of the largest and most significant aerospace clusters in the UK, and the top 14 global aerospace companies have a significant presence in the region. Some 17,500 people work in the sector, which generates £1 billion annually for the greater south-west. That includes the wider supply chain and research work in local universities, such as the University of the West of England in my constituency.
We must not forget that the UK aerospace sector represents more than 110,000 jobs across the country. The aviation sector is worth £52 billion a year, which equates to almost 3.5% of the UK’s entire GDP. In 2019, the aerospace sector contributed £32 billion in exports to the economy. In my constituency well over 10,000 jobs directly depend on it, and many more are involved in the supply chain.
The challenges are clear. The aerospace industry has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, owing to the shutdown in global aviation. The sector has seen a contraction of 32% since February. Although UK GDP grew 15.5% between June and September, the aerospace industry saw only modest growth of 2.7%, which suggests that demand remains low, and that it will be one of the last sectors to recover. Manufacturers have therefore had to cut production rates significantly—by more than a third in some cases. Demand for new aircraft may not significantly increase until 2025 at the earliest, and possibly much later in the decade for long-haul aircraft. If aircraft are not being delivered, the industry will not be able to generate revenue and continue to invest in the technology, apprenticeships and jobs that we need to maintain the UK’s place in a very competitive global market.
The Government have given great support so far, which I welcome. The furlough scheme is now extended until March. There is support from the Bank of England’s corporate finance facility and funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute, which supports research and development. That sum is now approaching £9 billion.
Nearly 70 aircraft flown by UK-registered aircraft are more than 15 years old. They could be replaced by new aircraft that have better environmental standards and use at least 25% less energy. The Prime Minister announced the ambition that this country should be the first to build an all-electric commercial airliner. That will encourage the development of jet zero technology—a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. The Government should support the scrapping of those 70 aircraft, allowing manufacturers and designers to build newer aircraft, to protect jobs and skills for the future. I have also been working closely with the West of England Combined Authority and I applaud the action it has taken, under the leadership of Tim Bowles, to support the aerospace sector, with £5 million of funding for the digital engineering technology and innovation initiative—DETI—delivered with the National Composites Centre. The combined authority is supporting both initiatives as part of the regional recovery plan. It has pivoted to focus to ensure that it supports our recovery, accelerating access to skills and ensuring that our major industry can keep going.
Apprenticeships are a great way of providing high-skilled jobs and social mobility. The Government need to be a bit more flexible on the levy. Finally, we need to get aircraft flying back to more normal numbers and see the aerospace industry earning revenue again, or we risk losing the industry in this country and our world-renowned expertise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this debate on an industry that is vital to my constituents, thousands of whom work at Heathrow.
I want to make a few points. First, we urgently need a plan for aviation, including a plan for passenger testing, to help get planes flying safely, inbound and outbound. Secondly, we need a realistic, targeted support package to tackle the impact of the pandemic in the medium term on jobs, businesses and aviation communities. Thirdly, we need to plan for the future and invest more, not less, in the pace of decarbonisation in the sector.
In March, the Government promised a recovery plan for aviation. Eight months later, an integrated plan has not yet been published, while redundancies continue to rise. To help the industry recover as quickly as possible, we need a robust testing regime at our airports, which could reduce quarantine. Some welcome pilots are under way, which put public health first while taking advantage of swifter testing.
The Government have said that families will be able to fly abroad for Christmas with a new testing regime, but that is still six weeks away. United Airlines has already begun pilots on the London-New York route, but closer international working is needed. Are the Government planning to commit to a common international standard for health screening measures? The UK lags behind more than 30 countries around the globe that are doing more on aviation testing.
Getting planes flying safely will be key to saving jobs, including those that will be viable for the long term. We need more flexible and targeted schemes to keep people in work, and in their jobs, until aviation recovers. In Hounslow, we have seen devastating impacts. My constituency has the third-highest number of furloughed employments in the country, but 40,000 jobs are still at risk unless we see a recovery. I thank our unions and councillors, like Councillor Khulique Malik, who works at Heathrow, for the support that they have given the community at this time.
Businesses also need to work together for the long term. I am grateful to Unite for highlighting the imbalance of power that we are seeing at Heathrow. Heathrow Airport proposes changes that could see workers’ pay cut by £8,000 a year—equivalent to a 20% slash in salary. Heathrow workers are set to go on strike next month. Much more concerted dialogue with management is clearly needed.
The GMB, Prospect and Unite have been clear in their ask of Government to put forward an aviation-specific package, and they will contribute to the thinking that goes into it. Furlough has been welcome, but the job support scheme, as expected, was criticised as not workable for the aviation sector and aviation jobs, which involve more complex 24/7 shift-work patterns. More support for transition where jobs are lost in aviation communities is vital.
Finally, on plans for the future and decarbonisation, we know that progress on decarbonisation has been painfully slow. We welcome the jet zero plans and the work going on in government on the aviation sector in that regard. More of that will be debated at the important conference, which the Minister is aware of, hosted by West London Business this Friday on “reimagining our global hub”, looking to the future of aviation and transportation, and our leadership in the UK and across the world.
What incentives are required to drive the innovation essential to delivering a zero-carbon aviation, and how can we look to the longer-term infrastructure development, including Southern rail access to Heathrow? Supply chains also matter. That is why we need an integrated sector-based plan now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. It is good to see the Minister in his place; he visited Southampton airport within days of becoming the Minister, for which we are grateful. I will focus predominantly on Southampton airport this afternoon.
The pandemic has dealt the aviation sector a huge blow —Southampton airport, in my constituency, in particular. With airports predicted to lose around £4 billion by the end of 2020, and with possibly 20,000 jobs under threat, it is clear that a number of things need to be done urgently to support the sector. I want to raise two points in the short time that I have.
First, as has been discussed, we need a proper airport testing regime. The 14-day quarantine rules are inflexible and the process of setting up an airport testing regime is too slow. Airports are willing, but the speed of the Government response has hampered progress, and the delay in the committee’s reporting is regrettable. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, advice now needs to be re-examined to see how we can get that regime set up as quickly as possible, to unlock the industry.
Southampton airport has its own unique set of circumstances. With the collapse of Flybe, which represented 94% of all flights, and an application for a runway extension of 164 metres to allow larger planes to land, Southampton airport is now in a fight for survival. That situation could be exacerbated because any application, if refused, could take 18 months to appeal and any application, if successful, could be subject to judicial review.
The Minister and I have spoken about this before, but it seems bizarre to me that I can receive letters from the Cabinet Office for numerous special development orders being awarded for Brexit preparedness, but special development orders are not forthcoming or being examined by the Department for Transport or the Cabinet Office for a major regional airport like Southampton. I would ask the Minister to look for further advice on that as time goes on.
That brings me to my second and final point. I know that this is a Treasury issue and I know that the Minister is sitting on the Front Bench, but I would reinforce many of the comments made by other hon. Members: airports such as Southampton and Exeter, which are operating at 10% of the capacity of this time last year with the same running costs, are still paying the same business rates to local authorities and the Government while they are not operating at full capacity.
I really hope that the Minister will raise with the Treasury the prospect of extending the business rate relief that has been made available in the devolved Administrations. That would show some fairness in the industry and make a vital difference, going forward. Southampton is paying £1.5 million a year in business rates and it has not had that relief. For an airport that is fighting for survival, taking that figure off the balance sheet would be appreciated.
We have all acknowledged that the aviation industry is facing a fight, nowhere more than in Southampton. I am asking the Minister to speed up the support around testing and business rate relief to the industry, so that airports around the country such as Southampton can survive, and we can have a vibrant regional airport offer when the pandemic finishes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing today’s debate; I fully agree with much that he said.
With Heathrow in my constituency, I have a natural interest in protecting the livelihoods of my constituents who work at the airport and in the supply chain. Before I stood down as shadow Chancellor, one of the last conversations I had with the Chancellor was about securing an aviation strategy and bringing various partners in the sector together to do that. I regret that no effective co-ordinated strategy has been forthcoming, and in the absence of that strategy, we have seen the law of the jungle rule that sector. As a result, many of my constituents are experiencing real uncertainty, stress, distress and hardship, as they lose their jobs and have their wages cut.
Companies such as British Airways and Heathrow Airport Ltd have seen the pandemic as a crisis not to be wasted—an opportunity to secure long-held ambitions to reduce wage levels and withdraw hard-won benefits in the terms of employment secured in negotiations over the years. Many employees feel as though they have been treated like chattels rather than loyal employees for decades.
Although the pandemic might be with us for the next year in some form, with the potential of effective vaccines in sight, covid is likely to have a relatively temporary effect. That is why the aviation trade unions were willing —indeed, proposed—temporary measures, including temporary reductions in wages and job numbers to tide us through the pandemic. Instead, Heathrow Airport Ltd and British Airways are demanding permanent pay cuts and the permanent erosion of conditions of employment. That has provoked palpable anger among workers at Heathrow. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) said, we now face a strike before Christmas, which would not be necessary if management recognised their responsibilities.
Whether it is Heathrow’s brutal treatment of my constituents or Rolls-Royce’s appalling treatment of the Barnoldswick community, we must all call upon these companies to withdraw their threats to their employees and get back round the table to negotiate a sensible way forward. We also now need the Government to live up to their responsibilities to bring together all the partners in the sector, employers and trade unions, and then bring forward a programme for the immediate and long-term future of aviation. It should include the support that airport and aviation communities need immediately. I think there is a consensus building on many of the measures that hon. Members have set out today, but there also needs to be support as part of the just transition to an environmental aviation policy. That will mean, in some instances, ongoing financial wage support and retraining and educational opportunities to assist people into alternative employment, and, in my constituency, investment in the west London area to rebalance our economy for the long term. What we need, in short, is an aviation community strategy.
I feel a sense of desperation among my community about what is happening to them at the moment. I believe that desperation will feed through, unfortunately, into internal levels of distress. We are already seeing a rise in mental health problems within our community now, and we need action from the Government. Eight months on, after first mooting an aviation strategy, now is the time for further—and decisive—action from the Government.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing the debate. Planes transporting people to places across the UK, Europe and further afield have been a regular sight in the skies above East Devon for decades. Earlier today, I checked the number of arrivals and departures at Exeter airport. There were no flights and no connections. Passenger numbers have dropped by 95%. That should be a stark wake-up call for the levelling-up agenda. We cannot level up every region of the country if we level off regional aviation.
Everyone who flies to and from Exeter airport contributes to our local economy. Many of the remaining jobs at the airport are highly skilled, retaining local talent and bringing investment to our area. The current problems faced by the aviation sector are not solely issues stemming from the pandemic; they have firm roots in the consolidation of airport slots in London and the south-east. The lack of capacity at major hub airports in the UK and the air passenger duty regime penalise domestic air travel. Air passenger duty needs to be reformed to give the smaller, regional airlines mentioned in this debate a lifeline, and to help new, rebranded airlines such as Flybe, to get back in business.
I have repeatedly called for the Government to scrap business rates for airports for 12 months—a call that I have heard again this afternoon. It feels like groundhog day for me. I cannot fathom why my call remains unanswered. It would cost £680,000 to scrap Exeter airport’s business rates bill for a year—a drop in the ocean compared with the business rates bills for major supermarket chains, for example. I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions last week. The Prime Minister confirmed that the Department for Transport is looking at bespoke support for particular regional airports, to keep them going in these tough times. I support that move; I just hope it is not too late.
Regardless of whether additional support is forthcoming, it will take time for passenger confidence to return. The global testing taskforce is working with the industry on solutions to safely reduce self-isolation periods with testing. Hundreds of thousands of jobs at airports, airlines, travel agents and many more businesses depend on solutions that were needed yesterday. We all recognise the need for a cleaner, greener aviation industry, but we need the industry’s jobs and expertise to help deliver that aim. I fear that without further support for the aviation sector, that hope, those jobs and our regional airports remain at risk on our watch.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing the debate.
We in Luton are proud of our airport and its aviation industry. Thousands of local jobs depend on the airport and its supply chain, but the industry has been hit by a double whammy. Coronavirus has taken foreign travel off the table for millions of people and, coupled with the Government’s unforgivable lack of sector-specific support for workers and the industry, that risks ripping the heart out of my town’s economy.
It is not just pesky Labour MPs on this side of the Chamber who are crying out for support, but the industry, workers, charities in Luton who rely on our airport’s support, and Luton council, which is intrinsically linked with the airport. We in airport towns are all worried about what will be left for our constituents and their jobs in 12 to 18 months’ time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and I have raised the issues faced by aviation workers in our town whenever we have been able to—we will never stop fighting to save the jobs of the people who we represent. Every time, however, we have received the same stock answer, which I am sure the Minister has in front of him again: the Government
“have confirmed that we are prepared to enter discussions with individual companies seeking bespoke support as a last resort, having exhausted all other options.”
I am pretty sure that everyone in the room has received that response. Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place and how many jobs have they saved? What are the criteria? Have any green commitments been secured for that support?
Does saving thousands of jobs not represent value for taxpayers’ money? Is this about saving the jobs of my constituents or saving the pay checks of their bosses? How many more times will those of us in the Chamber with airports in their constituencies have to come here to ask the Government to support the industry, as the Governments of France, Germany and Spain have done, only to receive platitudes but no action?
The Government should know full well that this is exactly the sort of behaviour from politicians that the public hate: all talk, no action. In fact, despite the Government’s promises to do whatever it takes to get people through covid, they clearly have a blind spot when it comes to airport workers and airlines. Where is the response to job losses in Luton? Where is the plan for testing at airports, for which the industry has been crying out for months? The Government’s travel corridor policy is failing.
There is still time for the Minister to prove me wrong, and I hope that he does. I hope that he acts to save thousands of jobs in my town of Luton and in all the towns represented here today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing this important debate. I congratulate the Minister on his role—I listened to his first speech at the Despatch Box, and wish him a long and successful career on the Front Benches. Today, the privilege is all mine.
I am lucky enough to be the Member of Parliament for the constituency that is home to Birmingham airport. It is often referred to as a regional airport, but it is actually a global hub. It is the single greatest economic asset that we have in the west midlands. To understand its importance, we must understand its context and the cost of losing it.
It is no secret that we in the west midlands were experiencing an economic renaissance pre-covid. The airport, and therefore my constituency, were and are right at the heart of that. In normal times, the net impact of the airport is about £1.5 billion of gross value added, and it is responsible for 31,000 jobs. Those figures were set to rise to £2.1 billion and 34,500 respectively by 2033. Our region has consistently had a trade surplus with the United States and is the only region in the country to have a trade surplus with China.
Pre-covid, 35 airlines flew all over the world from the airport, which served around 13 million passengers and was set to serve 18 million by 2033. In short, the airport is a key economic accelerator for the region, providing the air connectivity that is vital to the expansion of international trade, investment and employment, and to the growth of inbound tourism and outbound leisure destinations.
Covid, however, has been absolutely devasting. The number of airlines operating out of the airport has been greatly reduced. Since March, about 800,000 passengers have been through the airport and the current lockdown has, of course, prevented the airport from staging a recovery. The Government have made significant steps through the job retention scheme and that has obviously been helpful, especially because recruitment in the aviation sector is so difficult: that takes time, especially with helping the workforce maintain security credentials.
As we have heard, the need to protect our aviation sector is more acute than it has ever been. Many of our airports have fixed costs such as security and rates, as we heard. My airport pays about £5.6 million a year. There is also air traffic control. I ask the Minister to do everything he can to help find innovative solutions to support our airports, whether it be business rates relief working with colleagues in the Treasury, or a testing regime that protects passengers and the UK without disincentivising travel to the UK. That is all important because of what our airports represent. They are more than just buildings, hangars and hubs for big flying buses, they are communities, supply chains and jobs. They represent our vision as a nation, our ambition, and our dreams. They represent how we see ourselves and our place in the world. As we see light at the end of this long covid tunnel with vaccines and faster testing, we will be able to start that long but necessary journey to recovery. I promise to work with the Minister to help our aviation sector get back on its feet, and I encourage him to do so.
I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing a debate on such an important issue. It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti).
In March, the Government promised an aviation plan. We have had a change of minister, but eight months later—with redundancies rising and the widespread use of abhorrent employment practices—we are still waiting for the plan. I ask the Minister this: when will the plan be published? Among all the uncertainty, the aviation industry has adopted some absolutely abhorrent employment practices which I and many others believe should be banned in the UK, namely “fire and rehire”.
As a member of the Transport Select Committee, I have had the opportunity—as have other colleagues here today—to question Mr Álex Cruz, who was chief executive of British Airways until recently. The initial pandemic response of British Airways was to threaten to fire all of its 42,000 staff and rehire about 30,000 of them on permanently reduced terms. The inferior terms and conditions left some workers facing huge wage cuts of between 55% and 75%. In his evidence, Mr Cruz reassured the Transport Select Committee that an agreement had been reached with the unions, and that there would be no need to issue new contracts. Frankly, I believe Mr Cruz misled the Committee, because 850 British Airways cargo workers forced to sign new contracts or be fired have received pay cuts of 25%. British Airways have threatened to outsource that part of their business, while attempting to renegotiate and weaken the collective bargaining agreement with Unite. In response to that, those staff will start balloting for strike action tomorrow, I believe, and I stand with them in solidarity as a member of Unite the union against the imposition of drastic cuts to their wages and living standards.
I ask the Minister, who previously served as a colleague on the Transport Select Committee chaired by his Conservative colleague and my friend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) this: does he agree that the Government should seek to minimise job losses in aviation while protecting pay and employment rights? I sympathise with the aviation industry: it has been hit hardest by covid and has been left in uncertainty. Loyal and skilled staff should not, however, pay the price for Government failure and the pandemic, and the disgraceful practice of “fire and rehire” must be banned.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for bringing the debate. I also thank the Minister for listening to our reasons, and for meeting me late last week on this subject and for the support he is giving us. I wrote a longer speech, but I have decided not to read it as the last time I wrote a long speech I missed the ending, which was the main ask. I am going to start with the asks first, and if I overrun it does not matter too much, does it? The asks are for regional airports to be helped with business rates, because they are struggling and that would help, and for the Minister to continue speaking to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about the testing that is desperately needed at airports. If we can get testing sorted out at airports, then we can get planes in the sky again.
Now for the reasons why. The airport industry in the UK is the third largest aviation industry in the world, and it is super important. It is 4.5% of our GDP. It is a great industry within our country, but it is struggling. Doncaster Sheffield Airport in Don Valley, which I represent, is no exception to that and it is really struggling. It is a shame because it has fantastic potential. Only a month ago, Wizz Air made Doncaster Sheffield Airport the second place to fly their planes from. They have two aircraft there and I went to the usual MP’s ceremonial ribbon-cutting event. It was wonderful to be there, only for us to go into lockdown a fortnight later, which made things really difficult.
I know it is not the Government’s fault and I have been a big fan of what the Government have done. The furlough scheme has been fantastic and has helped a lot of industries, including the airline industry. I am sure the Minister knows, but I want to get over to him how important the industry is, how important Doncaster Sheffield Airport is to Don Valley, and Doncaster as a whole, and how important it is for the country as we come out of covid. We would be grateful for anything that he can do to help this industry.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. It is surprising that we have to have a debate on this issue, so long after the problems in the aviation and the aerospace industry were apparent.
It was clear from the first day of this crisis that here was an industry that required specific attention to be given to it. We have had a strategy for the hospitality industry, but we are still struggling with a response for an industry that is important for regional connectivity, investment in regional economies, businesses in regional economies and trade, because a lot of trade is now carried in passenger planes.
In highlighting the problems with the aviation industry, it would be remiss if I were not to mention that some of the responses from the industry itself have been less than satisfactory, especially the way in which it has treated some of its employees through hire-and-fire schemes. It would be wrong if we did not mention the impact that has had on many loyal workers.
A number of issues have been mentioned today, but I want to highlight three things to the Minister. First, there is the need to give people the confidence to get back into planes, so that we do not have to keep giving bail-outs to airlines or airports. We have had a good discussion about the testing regime that is required and what is needed to put that in place. I hope the Government will look at that as a priority.
Secondly, I want to highlight how we encourage people not only to have the confidence, but to get moving back into the aviation industry. I know it is not the Minister’s remit, but, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) pointed out, a substantial piece of work has been done on the impact that a temporary reduction in air passenger duty would have on getting people flying again. The Government’s argument has always been that that is costly, but given the fall in numbers at present there is not a great deal of revenue coming from air passenger duty anyway. If we can get people flying again, get the country connected and get airlines moving, that is a bonus.
The last point I want to make is about duty-free shopping. It is surprising that at a time when airports have problems tax-free and duty-free shopping has been removed. It is a major revenue raiser and in Northern Ireland there will be nothing in those airports. I should like the Minister to address that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing the debate. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) is right: we have been here before. I remember my right hon. Friend saying, in a debate on, I think, the Minister’s second day in his job, that he had not intended to speak about areas of his old portfolio, but that he was driven to do it by the plight of the aviation sector. Yet here, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we still are.
It is right for us to recap the matter. Looking at aviation from the UK perspective, we have the largest aviation network in the Europe and the third largest in the world, contributing £22 billion to the UK economy. It employs—or employed—230,000 people with employment for an extra five people created off the back of each one of those workers. We have been a leader and a success story in aviation, but from there we have gone to being a laggard at opening up our skies again and getting passengers flying. That is what the aviation industry needs.
When the Transport Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, delivered a report on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation sector, we called for financial support measures for the aviation industry, but we can see that there is pent-up demand. When the air bridge was opened up to the Canaries, bookings went up by 112%. Unfortunately, that was a few weeks before the November restrictions, so they collapsed again, but it shows that the demand is there, if only we can find a testing mechanism to allow passengers to fly with confidence.
It is not as if that mechanism is not out there. I received a spreadsheet from an aviation company: I would call it a spreadsheet of shame for the Government. It showed 30 countries that have already delivered testing, either before the passenger reaches the airport that they are going to transfer to, or once they have arrived. If those other countries can demonstrate, with science, that that can be done safely, why on earth can the UK not do the same thing, when we have been the leaders and pioneers in aviation? That is absolutely what is required.
The Minister, for whom I have much respect, was a member of the Select Committee so I know that he is passionate about the issue and that he believes in what I am setting out. My big question is whether No. 10 and No. 11 are really listening. The combined Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Transport aviation taskforce was supposed to report to No. 10 by the end of October with a proposal for bringing in testing. I do not believe that it did so. We still have not heard anything and while we cannot do anything right now, during November, there is so much negativity that we need to show real signs of opening. Perhaps the Minister can pass on that I would like No. 10 to ensure we get early indications of what the testing mechanism would be. Let us unlock our skies again. The industry is a great one, and it needs to come back with Government policy and support.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing this important and timely debate. I also thank the Unite and GMB unions for campaigning so passionately and effectively on the issue, since the covid pandemic began, to safeguard the future of all those working in the aviation sector. As many colleagues have said, the livelihoods of 230,000 people employed in the sector—the third largest in the world and the biggest in Europe—are threatened. To challenge, slightly, something that was said by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who chairs the Transport Committee of which I am a member, the sector actually contributes £28 billion to the economy.
That is why it is astounding that eight months since the Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box and promised a financial support package for the aviation sector, that has yet to be delivered in a substantive way. In that time we have had wave after wave of redundancies, despite the furlough scheme, and one airport operator even described that as little more than a drop in the ocean in relation to fixed costs. The Government’s failure to provide the rescue package has meant such disgraces as the 13,000 redundancies at British Airways, and the firing and rehiring—things that are totally out of step with British values and the way our companies should behave. That is why the Transport Committee report damningly branded British Airways a “national disgrace” for its behaviour. The Committee Chair spoke of standards falling “well below” those expected of an employer.
It is simply unacceptable that the Government have not stepped in to do more to drive this level of change. For the Government to stand by when companies take advantage of these situations is deeply frustrating, because we know that there are options on the table that could be taken, such as prioritising loans or taking stakes in companies. Businesses that receive such support should then be prohibited from paying dividends, undertaking share buybacks or making capital contributions—potentially, even executive pay could be capped. We need to show that the needs of ordinary British workers are the priority for this Government and our country.
There are many examples from around the world of Governments backing the aviation industry. The US injected $45 billion into the sector. Another good example is France, where Macron’s Government unveiled a series of historic rescue packages but also put in place important mechanisms to tie parts of those packages to very clear decisions that airline bosses had to make to bring forward plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, to transform the fleet and to treat their staff, including their long-term employees, far better. By the way, it is vital that such efforts to tackle climate change are not lost while all the focus is on retaining jobs.
Consideration should be given to publicly financing smaller airports—there are many near me, such as City airport—and air traffic control, as well as specific routes within the UK’s aviation sector. Time is running out, and the Government really must act now.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing what has been an interesting and very welcome debate. I agree with a huge amount of what was has been said by Members from all parties.
The stark truth is straightforward and simple: the UK Government have essentially abandoned the aviation sector to its fate. To be clear, when I refer to the aviation sector, I include its large and varied supply chain, including the strategically important aerospace sector. I say “abandoned” because the Government appeared at the start of the pandemic to be in lockstep with the industry. The Secretary of State for Transport came to the Dispatch Box and said that he had saved Flybe; the Chancellor promised back in March that there would be sector-specific support for the aviation industry; and the Secretary of State stood in the same hotel ballroom as myself and the Minister’s predecessor, looked industry representatives in the eye, and said:
“I understand the enormity of what you are facing, and this Government will stand by your side.”
The new Minister—he is still relatively new, but he has an extremely difficult job to repair broken relationships and a near-broken industry—is not responsible for making any of those promises, but he is now responsible for trying to deliver on them. I know what he will say in his closing remarks about the aviation sector having had access to x millions, loan-funding from the Treasury and, of course, access to the furlough scheme, but that is not enough and it is not what was promised. How many jobs in the sector might have been saved if the Chancellor had been clear from the start that furlough would continue throughout the winter period, as many of us had called for? We will never know.
Going into this crisis, the UK had the third biggest aviation sector in the world. I would be very surprised if we come out of it in the same lofty position, such has been the difference in the levels of support given to the sector by other Governments across the world. Plenty of other countries recognise the massive and strategic importance of the sector, including the Scottish Government, which rolled out support including full business rates relief for a full year. I know that many in this Chamber have called for that to be replicated in England. The Scottish Government have also worked with Highlands and Islands Airports to invest in infra- structure and economic stimulus as we come out of the pandemic, and they have worked with the aerospace response group, industry and trade unions to preserve aerospace, manufacturing and related sectors—protecting jobs in the short term, while expanding in the long term.
However, the blunt fact is that the Scottish Government have gone just about as far as they can with the limited powers they have. I know that the Prime Minister thinks devolution is “a disaster”, but it is a fact, and the fact is that the UK Government hold the bulk of the powers—legal and financial—that can make a difference in the aviation industry.
Instead, we have seen the Government watch as the aviation industry teeters on the edge of a cliff, and then give it a shove, with their baffling decision—I accept that it is not a Department for Transport decision—to propose scrapping the VAT retail export scheme and the airside extra-statutory concession scheme. In combination, those schemes created thousands of jobs, not only at the airports themselves but in retailers across the country.
For Glasgow, the airside concession is worth £8.6 million in revenue, which will now be lost, and 170 retail jobs will be put at risk, at a time when between 1,500 and 2,000 of the 5,000 jobs based at Glasgow airport have either gone or are under threat. Across the UK, the scrapping of both schemes is estimated to cause £1.5 billion of losses at a time when the industry is on its knees. It is beyond irresponsible to slash one of the few remaining income streams that offers a glimmer of hope for many airports. I hope the Treasury sees sense and reverses course in the coming weeks, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is lobbying the Treasury to do just that.
That is not to say that I think all parts of the aviation industry have been behaving entirely reasonably. It would not be a speech of mine if it did not mention fire and rehire; I agree wholeheartedly with every single word that the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), my colleague on the Transport Committee, said on the issue, and for that reason I will curtail my remarks—not least because I spoke for 15 minutes on the issue yesterday in a debate that I secured.
When I come out in public to support the industry, it makes my life and the lives of everybody else who advocates for it much more difficult when companies such as Menzies Aviation and, of course, British Airways engage in such disreputable behaviour against their own staff. I would have little objection to making Government support conditional on those companies’ complying with the idea that they must treat their staff with dignity and respect, instead of working out the cheapest way to shove them out the door. I again ask another Government Minister, in his closing remarks, to confirm whether he thinks the practice of firing and rehiring should be legal and whether he thinks action should be taken.
While passenger numbers have recovered slightly over recent months, even the latest statistics from August show the scale of the challenges now and for the immediate future: Exeter, Cardiff, Norwich and Southampton are all down more than 90%, Glasgow is down 82% and Edinburgh is down 79%. The best-performing airports are those that provide a lifeline service such as the Isles of Scilly or Tiree, but even their passenger numbers are down significantly. If action is not taken soon, we face a crisis of connectivity, threatening not just regional airports, but rural communities for whom air service is essential. That would be an economic disaster not only for the communities served by those airports, but nationally: regional aviation is worth £4 billion to the Scottish economy, which is the same as its value in London.
In September, the First Ministers of the devolved Administrations—before the Prime Minister decided devolution was a disaster—jointly wrote to him asking for urgent intervention to support the aviation and aerospace sector. I am interested to know whether the Minister can confirm that they have even received a response. Certainly we have heard nothing publicly from the Prime Minister or his colleagues on what he and the Government intend to do to preserve a sector that is fundamental to what is left of our manufacturing base.
My constituency has already seen that base butchered, with 700 jobs axed at Rolls-Royce in Inchinnan and the remaining 600 or so of the workforce deeply anxious about the plant’s very future. The Government’s response in my Rolls-Royce debate was to commend the company for carrying out redundancies voluntarily rather than by compulsion. Our workers and our industry deserve a lot better than that. The Scottish Government continue to try their level best to support the sector, which also includes companies such as Spirit AeroSystems and GE, among many others. I mentioned earlier that there is an aerospace response group that meets fortnightly, but there is also a separate specific Rolls-Royce working group, which includes the company itself, trade unions, a Government Minister and officials.
Over the past 20 years, the UK proportion of the Rolls-Royce global workforce has been slashed. In the year 2000, 43,700 out of 53,000, or 82%, were based in the UK; with the latest job cuts in the system, that figure is now down to 17,000 out of 46,500, or 36%. Over the past decade and more, the UK Government have funded Rolls to the tune of well over £3 billion, and around 12% of Rolls-Royce profits have been generated as a result of UK Government grants and tax breaks. I do not mind the Government’s supporting companies such as Rolls-Royce—in fact, I welcome it—but the Government must exert a bit more influence on this offshoring issue if they are to continue to support the business so well.
It would be remiss of me not to mention climate change and its impact on the sector before I conclude. There is some great work being done by many in this area, including by the FlyZero project and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Given the perilous financial state of the aviation and aerospace sectors, I have some concerns that, without more Government support, the UK will struggle to maintain its position as a global leader in this field. I echo calls for increased funding for the institute itself and towards developing and manufacturing sustainable fuels. Much as I have urged the Government to increase incentives for motorists to switch to ultra-low emission vehicles, I also ask them to consider a scrappage scheme for older aircraft, which would have the double benefit of decreasing carbon emissions and providing a needed boost to our aerospace sector.
In previous debates on aviation during the pandemic, I have asked the Government to act and said that it was not too late to intervene; I fear that we are rapidly approaching the point when it will be too late. It is time for the Government to act, and to act now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It is normal to thank the Member who secured the debate, but I have to apologise to the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) instead. When he was Secretary of State for Transport, I asked him on the Floor of the House what first attracted him to build a high-speed line from his home in the south-east of England to his season ticket seat at his beloved Old Trafford in Manchester. That is the last time I will be flippant today.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this much-needed debate. It was entitled “Aviation Industry”, but that is the last thing we have talked about—we have talked about the pandemic. I would love to discuss how the sector could evolve to honour our commitments to the Paris agreement; to investigate the scope for even more highly skilled, highly unionised jobs; to discuss airspace modernisation, which is needed in this country; and to talk about how Britain can continue to be a leader of nations. Frankly, there will be no aviation sector in the UK if the Government do not get a grip of the pandemic and provide the appropriate and necessary support that the business needs.
As has been pointed out, the UK is already a world-class leader in aviation. The Prime Minister wants to look for new world-class industries—that is great, but my advice would be to protect the ones we have first. During the first four months of the pandemic, there were 99% fewer passengers. The current lockdown measures mean that, again, many airports are experiencing zero scheduled passenger arrivals or departures. Many hon. Members have defended their airports today. If airports are not turning over a million passengers, they are not really making a profit, so national infrastructure could be wiped out over the next few months if we do not do something.
Before the introduction of the second lockdown, UK airports were already projected to lose at least £4 billion by the end of the year. There will clearly be consequences such as shorter operating hours, fewer routes, long-term job losses and the risk that some airports may close their doors for good. UK aviation has now faced nine months of losses. While the rest of the economy began to open during the summer and early autumn, international quarantine measures prevented air travel from reopening and destroyed consumer confidence in flying.
Decisions such as letting all those people in in the first place, then introducing a global travel ban, and now the hammer of quarantine are killing the industry. The Department for Transport has to talk to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has to talk to the Department for Transport. They both have to talk to the Home Office at the same time. We need a co-ordinated approach from the Government.
Emerging from the most drastic and sustained reduction in passenger numbers that the aviation system has ever seen, UK airports are in a critically poor state to perform their role as enablers of growth and prosperity. A few weeks ago, there was a story about geological activity in another Icelandic volcano. A decade ago, the ash cloud shutdown was over in less than a week and cost the sector more than £1 billion. A new eruption would not do anywhere near the lasting damage that the Government are currently doing by not intervening in the aviation sector.
Aviation sustains 1.6 million jobs around the country. The International Air Transport Association tells us that 300,000 jobs are at imminent risk. The biggest impact of the failing industry will be in local airport communities such as Hounslow, Luton, Crawley, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds—so much for the levelling-up agenda in our country. Those communities have grown dependent on their airports, which drive much of the local economy. Heathrow is famously the biggest business rates payer in Europe. As has been pointed out, in England and Wales, the Government have refused to give the resources and business rates relief to airports bleeding cash, as has happened in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The sector brings £22 billion a year into the economy and is a critical part of its fabric. We have all seen the impact of cuts and what they have meant for staff, with some 4,500 jobs lost at easyJet; bases closing at Newcastle, Stansted and Southend; 12,000 job losses at British Airways; 3,000 jobs lost at Ryanair; 4,500 jobs lost at Virgin Atlantic; and more job losses at Heathrow, Manchester, Gatwick, Stansted and our smaller regional airports. The country cannot get back to economic health if we erode the foundations of our economy.
It appears that everybody is calling for a sector deal for aviation. It was not that long ago that the Chancellor reflected that the Government would have to make such an intervention. We are led to believe that there was a sectoral deal ready. I have also asked the Minister about that at the Dispatch Box. Where is the plan that we are all expecting?
This has been a terrific debate and I pay tribute to Members who have participated. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) spoke eloquently about regional connectivity and the importance of airways to Northern Ireland. I disagree on everything politically with the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), except aviation and the respective Chagossian communities that serve our airports, which is Manchester in my constituency.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), because I spend most of my holidays there. The sooner we get connectivity up and running, the better for me and my wife. As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) pointed out, the aerospace sector in Bristol is dependent on getting aviation running. There were Members who supported Heathrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) made an eloquent speech. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) defended Southampton airport.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a really good political point. He knows that my politics is about human dignity. We undermine people’s human dignity when we cut their terms and conditions in the face of a pandemic, when they have gone over and above to help keep that industry going. The hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) made such a good point: how come Tesco gets rates reductions but our airports do not?
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who continually makes good speeches, stood up for her constituency airport. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) asked where the plan was. We are eight months in and we need that leadership. The hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) talked about Birmingham airport and defended it excellently. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), has been a clarion voice in standing up for the industry.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said that we are probably now going to listen to the Minister give a list of business loans. Sir Edward, you will get this reference. It will be like a litany of saints, a beatification, on a Roman balcony. There will be one after the after, but what we do not need is lists. We need leadership and we need it now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I shall do my best to acknowledge as many Members as I can in my remarks.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for securing this debate on the future of the aviation industry, and everybody who has contributed in what has been a wide-ranging and fascinating debate. Every single Member here is passionate about aviation, which was made very clear in the course of the afternoon.
We have heard from a number of hon. Members about the critical role that aviation plays in connecting the whole of the UK and the world. I thank my right hon. Friend for all his tireless work when he was Secretary of State. That was a point that he was keen to make clear during his time, and we have seen that reflected today.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will be pleased to see—as will my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), to whom I will return in a moment—that work started in May on upgrades to the Gatwick airport rail station. That is a £150 million project, which my right hon. Friend announced when he was Secretary of State. That expanded, modern station will provide an impressive gateway to a global Britain, and I thank him for his work on that.
I have listened carefully to the points that have been made. I will endeavour to address as many of them as possible. However, as the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) rightly said, it is not always possible for Back Benchers to make all the points they would like in their speeches or for me to acknowledge all of them, but I will do my very best.
These are incredibly challenging times for the aviation sector. We all realise that, and none more so than this aviation Minister. I would like to record at the outset how crucial the sector is to the UK and its economy, as was said eloquently by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
Before the covid-19 outbreak, the UK’s aviation sector was growing rapidly. Air transport and aerospace together contributed £22 billion to GDP and supported half a million jobs. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) referred to the aerospace sector. This country and their constituencies excel in it, and they are right to draw attention to that. Aviation supports the economy through trade, aerospace, investment and tourism and by providing regional connectivity. It is the Government’s fervent desire and utmost intention that the aviation sector recovers quickly from the dreadful pandemic that it and the country have been through.
I want to dwell for a moment, in response to hon. Members’ calls, on the support that the Government have given to the sector. We should remember, despite the cynicism of the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East, that the response has been unprecedented. It has enabled businesses across the industry to draw upon an unprecedented package of cross-economy support measures, including the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which has helped airlines’ liquidity. The sector drew down £1.8 billion of support by September 2020. The aviation sector as a whole is the largest beneficiary of CCFF, accounting for approximately 18% of the total amount of CCFF paid out by November.
As hon. Member know, on 5 November the Chancellor announced that workers across the UK will benefit from the increased support of a five-month extension of the furlough scheme—the coronavirus job retention scheme. It will now run until the end of March 2021, with employees receiving 80% of their current salary for hours not worked. My hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) and for Don Valley are right to point out how significant that support is. Overall, we estimate that the sector has received about £2.5 billion to £3 billion of support through the CCFF and the job retention scheme.
Hon. Members made a number of other points. The hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) asked me about conversations with individual companies. I hope she will understand that I cannot comment on any commercially confidential matters relating to individual companies. The Government have heard the broader requests for further support and are considering them carefully.
The House has powerfully reminded us that the impact of redundancies on employees, their families and their broader communities is serious. We heard a number of powerful speeches. The hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) referred to Heathrow in particular, and other hon. Members also made powerful contributions. I see it myself from the correspondence that I receive from hon. Members and people up and down the country, and I understand that the impact on those who work in the aviation sector is very significant indeed. We must always remember that, ultimately, it is people who stand behind this.
My predecessor and officials have met unions regularly—I hope that the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) will be pleased to hear that—and I will meet them again shortly. I have spoken directly to companies that are considering redundancies and changes to terms and conditions, and I have offered my support and that of the Government for engagement efforts with staff where that is appropriate. I encourage unions and employers to sit down, speak to each other and find a solution where appropriate. The Government recognise that the aviation sector is home to highly skilled, highly trained staff, and their retention is vital. I thank all hon. Members who drew attention to that point.
On quarantine and travel corridors, I recognise the frustration of hon. Members, holidaymakers and businesses about the matters arising from the health measures that we have introduced and changes to the travel corridor exemption list. We must not lose sight—I know that hon. Members do not—of the reason why we have had to make those changes; it is simply to protect the health of the nation.
The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) rightly talks of confidence. That is why we took the action that we did with the introduction in July of travel corridors, which were a major step forward in safely reopening international travel while retaining the ability to act quickly if public health were at risk. We continue to keep that policy under review, and it is clear from the steps we have taken that it is an evolving policy. We update the exemptions list weekly to reflect the changing health situation in each country, and we continue to evolve that policy as new and enhanced data becomes available. That allowed us, on 7 September, to introduce the islands policy, under which island destinations can be considered separately from the mainland. That provides increased flexibility to add or remove them, as distinct from the mainland, as infections rates change. Unfortunately, as right hon. and hon. Members will realise, the incidence rates in this country are growing, which is why we had to take the steps that we have taken from 5 November.
I want to say a few words about testing, which has obviously been a major part of the debate. There has been some powerful advocacy, and none more so than from my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. He represents Gatwick airport, and his constituents who work there, with power and dedication. They could have no finer voice, and I thank him for everything he has said in the debate and outside.
On testing at airports, we have previously explained, and I want to explain again for the record, that we cannot currently endorse testing passengers immediately on arrival—in other words, at airports—as a means of avoiding the 14-day self-isolation period. The reason for that is that the long incubation period means that a significant proportion of infected but asymptomatic passengers might receive a negative result but go on to develop the virus over the following days.
However, we are taking action. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred to the global travel taskforce that we have created, and I want to explain to the House what that is considering. It is looking at how a domestic testing regime for international arrivals could be implemented in order to boost safe travel to and from the UK, and to allow UK residents to travel with confidence. It will consider what steps we can take to facilitate global business and tourist travel, including through bilateral agreements and multilateral forums. We will continue to explore with key international partners issues such as global common standards, testing models, measures around enforcement, exemptions and other border management measures. Beyond that, we will explore what steps we can take to increase consumer confidence, ensure that current measures are being properly adhered to, and restart international travel safely.
I want to inform the House and the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, who asked the specific question—
There are many points that I would like to make—I am conscious of the time, Sir Edward, and I am grateful to you for reminding me—about recovery, but they have been made very well by right hon. and hon. Members. There are a number of points around decarbonisation that I would like to have addressed. Given the time, perhaps we can have a debate about that on another occasion.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell once again for securing the debate. We are all aware of the scale of the challenge facing the aviation sector and, indeed, the entire country. The combination of the steps that we are taking on public health, the work that we are taking forward on testing and travel corridors, and the unprecedented economic support provides a strong foundation for the recovery of the sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden encouraged me to work together with the sector. I will do so tirelessly, and I will work with every Member who has spoken in the debate.
I applaud all the contributions to the debate from Members from all parts of the House, and I hope that our comments are listened to more widely than simply in this room. I do not seek to challenge the Minister. He is new to his job, and he faces some of the same challenges as others in similar positions in Departments across Government. These are not decisions that are being taken in the Department for Transport, but there is an expectation in this room that action will come more quickly than the official Government line has suggested.
I do not understand why a 72-hour test prior to departure, coupled with a check-up test on arrival in the UK, represents a greater risk than the 14-day quarantine. Given the urgency of the situation that the aviation sector faces, I do not really understand why the global taskforce has not reported already. I hope it will be understood clearly elsewhere in Government that that must happen, and it must happen now.
However, those are not things that I level at the Minister. He has been a great champion of the sector, and I know he will be a very effective aviation Minister. I know that he will do everything he can to unlock the challenges that the industry faces and put it back on a path to recovery. The message from everyone in this room to the Government is this: we cannot afford to let the sector carry on dying on its feet. Every action possible must be taken across Government to enable the industry to recover. Whether we are a former Minister, a Select Committee Chair or member, or an Opposition spokesperson, we will all be watching carefully. This will not be the last time we raise the issue, if the problem is not solved.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum seekers and permission to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support I received for research capacity in my office in relation to work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project provides research capacity to me and other Members of Parliament on this issue, and it does a fantastic job generally.
While I am thanking RAMP, I want to thank everyone involved in the Lift the Ban campaign: Refugee Action, Asylum Matters, the Refugee Council, City of Sanctuary UK, Ben & Jerry’s, UNISON, which is the country’s biggest trade union, the Salvation Army, and Church of England and other faith groups. I would also like to thank other RAMP principals, including the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), for attending this debate. I know he wants to contribute, and that is very welcome. There is no politics involved in getting this right, in my opinion.
Who does this issue affect? An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum, is legally entitled to be in the country and is awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted refugee status. After a claim is made in the UK, an asylum seeker is granted the right to work after 12 months in a limited pool of occupations. That is important, because the shortage occupation list, which is administered by the Government, is a system more akin to a Stalinist economic plan in the Soviet Union than global Britain in the 21st century.
I will give a bit of the history—come with me in my Tardis. In December 2018, the Home Secretary stated that a Home Office review of the policy on asylum seekers and work would be taking place. Since then, any questions that have been posed or letters that have been written to Ministers have all been met with the response that work is ongoing. In all that time, we still do not have a full idea of the remit, the process that is being followed or when it will report.
On 25 July 2019, in a debate about priorities for Government, the Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green):
“The Home Office is currently reviewing that matter, and we will make an announcement shortly.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 1493.]
Shortly? Priorities for Government? That was on 25 July last year. We know that a week is a long time in politics, but 64 weeks after the Prime Minister told us that it was his priority to deliver the review and he would make an announcement shortly, we still have no news.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is absolutely astonishing that the Government are taking so long to look into something that would have an economic benefit for the country? Estimates tell us that up to £42 million could be contributed to the economy by people who are currently left without any dignity and living on a pittance, when they have skills that they could bring to our country.
That is beyond astonishing. I am baffled and bewildered as to why it is taking so long. I do not shy away from acknowledging the fact that migrants of all kinds have always made a strong economic contribution, and they have strengthened our community and our society for the better. They should be better treated by our Government, who have delayed on this for far too long.
On 11 June this year, in the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Committee, the Minister announced that a new service standard for asylum claims was being developed. He said that it was
“intended to try to bring back some balance to the system…UK Visas and Immigration is engaging with stakeholders as part of these plans and considering any insight that those stakeholders offer as it tries to shape a new service standard”.––[Official Report, Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Public Bill Committee, 11 June 2020; c. 124.]
I hope the Minister who is here today will tell us what that will look like, who has been involved and when it will report. I hope that he will also tell us when what the Prime Minister promised in July 2019 will finally be delivered. I assume that those things will be together, but let us see what the Minister says.
On the numbers of people affected, the Refugee Council reported at the end of June this year that 38,756 people have been waiting for more than six months for a decision. That is a massive increase on the figure for this time last year. It is a record-breaking rise, and a record-breaking failure in the Home Office. From the end of June this year, almost 17,000 applications have been waiting for more than 12 months for an initial decision. That is astonishing, and it is pathetic. Any business with such a level of delivery would be shut down. It is a complete failure and a dereliction of duty in the Home Office. We should not forget that an application does not just represent one person; there can be a whole family on one application.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is driven by compassion for genuine asylum seekers, but does he not agree that what he proposes would feed into the business plan of the traffickers who bring economic migrants to our shores, causing the misery that we have seen both at sea and in the backs of lorries?
It is completely the opposite, I am afraid. Asylum seekers could make, and want to make, an economic contribution to this country, and that is to be welcomed. People are forced to use illegal measures to get into the country because of the delays and our terrible system. If we were more compassionate and stuck with the UK tradition of helping people, rather than turning a blind eye or crossing the road, we would be in a better position morally and economically.
I, too, need to draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a RAMP principal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the introduction of safe and legal routes—we very much welcome the Government’s commitment to doing that—by which people can establish their claims is key to the United Kingdom’s ability to disrupt traffickers and those who bring people into the country in very high-risk ways, which are a matter of legitimate public concern?
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that the introduction in 2002 of the ban on asylum seekers working reflected a prevailing concern, in the then Labour Government and in Parliament more widely, about the economic impact? At the time, the United Kingdom was preparing for the accession of further countries into the European Union. However, according to the research that RAMP has shared with us both, 67% of businesses believe that now is the time to lift the ban. Does he agree that we need to recognise that times have changed, and that safe and legal routes and the changing economic climate make a case for doing so that simply did not exist when the Labour Government introduced the ban in 2002?
I was speaking to the hon. Gentleman outside about the fact that of six Syrian families that came to Newtownards, all of the menfolk were skilled carpenters and wanted to work. One of the things that held them back was language. Does he feel it is important that we encourage those people who have skills whenever there is a market for them at the same time, as there certainly was in my constituency?
I agree, the Government should prioritise English language training to overcome the language barrier. We have seen a drop in the availability of English language teaching and training, and that needs to come back.
The point about it being time to change is really important, because Lift the Ban’s research showed that one in seven of the people seeking asylum have experience of working in health and social care. We have a shortfall in those sectors, and in any normal year we should be welcoming people and getting them into those jobs as quickly as possible. In the context of a global pandemic, there is simply no excuse for denying this workforce a chance to get on with those jobs, which we need more than ever. I hope today the Minister will talk us through how he will be fast-tracking those with health and social care backgrounds, in particular, into jobs.
We need more nurses and medical practitioners, and people with that skilled background are going through an inhumane process—state-sponsored destitution on £5.66 a day or £39.62 a week. I hope that the Minister will listen to campaigners and tell us when that rate will be increased, and why it has not yet been increased to help people protect themselves, their families and the broader community in response to covid-19.
There is evidence that this policy has left people vulnerable to exploitation and criminals. Even in Home Office-run hostels, gangs target these people because they know they are desperate for cash and income. This is a Home Office policy—the Department responsible for law and order and tackling crime has a policy that results in an increase in crime.
I will be brief. Britain, our country, has a proud history of supporting people fleeing war and persecution, and the use of language is very important. It is important to remember that asylum seekers are people; they are fellow human beings and they need to be treated with respect, dignity and fair process. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason so many hon. Members on Opposition Benches are alarmed by inaction by this Government is that this Government and the Home Office were the architects of the hostile environment that led to so much damage to the fabric of society?
I think that there is cross-party support for this, and I will come back to the subject of the broader public.
Before I leave the subject of occupations, the Government’s list of approved proficiencies includes classical ballet dancer or skilled orchestral musician—so those are okay, but for other professions, where we desperately need people, people are being delayed in getting into those jobs. I hope the Minister will commit to overhaul the shortage occupation list system; he will have public support for that. British Future found that 71% of the British public supports the right to work after six months—public opinion will be on the Government’s side should they introduce the policy.
I want to talk about the situation in Southwark. We have 189 dispersed asylum seekers housed across the borough, and the council has a commitment in its refreshed plan to making Southwark a borough of sanctuary, working with community groups and partners to help and support refugee and migrant asylum seekers in the borough, and campaigning to end the hostile environment, which the Government told us they wanted to end. They told us they were dismantling the hostile environment, and yet here it is alive and kicking and damaging people’s lives, leaving people destitute.
I want to celebrate the work of the Southwark day centre for asylum seekers, which does a tremendous job and has very strong links to this House; the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) are both patrons of it. People from the centre tell me that the majority of the people they see do not have the right to work and are dependent on charities and faith groups. Churches and mosques are picking up the slack because we have an irresponsible Government leaving people without support. Some of the people they are supporting are not even covered by the asylum support scheme and live beyond destitution. They have confirmed that 40% of the asylum seekers they are helping wait longer than 12 months for a decision—40% of the people they see. I see these people in my casework and surgery sessions—not face-to-face at the moment, although I do make exceptions, so if anyone does need to see me, we can do in a covid-secure way in my constituency office.
I promise to be super brief. I was reading a quote about how cash benefits have been regarded as
“a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims”—[Official Report, 14 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 16.]
from asylum seekers. That was from Jack Straw, when he was overseeing this policy as Home Secretary. Does the hon. Member agree that one strength of recognising that times have changed and introducing the right to work is that it would prove to our constituents that asylum seekers are not scroungers, but people with skills valued by British businesses who are here to make a tax-paying contribution, rather than expecting to subsist off the taxpayer?
I agree 100% and that echoes the point made earlier that these are people who want to contribute, to make a difference and to improve our country as well as their own lives. I have two quick examples from constituency casework. One woman who applied for asylum in 2014, was initially refused, and reapplied in 2017 has still had no response and no decision. She fled Eritrea due to political repression and has physical injuries as a result of the beatings that she took there. Her current application has taken more than three years and remains undecided. The second is a man with post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience in Iran, where he was born, who received a refusal in 2019, after waiting more than a year initially. He submitted a fresh application, including more medical information, has still not received a response and is left destitute. This is an issue—the longer people wait and are out of work, the harder it is for them to contribute when permitted by the Government. Of course, there are also mental health issues and other implications for those left marginalised and isolated on the periphery of society. These are people who could be contributing, as other Members have mentioned.
It is estimated that the current policy costs the taxpayer almost £100 million a year—for an awful, inhumane and incompetent approach. The CBI and TUC back the Lift the Ban campaign. It would generate income and reduce bureaucracy, help raise additional income tax and national insurance, and cut emergency accommodation and other costs. Of course, there are stronger and long-term savings as people integrate and contribute more. Compared globally, we perform badly. Before people can work in France, Spain and the USA it is six months, in Germany it is three months, and in Italy two months. In Canada and Australia—Ministers often hold up the Australian immigration system—there is no wait. People can get into work as soon as they arrive. Why are we not using the Australian model? Why is the Minister still sustaining the damage of this policy to our economy and those people’s lives?
In conclusion, what the campaign asks for is a change and for the ban to be lifted to ensure a more humane approach that tackles this long-term isolation and marginalisation; one befitting the UK’s proud history of support and allowing people who face persecution and repression abroad to enter; and one that is in our economic interests, helping us to tackle covid so that people can protect themselves, the NHS and the wider community. Without that change the Home Office, the Department responsible for safety in this country, leaves those people and our whole community unsafe.
As I have made some interventions already, I shall be brief. As a Conservative, I believe the case is now robustly made for a change in position. We can consider the history and accept that it is right that Government Departments should implement different policies to respond to the concerns that the public, voters, businesses, and everybody in the community has in a given period.
I was reflecting on an article published in The Guardian about how the wider issue of immigration and this point specifically had become so toxic over the years. It referred to the proposals put forward by a Labour Government, for example, that the children of asylum seekers should be taught separately because they were “swamping” the classrooms of this country. Barbara Roche, who was the Immigration Minister for a number of years at the time when the current legislation was established, talked about needing to be much tougher to deter people. That was probably a response to a prevailing concern with the accession of the Visegrad countries into the European Union and a lot of coverage in the media that said that that was going to lead to large numbers of people arriving in the country with the right to work. There was understandable concern in some communities about the impact that would have on their local areas. The Government wanted to demonstrate that they were concerned, and that they were going to be tough and take effective measures to make sure that impact was mitigated.
Of course, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), we face a period in which covid, Brexit, and changes in legislation on borders and free movement all add up to a very different picture. The polling done by British Future identifies that many people in these communities have, over time, come to see that asylum seekers and refugees in their local area can bring valuable skills and should be able to use those skills in paid work, rather than subsisting for a long time on very meagre amounts paid for by the taxpayer.
It seems to me a very Conservative thing to expect people to pay their way. When people arrive and could be working in our hospitals, our care system or, frankly, in any kind of job that their skills and experience make them fit to do, we as Conservatives should enable them to do it, rather than having taxpayers pick up the tab for their costs while we make a decision on their long-term futures. That view seems to be gaining a high degree of traction.
Although I absolutely accept that there is a compassion argument at the heart of this issue, we need to recognise that that argument is not attached to any particular political viewpoint. Governments have to make decisions in the light of the circumstances that they face and in the wider interests of the country. It was, once upon a time, in the wider interests of the country to apply those restrictions to have a borders and immigration policy that commanded public confidence.
When so many businesses around the country say that they are struggling to recruit workers, particularly skilled workers for certain types of job—the farming industry was talking about that over the summer with preparations for harvesting, and for local authorities recruiting staff for social care is a major challenge, with significant upward pressure on wages—there is an opportunity to bring people with those skills in to make that contribution and become tax-paying, economically active members of our society, rather than subsisting on the taxpayer. That is why I think it is time to make the case for a change in that policy.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and getting through his speech in record time—he cantered through it and got a great deal of content into a relatively short time.
I will start by addressing some of the points made by hon. Members. A lot of emphasis was placed on the contribution that migrants can make to our economy, but of course, we have a legal route for those who are able to make an economic contribution to get into the United Kingdom. We have a new points-based system coming into force in just a few weeks, and anyone from anywhere in the world is able to apply under that scheme. If they meet the criteria, which are quite generously drawn, they can get a work permit and come here to work and make the contribution to which hon. Members have referred. That route exists and will be in full operation very shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) said that if there were safe and legal routes, people would not have to come and claim asylum in this way. There already are a number of safe and legal routes. I have already mentioned the work visa route, but for people who want to reunify with their family, we have family reunion rules, under which 7,500 people came into the United Kingdom in the year up to March.
We also have a refugee resettlement scheme, which is, I suspect, the scheme used by the six or seven gentlemen mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whereby we go directly to countries of danger, particularly Syria but to others as well, and bring the most vulnerable people directly into the United Kingdom. Under those rules, we choose who deserves to come in, rather than people entering illegally. In the last five years, up to March 2020, 25,000 people—half of whom were children—have come into the UK under that resettlement route, which is the largest of any European country. Those safe and legal routes most certainly do exist.
I can confirm that I have been to the refugee camps in Jordan and seen how those most in need are selected. Indeed, we delegate that job to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so it is not us choosing them but a well-respected international body choosing those who can come and who do not need to resort to paying the people smugglers—that is, if they have the money to pay them. Those most in need do not have the money to pay the people smugglers.
My right hon. Friend, who of course has considerable expertise in this area, is absolutely right. The UNHCR, over the last five years, has chosen the people who are most in need, whereas those who come here, for example, in small boats across the English channel are not necessarily those most in need; they are those who can afford to pay people smugglers, or those who are fit and strong enough to force their way across the English channel. They are not those most in need; they are effectively pushing their way to the front of a queue and potentially displacing people whose need is greater—those people who have come over, for example, on the family resettlement route.
That brings me to the point about the current policy, introduced, as we have been reminded, by the last Labour Government. Many of the reasons that the last Labour Government chose or had regard to in introducing this policy do, I think, apply today. The first point is that we have legal routes—very clear legal routes—for coming to this country to work and make a contribution. If somebody can enter the country clandestinely, for example on a small boat, which is dangerous and unnecessary—it is unnecessary because they could quite easily claim asylum in France, a safe country—and immediately start working or start working after a very short time, that undermines the points-based system and the legal route that we have created. What is the point of having a legal route if it can be immediately circumvented in the way that I have described?
Does the Minister accept that, in the current circumstances, if someone is in this country legally, has come through the safe routes and followed all the procedures, they are not allowed to work, yet they could be making a contribution to society? Will the Government not take that into account?
Well, of course, people who come in through the family reunion route can work straightaway; people who come in under the resettlement programme—those 25,000 people, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Strangford—can work straight away. We need to speed up our asylum decision making; some fair points were made there. Clearly, the pandemic has made that considerably more difficult, but we need to work to speed up those decisions, which is in everybody’s interest. It is in the interest, clearly, of the person seeking asylum, so that they know where they stand; that is only fair. If they do get a positive decision, it means they can start working; that is only fair to the taxpayer as well.
I have to just finish, because there is very little time remaining. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for concluding.
I also am concerned about the possibility of creating some measure of pull factor, because if people know that they are able to come here on, for example, a small boat or the back of a lorry, or on an aeroplane, without proper documentation and immediately, or very nearly immediately, start working, that will act as a further encouragement to come to the UK and add to the 35,000 asylum claims that we have already. Particularly in the case of people who are in safe countries such as France—pretty much all the small boat arrivals come from France—they are in a safe country where they could, if they wished, claim asylum.
I will just say that the shortage occupation list is rather wider than was represented. It does include nurses and medical practitioners. I commend that scheme to people with those skills who want to work.
We conducted a review of that back at the beginning of the pandemic, and the numbers that I was given were very, very small, but I will say that the professions that are on the shortage occupation list and can be applied for include medical practitioners, psychologists, nurses, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists—and even actuaries and architects. Paramedics are on there as well. There are quite a lot of medical professions on the shortage occupation list already. A review is ongoing. It will report as soon as we are able to complete it, and I will of course report back to the House when that happens, but in the meantime I completely take the point about speeding up and making sure that we make these decisions quickly, for all the reasons that we have discussed this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of moorland burning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the important issue of moorland burning. I hope no one in this House would dispute that we are in a climate and nature emergency. That means we have not only a moral imperative to ban this destructive practice, but environmental, ecological and existential imperatives to protect and restore our precious peatlands.
The UK peatlands contain an estimated 3,200 million tonnes of carbon, more than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. There is no way that the Government can tackle the climate crisis without ensuring that our peatlands continue to store that colossal quantity of carbon. It would be a catastrophe if it were released and, yet that is exactly what is happening.
While upland peatland should be a net carbon sink, continued mismanagement means that the UK’s peatlands are a net source of emissions. When they could and should be being used for carbon sequestration to safely store carbon, our peat bogs are instead releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that that is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide released by 140,000 cars a year. The cause is moorland burning.
Between the 1940s and the present, there has been a sevenfold increase in burning on peatland in England alone. In Great Britain, between 2001 and 2011, burning increased at a rate of 11% per year. The more we allow that to continue, the greater the acceleration in the climate crisis we will see before our eyes. We will also see impacts on our environment.
Britain’s blanket bogs make up 10% to 15% of the world’s entire resource. Burning peat bogs dries out peat soil and lowers the water table, changing the flora and fauna to advantage species such as grouse, and transforming these rich, biodiverse habitats into distorted ecologies suitable for only a few animals and plants. We have a duty to preserve their vast biodiversity.
The dried peat soil also negatively impacts our water quality by releasing soil carbon into watercourses, which degrades their quality and increases the expense of cleaning our drinking water. That is because the burning harms the sphagnum mosses, which hold water in the peatlands. While the mosses recover, grasses and heather replace and out-compete them, which means that the water runs off down the hills, taking carbon from the peat with it and leading to polluted water. Burnt bogs are consequently less able to slow water flow, which leads to heavier flooding after rainfall.
I am sure my South Yorkshire colleagues will remember the terrible flooding our region suffered last year: 90% of the homes in the village of Fishlake near Doncaster were flooded last November, and, unfortunately, over a year on, some still have not been able to return to their homes. Funding for flood defences is a pressing issue, particularly when the south-east gets double the funding per person of Yorkshire and the Humber and more than five times that of the north-east. We need the Government to deliver fairer funding for flood defences, but we also need to move the debate away from mitigating the effects of the climate and environment emergency to tackling the causes. That means locking carbon in the ground by restoring our upland peat bogs, slowing the water flow, soaking up heavy rainfall and preventing the next flooding crisis before it occurs.
Peatlands also play a vital role in UK water security and must be protected to preserve the UK’s water supply in the coming years. Researchers at the University of Leeds estimate that 72.5% of the storage capacity of reservoirs in the UK is peatlands-fed water. That demonstrates the crucial role that peatlands play in our water security.
In January, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned by the end of 2020. The Government have routinely committed to ending the burns, but we have yet to see any legislative progress towards that. Instead, the Government have asked landowners only to sign voluntary agreements not to burn, and they simply are not working. For the sake of our environment, the Government must announce an immediate ban on this destructive practice and restore our peatlands to their natural bog habitats, so that they can deliver for biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
But that is only the first step. Announcing a ban is not the same as enacting one. For example, in my constituency, the moors at Stanage and Strines are both sites of special scientific interest, which means they should be protected areas, yet both regularly see burning. Due to the lack of proper resourcing and maintenance, too many of our protected areas are protected in name only. This Government’s record on maintaining existing areas of environmental protection shows a sustained failure to protect those protected sites.
In 2010, 43% of SSSIs in England were in favourable condition; by 2020 that had dropped to 39%. The condition of SSSIs in England is actually worse in our national parks and areas of natural beauty than outside them. That is a direct consequence of under-resourcing and underfunding conservation—yet another devastating consequence of the last 10 years of austerity. The Government’s own figures show that public sector spending on biodiversity in the UK fell from £641 million to £456 million between 2012 and 2017—a drop of 29%. The RSPB argues that the Government’s approach to achieving nature targets has completely failed due to
“neglect of basic monitoring and compliance, a reliance on voluntary approaches and unwillingness to regulate, and dwindling public resources for action”—
a damning summation.
As well as committing to banning peatland burning and giving a firm date on which that will come into effect, Ministers must commit to properly resourcing conservation bodies so that they are able to monitor and clamp down on any illegal burning and ensure that peatlands are rewetted and restored. That is why I am so pleased to support Labour’s plan for a national nature service.
An expansion of spending on maintaining or restoring our peatlands is vital if we are to maintain our zero carbon commitments, but it is also a way of providing the employment stimulus we need in the wake of the pandemic; protecting and maintaining our peat bogs and our natural environment in all its diversity goes hand in hand with creating good-quality public sector jobs.
We should take inspiration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942, whose workers planted 3 billion trees and paved the way for America’s system of national and state parks, which were also a central part of the new deal. The national nature service should be at the heart of the green new deal for workers, creating a zero carbon army. We need to manage our moorlands effectively and to lock CO2 into the ground. At the same time, that would provide a host of secure jobs and benefit many people, including young black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, who have been hit hardest by the employment crisis. It would also help to diversify the conservation sector.
Nobody in this debate supports the deregulation of moorlands. The idea that setting fire to large swathes of our countryside is a responsible form of regulation and management is completely incredible. It releases millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, making the climate emergency worse. It destroys habitats and damages the ecosystem and ecologies. As fires rage on our uplands, they increase the threat of floods from our lowland rivers.
We cannot rely on the good will of landowners to stop the burning—just ask the residents of Hebden Bridge and the Calder valley. We all saw on our TVs the damage done to those communities by last year’s flooding, and many now attribute those floods to heather burning on Walshaw moor. Instead, we need to restore and re-wet our peatlands, using them as one of the many natural solutions to the climate crisis. To do that, we must end the year-on-year cuts to spending on the environment and set out a plan for investing in nature. That means having a national nature service to create well-paid, secure, unionised jobs. We need to lock CO2 into the ground and to protect biodiversity and our natural environment’s fragile ecologies. We also need to ensure that those who seek to burn protected peatlands face the full weight of the law.
I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to outline the timetable for bringing forward legislation. It is time to end the fires, floods and climate chaos. It is well past time we banned the burn.
May I remind colleagues that there are five minutes for the Opposition Front Benchers and 10 minutes for the Government. This debate is due to finish at 17.32 pm. I am not putting a time limit on speeches, but we have eight other speakers apart from the Front Benchers and the mover of the motion at this point. Please bear that in mind.
Two thirds of the North York Moors national park—that glorious countryside that many of us will have seen on the television programme “Heartbeat”—lie in the Scarborough and Whitby constituency, and 79% of the North Yorkshire moors and Pennine special protection areas are managed as grouse moors. It is vital—I agree with the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake)—that we preserve that peat.
The North Yorkshire moors are not, in the main, blanket bogs. They are dry heathland peat, and different ways of management need to be conducted on different types of moorland. It is also vital that we preserve these fragile habitats, and if we are to preserve them, they do need managing.
Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest, and 75% of Europe’s heather moorland is in the United Kingdom. Of the upland SSSIs, 60% are on moorland, which has, for decades, been managed in traditional ways.
I remember, as a child, crossing the North Yorkshire moors and seeing people cutting peat for fuel. Indeed, the legendary Saltersgate Inn had a fire that never went out, because, apparently, a Revenue man was buried under the fireplace and it was the only way of preventing him from being discovered. Sadly, the Saltersgate Inn is no more.
It is important that we look at all ways of managing peat, particularly in terms of arable degradation—as a farmer myself, I understand that. We should also look at the way horticultural peat is harvested and—the Republic of Ireland is phasing out its power stations—at how we do not use peat for power.
I must make the point that the North Yorkshire moors are not a natural environment. They are a fragile environment. In the middle ages, the moors were covered in trees, which were cut down for fuel and used to smelt the iron stone found under those moors. Only in the Victorian era did management systems come in that encouraged sheep farming and grouse. That involved cool burning the heather in the winter period, between 1 October and 15 April, when the fire was unlikely to get into the peat itself. That involves burning small patches of the moorland to create a patchwork of different stages of heather, some of it very tender and young. It is the tender, young heather that the sheep and grouse can feed on. The old, woody heather is no good for the grouse and is certainly no good for sheep. It is also no good, by the way, for ground-nesting birds such as the golden plover, the lapwing and the curlew.
If the hon. Lady wants to come and see what happens to moors if they are not managed in that way, she should come to Troutsdale moor just outside Scarborough, which has not been managed as a moor for about the last 30 years and has reverted to scrubland. There are none of the birds that we want to preserve on the North Yorkshire moors. If there were no sheep, who would mend the stone walls? According to her, it would be a unionised army of nature service people, but the farmers are the people who should be farming on the moorland and managing it.
If we did not manage the moorland in the way we do, we would see wildfires. Burning creates firebreaks. We have seen in the United States and Australia how, when they stopped back burning, fires got out of hand. In 2019, there was a record number of wildfires. In 2020, that record was broken, with 110 fires.
Indeed, Saddleworth moor—a moor that has not been managed in the traditional way that we use in the North Yorkshire moors—had three weeks of fires, which produced the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as 100,000 car years and cost £20 million. That fire got into the peat, as such wildfires do, which is what damages it. I must make the point that controlled burning does not burn the peat; it burns the vegetation and allows the sphagnum moss, which forms more peat, and the young heather to regenerate.
Mowing is not practical on most of the moorland because of the topography and the amount of stones; indeed, that encourages the growth of sedges, which can release large amounts of methane, which has a carbon factor 96% higher than CO2. That is recognised by the North York Moors National Park Authority, for which it is policy to support the traditional rotational cool burning of heather to maintain the moorland in the way that wildlife, and economic activity such as grouse shooting and sheep farming, need.
I say to the Minister that we need more science before we make any decisions. The science is unfolding. We also need to understand that some people are against the burning of moorland because they are against grouse shooting. That is a perfectly respectable position to have, but they should not use it to destroy the very fragile environment of the North Yorkshire moors. If we do not have a managed moorland, we will have no grouse, no sheep, no lapwings, no curlews and no birds of prey.
When the Minister responds, I hope she will understand that we need to do more work. We do not want to destroy this very fragile managed environment, which has been kept this way for many years, and sacrifice it for some political campaign that is to do with a lot of other things, not just managing moorland.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing this important debate. Before moving on with my remarks, I will be the first to take up the offer of the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) to come and visit his moorland to compare and contrast the differences required in managing that with what is perhaps required in my part of the world, and he has already touched on some of those elements.
Nearly a quarter of England’s blanket bog habitat is located in Yorkshire—I am pleased to see the region well represented in the debate—with about 50% of the country’s peatlands in the Pennines. Its wellbeing is, therefore, crucial for us in Calderdale on a number of fronts. If we manage our moorland and peat bogs responsibly, as we have already heard, they lock in water, which protects us from flooding, and carbon, which helps us to mitigate the extreme weather that presents such a challenge to us in a steep-sided valley. Kept wet, they will also protect us from the damaging wildfires that we have already discussed.
We have suffered devastating floods twice in the last five years—first, in December 2015 and again in February this year. In addition, there have been several significant wildfires in the same period, so the integrity of the moorland in the upper catchment is essential if we are to manage the different risks.
We have had an ongoing challenge with burning, largely undertaken by those involved in the grouse shooting industry to engineer grouse breeding habitats. I am pleased that in July, Calderdale Council supported a ban on burning in an attempt to restore the peatlands, alleviate the pressures on our fire service, enhance biodiversity and contribute to the package of measures that we need to have in place to mitigate flood risk.
It is frustrating, however, that although the potential for carbon storage is enormous, the Committee on Climate Change has estimated that 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted each year from upland peat in England, the majority of which is due to burning on grouse moors. I welcome its recommendation that legislation to address that should be forthcoming before the end of the year.
Last year, I visited one such moorland restoration project above Dove Stone reservoir with the RSPB, which is restoring and cultivating nature’s great super sponge, sphagnum moss, and aiding natural flood management alongside the work on leaky dams and gullies. Like the RSPB, I am really keen to know when we might see the publication of the England peat strategy, as part of the delivery of the 25-year environment plan.
The Minister will be aware that where water run-off is increased and hastened due to burning, it washes peat into our reservoirs, which has to be cleaned out of the water supply. On a related point, I will take the opportunity to remind to the Minister that I have tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill—it is up for debate in Committee next week, if I am not mistaken—that would require the Secretary of State to make regulations to grant the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies and other connected agencies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk. I will write to the Minister on that point ahead of the Committee discussion next week.
I finish with a final plea to the Minister. Moorland restoration was one of several issues that we were hoping to discuss at the promised Yorkshire floods summit. Inevitably, given coronavirus, the summit was delayed. The Minister did seem genuinely taken aback to hear that West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire were surprised that it was a South Yorkshire-only summit that took place recently. I have the letter from the Secretary of State sent to me on 1 April this year, deferring a number of issues that I had raised until what was called the “Yorkshire roundtable” could be arranged. I very much hope that we can convene that further discussion without delay.
Many years ago, I joined the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I did so because I understood it was a charity whose purpose was to protect birds. It is not the royal society for the politicisation of birds, but is quite clear that the RSPB has long had a campaign, motivated primarily, I suspect, by its hatred of grouse shooting. I do not shoot myself, but I live in the countryside and I see how shooting shapes the countryside and preserves it. In particular, I salute the work of gamekeepers. The fact is that the evidence does not support this campaign of the RSPB.
The recent call from the RSPB to stop burning peat—a rather emotive phrase in itself—seems to deliberately confuse controlled and uncontrolled burning. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) has made clear, the press release makes six references to burning peatland and blanket bog, all in connection with management practices and consents that are actually for the controlled burning of heather, the surface vegetation, and not peat, which is the underlying soil. Controlled burning of surface vegetation is permitted only in the winter, when it is cold and wet. It is deliberately limited to small areas—the heather and grass burning code suggests a maximum of 30 metres by 600 metres, with cut margins as firebreaks surrounding them and a firefighting team of gamekeepers in attendance with fire fogging units and leaf blowers to extinguish flames quickly.
I was inspired to come along to this debate by the excellent article by Lord Botham. I always knew he was a great cricketer and I once saw him do his wonderful century, but I did not know that he was such a fine campaigner for rural issues and rural people. It is about time that people such as Ian Botham were allowed to speak up for those of us who live in the countryside.
Grouse moors are not the emissions problem. Farming and forestry produce far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions per hectare than grouse moors. There is a risk to wildlife of not burning, as Lord Botham said in his article last week:
“For years the RSPB has been attacking the ancient practice of burning heather during damp winters. Britain’s gamekeepers use such controlled activity to reduce the risk of summer wildfires—just like indigenous people in Australia and North America.”
I suggest to the hon. Lady that any research that comes from the RSPB or related organisations should be treated with a great deal of scepticism. I suspect that they have a political agenda. The fact is that the RSPB distorts the science on burning. The Times reported how it does so. A dozen top scientists—a dozen, I say to the hon. Lady—wrote that RSPB press releases on burning bore “only passing resemblance” to the science.
The RSPB is a charity. It has to act like a charity and not like a political organisation. It is all very well to argue, “Ban the burn”—an emotive phrase, but that is to try to simplify something that is highly complex in reality. The royal society—it is a “royal society”—makes no distinction between two different things: the controlled burning of heather for wildlife management and the burning of peatland. Shooting requires careful land management that protects the growth and survival of many species of birds. Rural people have spent decades in careful custodianship of the land and the wildlife that lives in it. Despite that, they find themselves the target of RSPB campaigns that would do serious harm to the environment.
Farmers and gamekeepers must be central to the preservation of wildlife in this country. They live and work in the countryside. There is simply no way around that; nobody else has the resources to protect our countryside. As Lord Botham pointed out, the seed gamekeepers put out for pheasants also feeds lapwings, yellowhammers and corn bunting. I live in the countryside, in a cottage on a shooting estate, and I see how the gamekeepers preserve our wild birds.
What about thinning out the canopy of trees, so that the branches do not close in and deprive bushes and shrub life of much needed sunlight? Will the RSPB do that? No. Will Members of Parliament do that? No. Gamekeepers and farmers do that. Without managed burns, we increase the risk of uncontrolled wildfires, as has already been argued. As a result, nature and biodiversity suffer, plant life dies and habitats for species wither away. The richness of countryside is dulled, if the knowledge of people who work in the countryside is doubted.
Grouse managers aim to burn the surface biomass, heather and other plants, not peat. Controlled fires are excellent for that, but without them there is a danger of wildfires. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, that cannot be denied. Wildfires, by their nature, are uncontrolled; they can become very hot and spread the fire to burn the underlying peat, rather than just the surface. The bigger picture here is a massive gap between rural England and urban England. Such a simplistic statement as, “Ban the burn”, shows an ignorance and neglect of rural issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for excellently setting out the science for us today. The Minister has a clear choice to make. We need progress and we need decisions, because we have been here many times before, not least as we are heading into COP26, where this kind of issue will be on the table.
The Minister knows that I frequently speak about flooding—York floods—but the frequency and height of the flooding is worsening. Two weeks ago, we had our second flood this year—the river rose to 4.22 metres—following one in February. We have had others since the devastating floods of 2015, when 453 households and 174 businesses in my constituency flooded.
In 2017, I held a debate in this Chamber on the research carried out by the University of York to improve moorland management. I made the case that ending moorland burning would improve our climate and biodiversity and vastly reduce flooding and the need for expenditure downstream on floodwalls and barriers. Last weekend, yet again, I met with businesses and heard their stories once more about the devastation that flooding brings. I spoke to people who still experience stress every time those rivers rise. One, already struggling after the lockdown, was no longer able to get insurance. There was a flood in February at the start of the lockdown. York’s economy has been devastated this year because of this. The cost is there for all to see.
I say to the Minister, it is five years since we heard promises that these issues would be addressed. We do not need more surveys, questions and debates; we need action. The research undertaken by the University of York looked at the restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation. The evidence was powerful, proving strongly that mowing, not burning, moorland curbed water run-off and could remove 20% of excess flow, dropping the flood level in York by 40 centimetres. That would be really significant to our city.
With further investment in slow the flow schemes, planting and adjustment to farming, even greater gains could be made. That would militate against the soil degradation and loss of absorption that burning and the consequential drought bring. It would improve air quality, water quality, soil quality and biodiversity. It would cut costs and improve our climate.
Currently, York is having to build higher and higher barriers, at the cost of £45 million. That is not what our city wants. We want to stop the water coming down at its current pace. The national flood resilience review said that upper catchment management would be covered in the next comprehensive spending review, which is due a week today. I trust that I will see lines in the Budget that will enable proper upper catchment management, or will that be another broken promise? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us this afternoon.
On 16 February the Secretary of State for the Environment came to York; he announced that a York flood conference would take place this year in the city. He cannot come to York and make promises to the people of my city, who have experienced flooding, and then walk away when the floodwaters go. Since his visit, we have been flooded again. We need that conference. The flooding in York is not caused by rain falling in York; the water comes down the Ure, the Nidd and the Swale from West Yorkshire. Therefore, we urgently need to talk as Yorkshire together, to make sure that we get the right mitigation in the right places, and that starts on the moorlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Pritchard.
I agree with much of what my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), have said. No one wants to see peat burning, but that is not what is actually on the table here. This process is about heather being managed as part of a perfectly reasonable package of measures that are taken in our uplands, including in my constituency of North West Durham. That package also includes cutting and huge amounts of re-wetting of areas.
I will pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) made when she said we really need to manage the countryside effectively. I agree, but heather burning is an effective part of that management. I totally understand her concerns and those of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) regarding flooding, and I hope that, like me, they will welcome the Government’s recent commitment to huge amounts of tree planting in our upland areas, as part of the Government’s10-point plan.
Controlled heather burning from October to April is not the key issue. Heather moorland is vital for my local rural communities in Weardale, in neighbouring Teesdale and in Northumberland. It is vital to the local community, to my hospitality industry, to my rural pubs and to my rural jobs, including those of my rural gamekeepers, and to a huge amount of part-time employment for large numbers of local people.
What are the real issues at stake? I ask that question because when I took the Environment Secretary up to the moorland above Rookhope earlier this year, we saw what had happened in the 20th century, when huge amounts of grips were put into the ground to dry large areas of peatland. There had been mass-scale erosion. That was an attempt to overmanage the countryside from one side, which totally drained large areas of peat, causing huge amounts of erosion. It leads exactly to the problems being discussed today. I am all in favour of large areas having those grips removed, to allow blanket bog to return, but it must be part of a managed countryside where everybody is able to work and where the peat is able to return to areas that have been drained. That is part of the bigger picture.
Some of my hon. Friends mentioned the biodiversity elements. We have seen in a report from the Scottish Government how managed burning can really help the relationship between key species, even leading to some returning to our upland areas, which is a really important point.
This is not about the UK Government or the Scottish Government, and it should not be about party politics, but I believe that unfortunately that is where some of this debate is going. I really fear yet another cheap politicisation of our countryside by those who are more interested in ideological and identity politics than they are in protecting our communities, or indeed in the issues that they talk about relating to flooding and other things like that.
I put on the record very clearly that I am a country sports and conservation enthusiast. They both come together; I see no difference in them. I spoke to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) before the debate, and she knows where I am coming from. We speak together about many things that we agree on, and we have done that recently, but on this we have to agree to disagree. I say that very respectfully.
In the short time that I have, I will describe some of my experiences. I have planted some 3,500 trees on my land and created pond habitats for wildlife. That is something I am extremely passionate about. I am not an expert—far from it—but I am aware of the benefits of age-old practices of land conservation such as burning. We recently watched with horror the Australian wildfires on the TV. They were horrific to watch, and the impact on wildlife and nature was gross, but when the rains came the green shoots were brighter and stronger. I sincerely believe that there is a strong case for land management in a way that is considered and well planned. It should not be like the wildfires in Australia, but well planned in the 30-metre stretches that the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to.
All types of moorland need some land management to maintain the protected and rare habitats and the species that thrive in them. Without any form of management, that jewel of England would be lost. Vegetation and moorland have been burned for thousands of years, and the peat below slowly locks away carbon. The ultimate aim is to protect the carbon store. Thankfully, a large proportion, though not all, of our moors are being managed as grouse moors. That safeguards them from non-native commercial forestry, peat cutting and intensive agricultural modification.
Some 90% of English grouse moors are within the national parks, and 79% of the North York moors and Pennine special protection areas are managed as grouse moors. Some 60% of England’s upland sites of special scientific interest are also grouse moors. Grouse moors contribute more than £100 million to the UK economy directly, and more than 30 million people visit national park grouse moor landscapes annually. The visual quality of those areas is always listed among the top reasons to visit, according to national park visitor data. Why is that? Because they are managed in the correct fashion.
The latest evidence shows that controlled burns can provide protection against devastating wildfires while sequestering carbon, offering a nature-based solution to our climate change emergency. Traditionally, grouse moorland has been managed for the benefit of our native wild grouse, but the mosaic of vegetation for the birds has revived the plover, the lapwing and the curlew.
Safety protocols are in place to protect wildlife, human health and monuments, and specific content is available from Natural England on burning in protected sites. There is also a detailed heather and grass burning code produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England alongside partner organisations. It clearly identifies the use of burning as a conservation management tool with widespread controlling vegetation to reduce the risks posed by wildfire.
I am very aware that Natural England has stated that only 2.36% of England peatland emissions come from grouse moors, so let us put this in perspective. The vast majority of emissions come from other practices, from both upland and lowland peat draining agriculture and forestry.
I believe, and I say this respectfully, that there is a need to carry out controlled and regulated burning to secure this wonderful area of wildlife for future generations. I want to pass on my love of shooting and the conservation of my land to my grandchildren. It is my desire that future generations match science with practice so that the moors are kept in all their natural glory for generations to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I previously worked as a chartered surveyor.
I will focus my contribution on conservation. I speak with some authority on the subject, having been directly involved in many moorland restoration schemes before entering this place, through interactions with landowners, farmers, conservationists and bodies such as Natural England.
As a tool among many, burning plays its part as a conglomerative measure to achieve ecological and conservational benefits. Let me explain why. The process of burning small areas of heather removes older growth and allows plants to regenerate and thrive. New heather, mosses and grass shoots follow, and they, along with the new green flushes of new growth, allow plants such as bilberry to grow, which are key to providing food diversification for many animals such as deer and mountain hares. New growth shoots are liked by many bird species, including red grouse and the golden plover, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) said. It is important to note that the golden plover, like many other bird species, is often found nesting at higher densities in areas of recently burned heather.
Of course, the burnt areas also act as valuable firebreaks, and evidence upon evidence has been put before us that where dead woody undergrowth is allowed to build up, wildfire risk is dramatically increased. It might be asked why cutting should not be the preferred method for controlling heather growth. The simple answer is that, more often than not, the topography does not lend itself to that technique. It is expensive in labour resource, and often it does not have the desired positive effects that I have outlined. It is also important to note that controlled burning is a precise and professional operation. It is much more than having a box of matches and some dry weather. It involves planning, teamwork and, often, specialist kit. Land managers must understand and comply with strict burning codes, and burning is all undertaken within controlled burning seasons, which run through the wet months from October to April. Why is there a burning season, it might be asked. It is because rank vegetation is burned off when peat is holding water and before the bird nesting season starts. Those controlled, or cool, burns, as they are known, do not burn the peat or the understorey of mosses.
It is my view that heather burning plays its part as a conglomerative measure to achieve ecological and conservation benefits. We should always take an evidence-based approach, and the evidence is clear. When it is carefully managed, burning is good for moorland management and for conservation.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for bringing the debate today and giving Members the opportunity to discuss a critical but often overlooked element of the fight against climate change and efforts to rebalance land use.
A key issue that I want to highlight is the effect of muirburn on peatlands and peat bogs, which are critical for preserving biodiversity, minimising flood risk and fighting climate change. Peat acts as a carbon store, storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. As a result, 6% of manmade CO2 emissions come from damage done to peatlands. In Scotland’s case, peatland covers more than a fifth of the entire country and stores about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon, so it is crucial for the environment that steps are taken to protect it from deterioration. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government have acknowledged that and the important part that peat plays in the ambition to become a carbon-neutral country. They have put 25,000 acres on the road to recovery, with a pledge of £250 million for peatland restoration over the next decade.
Unfortunately, irresponsible muirburn on grouse shooting estates can pose a major threat to the stability of peatlands. Research by the University of Leeds found that burning grouse moors degrades peatland habitat, releases climate-altering gases, reduces biodiversity and increases flood risk.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in 2019 the wildfire of Scotland’s flow country, which was on overgrown moorland, resulted in 22 square miles of UNESCO world heritage site being damaged and 700,000 tonnes of CO2 being released, which doubled Scotland’s CO2 production for six days?
I am not saying that there is no need for land management; I am saying that we need to tackle the irresponsible land managers to make sure that that sort of thing does not happen.
Muirburn also poses a particular risk, in allowing fire to spread to highly flammable underground peat, which causes the carbon to be released, as the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) has ably helped me to highlight. Anyone who has cooried in beside a fireplace knows how flammable peat is. It has been over a year since the Government stated that they intended to phase out the burning of protected blanket bog—a promise repeated by Ministers over the past 12 months. We have yet to see legislative progress on that, so I would welcome assurances from the Government that it continues to be treated as a priority. I also urge the Government to follow the Scottish Government’s lead and match spending commitments for the restoration of peatlands and peat bogs. Furthermore, Scotland has banned muirburn in peatlands during the pandemic, and with the second lockdown I suggest that that might be considered for the rest of the UK.
Perhaps it is time to consider broader issues to do with land use in general. On some estimates, between 12% and 18% of Scotland’s land is used for grouse shooting, making it extremely hard to ensure that muirburn is carried out responsibly and is not damaging the peatlands. We hear from some quarters that such threats to the environment are far outweighed by economic benefits. Industry figures show that grouse shooting adds very nearly 3,000 jobs to the Scottish economy, at an average salary of £11,500 a year, creating a total of about £30 million in employment. For an industry that requires more than 10% of Scotland’s entire land mass to function, however, £30 million and 3,000 jobs below the minimum wage would appear, by some suggestions, to be disproportionate. Comparing that with the £770 million from forestry and timber processing and the £180 million from forest tourism, it seems that grouse shooting’s economic contribution is slightly out of proportion.
I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to investigate these and other issues in the Werritty review. The Scottish Government are giving careful consideration to the review’s recommendations regarding introducing licensing for grouse moor businesses. If they decide to do so, they have pledged to introduce it more quickly than the five-year timescale recommended.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing the debate. She spoke passionately, much as she did in her maiden speech, about the impact of peatland burning on the climate, the local environment and flooding.
Labour is calling on the Government to restate and act on their commitment to the legislation that they promised over a year ago. It is imperative that rhetoric on climate leadership is more than simply rhetoric, and they have an opportunity to put words into action. As part of our plan for nature, Labour is calling on the Government to help restore degraded peatlands to their natural state by ending the harvesting of peat and the burning of moors or blanket bog. A comprehensive independent review into habitats and fire risk caused by grouse shooting management arrangements, with a view to new regulatory controls, has been a long time coming.
We have had a very good debate, and there are obviously a wide range of different opinions, from those of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to those of the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who spoke with characteristic expertise about moorland management. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned, Natural England recently published its position statement, which restates its commitment to end burning and to restore our upland peatlands in order to conserve wildlife and carbon. The restoration of those areas to bog habitats is also supported by the RSPB, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the majority of academics, environmental non-governmental organisations, and many northern councils and Mayors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) mentioned that peatland also plays an important role in water and flood management, and I commend her for all the work that she has done on this issue. Our peatlands form a significant and vital part of the UK’s carbon storage. They contain more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined but, through the burning of peat bogs, we are releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere each year—the equivalent of driving over 140,000 cars a year. In January, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned by the end of 2020 as a “low-cost, low-regret” action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We are facing a great challenge ahead of us. We need immediate and decisive action to ensure not only that we meet our international obligations, but that we are world leaders in the efforts to tackle the climate emergency. Research by the University of Leeds has found that the burning of grouse moors not only releases climate-altering gases, but degrades peatland habitat, reduces biodiversity and increases flood risk. The Government have implicitly acknowledged the damage that burning is causing by including the restoration of peat and moors in the flood and coastal erosion risk management policy statement, and rightly so. Peatland prevents flooding downstream. It absorbs and holds back large amounts of water when there is heavy rainfall, and it releases water during times of drought.
In conclusion, we need to better manage our natural environment, not just oversee its decline. We need to improve biodiversity and reduce our carbon emissions, and we need to protect our communities that are increasingly under the threat of flooding. The Government must follow through on their commitments. It is not enough to state good intentions; we need action.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Pritchard; it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am not sure whether I should say this, but what a fiery, hot topic this is. There are obviously diverse views on all sides, and the debate has been extremely well attended. We have heard some excellent and informed speeches, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing the debate, for her interest in this subject, and for the passion with which she speaks about subjects such as climate change.
I take issue with the comments about biodiversity and the degradation caused under this Government. If the hon. Lady were following proceedings in the Environment Bill—members of that Committee are here —she would realise how committed the present Government are to the environment. It is right at the top of our agenda. Not only do we have measures in the Bill bringing forward biodiversity net gain, conservation covenants and local nature recovery strategies, but we have the £80 million green recovery fund, which the Prime Minister has topped up this week. That provides the green army that the hon. Lady was asking for, and all the jobs that go with it, to deliver the green recovery. We are all right behind that and the 10-point green plan, announced this week. I want to cover that at the beginning, as it directly relates to what we are talking about.
Moorlands are made up of a mosaic of habitat types. One of the habitats of greatest interest is blanket bog, because of its peat-forming habitats. It generates layers of peat that can grow up and be metres thick, and it covers much of our uplands. Such bogs are an iconic and important part of our landscapes, as many hon. Members explained. They are one of our largest terrestrial carbon stores, a haven for rare and common wildlife, and have natural water-holding and water-cleaning properties.
Restoring and better managing our peatlands is absolutely essential for the nature recovery, which I have just referred to, and tackling climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has highlighted the particular need to restore blanket bogs, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said. That is why we are committed to publishing an English peat strategy that sets out our direction for restoration, protection and sustainable management. We will be providing millions of pounds to kick-start that restoration from another fund of money helping towards biodiversity, the £640 million nature for climate fund.
Among other things in that strategy, we commit to putting our peatland into good hydrological order and condition by restoring it, with a commitment to 35,000 hectares’ being restored by 2025, which is not very far away. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who has great expertise, said, other issues must also be addressed, such as lowland peat and horticultural peat. There are a whole raft of measures in the strategy,
Blanket bogs make up around a third of England’s peatland area. They have formed over thousands of years and have created a massive store of carbon. Currently, only 18% of our protected blanket bog habitat is in good condition. That is a legacy of many things. Members might take issue with me, but it is because of a combination of draining, overgrazing, burning and gradual degradation. While upland degraded peats are responsible for only around 5% of greenhouse gas emissions from England’s peatlands, it is important that we restore and sustainably manage these areas for the other multiple benefits that they provide, as well as the carbon issue.
The impact of rotational burning of vegetation on blanket bog continues to be hotly debated by academics, scientists, land managers and everybody involved on all sides. This summer I received a dossier of the most recent scientific studies from the Uplands Partnership, which includes the Moorland Association and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, an organisation I know a lot about. In my past as an environmental reporter, I often met those organisations and reported on things that they did. I have looked closely at the issue and have met with our chief scientific adviser. I have taken advice from the Science Advisory Council. I have been at pains to analyse all the copious data, much of it conflicting.
At the moment, the scientific data from the experts, from DEFRA and from Natural England is that, on balance and in general, in the UK the burning of vegetation on blanket bog moves the bog away from its original wet state, and risks vulnerable peat bog habitat’s becoming drier and turning into a heathland habitat. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby is itching to intervene on me. He was absolutely right about the importance of science, as were others. That is why it is so important to look at all the data, and keep looking at it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) also referred to the need for the correct science; I support him on that, and on his support for bird life and Botham. His life, of course, started in Somerset.
We absolutely support any measures to re-wet some of our uplands, but, of course, the Minister needs to bear in mind that if we do make it more boggy, land managers would not be able to cut it with a tractor without getting bogged. The need to burn, combined with having a wetter moorland storing some of that water, is vital. As somebody who has got a tractor bogged on many occasions, I can attest to the difficulties on very wet land.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and I can agree because I, too, was brought up on a farm and drive a tractor, and have got many a tractor stuck. I know what he is talking about.
Since 2015, Natural England has been working with landowners and managers, as he knows, to help phase out rotational burning where possible. That has included a range of methods. Some estates have signed voluntary commitments to suspend burning—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was slightly dismissive, saying that that had not worked, but actually there have been some real successes with that approach. Some estates have agreed to phase out their long-term plans at estate level, and some have consented to try cutting where it is possible.
Natural England has successfully removed 47%— 189 out of 402—of the consents to burn on protected land and, where estates hold long-term consents to burn, many have suspended the practice to enter into new, extended agri-environment schemes. However, that course of action is clearly not protecting every blanket bog site.
I am going to plough on. I am very aware that moorland management communities are concerned about the restriction of burning—it has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden)—not least because of the wildfire risk on the land. Fires sweep through, cause severe damage and release fine particulate matter—I am also the Minister for air quality, so I am well aware of the dangers of fine particulate matter and the impacts on local air quality—and, obviously, we want to mitigate that.
Natural England and DEFRA officials are considering all the evidence around all the different practices in relation to wildfire risk, to try to come up with the most appropriate technique to mitigate that risk. Some of the clearest evidence to date points to improving the resilience of the peatlands to return them to their wet state.
We must also remember that those who farm and manage our uplands have massive opportunities coming their way, through the new environmental land management scheme, to engage in many other projects and undertake work that will keep the wildlife there, will help to keep the moorland wet and will help to drain, control and hold the water to deal with flooding. That was eloquently mentioned by the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch), and I am happy to meet the hon. Member for York Central at some point to discuss her particular issues around peat and the uplands—apologies if I have not done that yet. I thought I had met her over the summer.
We are watching Scotland eagerly to see what will happen up there and how things go; we will be taking stock of that.
No, I will plough on. My officials are continuing to work out how and where we might be able to phase out rotational burning, but all these other options must be taken into account.
Next, I wanted to touch on this issue of flooding; winter is coming and we have had a very wet year. Blanket bogs are a natural sponge; they sit at the top of river catchments and are important for holding water, but that is only possible when they are kept in good condition—that is one of the key things. We have done a great project working on Exmoor—not far from me—where the water company is doing exactly that, and it is having really good results. is an important part of flood control, to which we have contributed £5.2 billion—more money than ever before. Nature-based solutions are a big part of the new systems coming down the track.
I am sorry, I did not realise the time. I just want to ask the Minister very quickly whether she might have conversations with the likes of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance to gauge the opinion of those who manage the moors, to come up with a policy that everyone can agree on.
Thank you so much for raising that. I do talk to all those people. I have been out with gamekeepers to look at the land. We have to get this right; we do not want to make enemies. We have to work together. There have got to be ways. We will release our peat strategy soon and there will be some detailed information in there. It will cover all things relating to peat and these other sections, as well as the land managers. The Government have made a commitment to do something about this. We do have to do something about climate change, do we not, Chair?
Yes; sorry. And we have to do something about our carbon storage, our wildlife protection, our clean water and our flood control.
I will wind up now. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for raising the topic and I thank everyone for their input. It is a fiery and a heated topic, and there will be more water coming under this bridge.
I thank everyone who has taken part in today’s rowdy debate. I want to quickly clarify a few points, if I may, about the body of scientific evidence. I will quote from the International Union for Conservation of Nature peatland programme’s position statement. The first point states:
“The current body of available scientific evidence indicates that burning on peatland can result in damage to peatland species, microtopography and wider peatland habitat, peat soils and peatland ecosystem functions.”
The second point, which is what I have been getting at, states:
“Healthy peatlands do not require burning”
to be maintained. I am not saying for one moment that our moorlands do not need to be maintained, but that the practice of burning creates a self-reinforcing circle. We burn the heather, it comes back, then we burn it and dry it out, and then it comes back. That is why the number of fires has been increasing year on year. Finally, just on identity politics—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).