Monday 24 May 2021
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Child Food Poverty
[Relevant documents: oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 21 January, on Child Food Poverty, HC 1112. Written evidence: transcript of a conversation between the Chair of the Petitions Committee and Marcus Rashford MBE on 18 January, on Child Food Poverty, HC 1112. Correspondence with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on Child Food Poverty, reported to the House on 18 December 2020, HC 1112. Correspondence with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions relating to child food poverty, reported to the House on 20 May.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 554276, relating to child food poverty.
I had hoped to be present in Parliament to open the debate. However, there has unfortunately been severe disruption on the east coast main line between Newcastle and London, caused by cows on the line. I am grateful to House staff for facilitating my virtual contribution to this incredibly important debate.
Child food poverty has become an issue of huge public interest during the covid-19 pandemic, as is shown by the fact that 1.1 million people have signed this high-profile petition started by Marcus Rashford. I commend Marcus for his campaigning on the issue. He has used his immense platform and personal experience to bring this long-overlooked issue to the forefront of people’s minds, uniting fans of football and others behind his call today.
The terms “child food poverty” and “food insecurity” are used quite frequently now, so I will start by setting out exactly what we mean when we use those phrases; I think it might come as a shock to some people. A standard way to determine food insecurity, and one that is used by the UK Food Standards Agency and in many other countries, is to ask people three straightforward questions: have you had to skip meals because of a lack of money or not being able to access the food that you need? Have you gone hungry and not eaten for those same reasons? Have you gone for a day without eating for those same reasons?
The executive director of the Food Foundation told us in a survey from September that 14% of households with children fell into the moderate or the severe category following their responses to those questions. That is around 2.3 million children right here in the UK. Child food poverty is not about families who rely on low-cost ready meals or who lack access to healthy food; it is about children who are forced to skip meals and go hungry because their parents or carers cannot afford to feed them.
It is a shocking reality that we live in a country where there is no shortage of food—only a shortage of money to pay for it. That is an incredibly serious issue. Although the unprecedented circumstances of the last 14 months have certainly made things worse and put a spotlight on childhood poverty as never before, the problem was with us before any of us had ever heard of covid-19. Sadly, I fear it will be with us long after we come out of lockdown.
The petition has three key asks of Government: provide meals and activities during all school holidays, expand free school meals to all under-16s when a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or an equivalent benefit, and increase the value of healthy start vouchers to at least £4.25 a week, which has already happened, and expand the scheme.
The decision to provide £221 million of funding for the holiday activities and food programme during Easter, summer and Christmas 2021 was very welcome, though it must be said that it took heavy cajoling from Marcus Rashford and from campaigners and colleagues in the House to make that happen. It is still not clear, however, whether the Government expect to make that funding a long-term commitment beyond 2021. Will the Minister confirm that today?
Until this year, local authorities had to engage in competitive bidding for a £9 million pot for holiday activities and food funding, which covered only around 50,000 children in England. That gave no certainty to low-income families, and there can be no going back to it. Also, the Government have not directly responded to the petitioners’ request to expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals and healthy start vouchers. I am happy to be corrected by the Minister, but it seems clear to me that there are currently no plans to do that.
During our evidence session with Marcus Rashford, he explained that from his own experience
“it’s impossible to learn and to develop”
in a school environment “if you’re hungry” and do not have the right foods. He emphasised that food is important not just for effective learning, but for removing the anxiety of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. We also heard that up to 1.2 million children could be living in poverty but not be eligible for free school meals, so they are forced to rely on poor-quality food or go hungry. The Trussell Trust told us that during the year before the pandemic hit, it distributed 1.9 million food parcels.
We also heard that people with illnesses and disabilities are massively over-represented at food banks because the benefits system is not catching them. Will the Minister explain why the Government are not looking at expanding the free school meal eligibility criteria, as the petitioners ask, given all the evidence of the families who face food insecurity and who are forced to rely on food banks, but are missed by the current criteria?
Specifically on healthy start, the Government increased the value of the vouchers from £3.10 a week to £4.25 from April, meeting a key ask of the petitioners, which is welcome, but there are real concerns about trends in uptake. National statistics are not available, but figures provided in response to a written parliamentary question that I tabled show that uptake has declined in every north-east local authority over the last four years, even as child poverty has been increasing in every one of them. In the year before the pandemic, uptake fell by more than 15% in Newcastle. The Government plan to replace the physical vouchers with a digitised version, so what assurances can the Minister give that the lowest-income parents will be able to access digital vouchers?
One of the issues with uptake is that local authorities are charged with identifying and promoting the vouchers to local families, but owing to the roll-out of universal credit they no longer have access to all the data that they once had, and I understand the Department for Work and Pensions will not share the universal credit data. The chief executive of Tower Hamlets recently gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee and suggested that the DWP should use universal credit data automatically to passport families they know are eligible for healthy start vouchers, but that is not happening at the moment, perhaps because the vouchers are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care. It seems ludicrous that such bureaucracy is preventing children from accessing healthy food, so will the Minister commit herself to raising the matter with colleagues and getting it sorted?
That brings me to a broader theme that is seriously hampering efforts to get to grips with the issue—the lack of clarity on who exactly is responsible for the Government’s policy on child poverty. We are grateful that the Minister will respond to the debate, but she is at the Department for Education. How does that fit with the Work and Pensions Secretary’s recent letter to the Petitions Committee in which she said that the DWP is co-ordinating the
“cross-Government approach to tackling poverty”?
How does that co-ordination work in practice? What process do Departments go through to review the role and effectiveness of targeted measures such as free school meals that fall within the remit of another Department?
The Government have, with some cajoling, implemented several welcome, temporary measures to support the families struggling with the cost of food. It should not have taken that level of campaigning and pressure to shame the Government into action, but I think we would all agree that normalising emergency food aid as the primary way to deal with the effects of child poverty is not something we should aspire to as a country. That is stigmatising and it is not sustainable.
What Marcus Rashford and the 1.1 million people who signed his petition want is a long-term plan to support families facing food poverty, over and above those temporary measures, because parts of our country were facing a growing child poverty crisis before we had ever heard of covid-19.
It is not enough for Ministers to refer vaguely to a levelling-up agenda whenever child poverty is brought up. It lacks definition and, as far as I can tell, it has no metrics by which we can track performance. We hear a lot about getting parents into work as a solution, but most parents of children living in poverty are already in work.
Marcus Rashford said he started the petition to “give families hope” and so that they could see that “the Government are listening”. So, I ask the Minister, are the Government listening? There is no shortage of food in this country, but for far too many there is a shortage of money to buy it. If we really want to tackle child poverty, that is what we need to address.
That will require action on unemployment, insecure work, welfare reform, education and social inequality, and more, but the first step is for the Government genuinely to commit to tackling the issue, with no more empty promises, re-presenting of facts or redefining of parameters. Only the Government can solve this by working across Departments and using every lever they have to create a better present and future for children living in food poverty. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, commit to that today?
The debate is very heavily subscribed. It is not my method to impose a time limit, but if Members kept their comments to under three minutes—preferably to two and a half minutes —everyone would get in. You will be able to see a clock, which will help you to know when it is advisable to finish. If people take too long, those at the end will not get in.
May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone? I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who is Chair of the Petitions Committee, on which I am proud to serve, on securing the debate and thank her for her introductory remarks.
During my career as a teacher, I was responsible, as a head of year, for the wellbeing of hundreds of children, so the issue we are debating is incredibly close to my heart. From my eight years as a teacher, I know how important it is for children to get the support they need and make the most of their lives. That is why, when we look back at the pandemic, we should think about the fact that, so far, the Government have issued over £380 million-worth of vouchers that have been redeemed for free school meals, which was entirely the right thing to do, particularly as children were not in school as we had asked them to stay at home.
We should also think about the £170 million given out through the covid winter grant scheme, which did a fantastic amount of work across the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke area, and the uplift of standard universal credit weekly allowance by £20, which has been extended until the end of September 2021.
The petition has gathered a mass of national support. I want to focus on the holiday activities and food programme, of which I am a huge advocate. In my constituency, I am lucky to have the Hubb Foundation, run by Carol Shanahan and Adam Yates, a former professional football player. Since 2017, it has gone above and beyond, introducing programmes to ensure kids have activities that improve their mental and physical health, and receive a meal during the day. It works closely with schools to target those children who are most in need.
I believe we can also help by shortening the school summer holiday break. A report I wrote for Onward, which I know the Minister has seen, estimates that on average UK families spend £133 per week in childcare. Reducing the six-week break to four weeks would put £266 back in parents’ pockets. That would help to cover the cost of the summer break and help to prevent the widening of the attainment gap, which we know happens in the long summer holiday, particularly between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.
In Stoke-on-Trent, we received over £1 million from the covid winter grant scheme, which helped 18,640 children through free school meal vouchers over Christmas and February half-term. Money also went to the Hubb Pots project, run by the Hubb Foundation, which provided up to 150 families with a slow cooker, ingredients and recipe cards for one meal a day for 12 weeks. Such action will ensure that families can continue to benefit independently and in the long term, because education is so important. We need better home economics education in our schools, so that children understand how to cook on a budget, how to prepare food and how to store it, so that food lasts longer in the fridge and the freezer. That will go a long way to ensuring that those young people have better access.
I thank the Minister for coming to Stoke-on-Trent, where we received £1.4 million for holiday activities. She visited Ball Green Primary School with Councillor Dave Evans and Councillor Abi Brown to witness the fantastic work of the Hubb Foundation, which provided 140 activity sessions across the city of Stoke-on-Trent—one of the largest programmes in the country. It was brilliant to see the confidence that the children were gaining—not only in the skills they were learning, but in the cooking that they were learning from.
I send another big shout out to Port Vale Foundation, which has given more than 300,000 meals to families throughout the pandemic. It won the English football league’s community club of the year award—rightly so, because in Stoke-on-Trent we wrap our arms around every single man, woman and child in our city, and we take very seriously the care and support that they need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading this very important debate.
Can I begin by saying that child poverty is a political choice? It could be eradicated within weeks if there was the political will. We live in the sixth-largest economy in the world, but the wellbeing of our kids is not a priority. We have to ask ourselves why that is the case. Why has it taken time for the Government to come forward with legislation on the right to food—the right to eat? We know that the Government should be ashamed that kids are going hungry, food banks are on the increase, schools’ food budgets are continually being cut, and class sizes continue to get larger. Unemployment is on the rise, and precarious work is more common now than it has ever been. There is a lack of quality housing, and mass evictions are just around the corner. Fire and rehire is running wild, and the benefits system is not fit for purpose. Soon, the £20 uplift in universal credit will be cut. What an absolute mess.
I understand better than most that we should never believe what we read in the newspapers, but we heard only this weekend about a senior Member of Parliament getting £27,000-worth of takeaways delivered to his house by a delivery driver on a hired pushbike. That figure is utterly amazing. It is more than the average yearly salary of many of my constituents, some of whom have more than just one job in order to make ends meet. For the record, the MP voted against free school meals to feed our kids.
We live in a society where 4.3 million children—31%—live in poverty. That figure is up 200,000 from the previous year, and up half a million over five years. Some 37% of children in the north-east live in poverty, which is the second-highest rate in the UK, behind London. The north-east saw the UK’s steepest increase in child poverty—a rise from 26% in 2014-15 to 37% in 2019-20. All 12 north-east councils are in the top 20 such local authorities in the UK; there have been huge increases.
Let me reiterate that child poverty is a political choice. Despite the tiring and monotonous rhetoric about levelling up, the Government have shown no sign of tackling the endemic child poverty in left-behind communities across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I will keep my remarks brief. I would very quickly like to point out that I commend Marcus Rashford for his campaign. He has clearly increased the profile of the issue and shone a spotlight on it, but we must not lose sight of the fact that when the food poverty strategy was commissioned, it was already tasked with the job of looking at many of the things that have come to light and that the petition calls for.
I think back to summer 2020, when my hon. Friend the Minister visited Ipswich because we were a pilot scheme for the holiday activities and food programme. During that visit, she said that her ambition was to extend that programme across the country, and she also spoke about the food strategy. The idea that all this support was cobbled together at the last minute because of Marcus Rashford is false. Although his role needs to be highlighted, it is incorrect to say that was not part of the Government’s plan, because it absolutely was.
When we look at the final copy of the food poverty strategy, we see that many of its recommendations have been delivered, such as expanding the holiday activities and food programme, and increasing the amount of the Healthy Start voucher. The Government asked the food poverty programme to look at all of that, and that is what has been delivered.
I have respect for all hon. Members across this House, whatever their political persuasion—whether on the left or the right—and I do not think there is a single one of them who does not care passionately about the welfare of disadvantaged children in our constituencies. They will be hurt by the idea that young people are struggling—perhaps more now than before—because of the pressures of the pandemic. In my constituency there is significant deprivation, and many young people depend on those vouchers and on that support. But it is important to recognise that most Governments around the world, whether on the left or the right, have this problem. The idea that it is a political choice is completely wrong. That is the politics of the playground.
To solve this problem, we have to work together. The idea that Conservative MPs are callous figures who do not care about our young people and are starving our young children is, as I say, the politics of the playground. I hope that we have left those ideas in the last year. Look at where we are now, having rolled out the new holiday activities and food programme. We should look to work together in partnership.
Conservative Members did not vote to starve children; we voted on a non-binding Opposition day motion, which was followed by the most ambitious package of support ever provided by a Government in this area: £170 million went to grant schemes; £2 million of that went to Suffolk; and £800,000 was spent providing support via vouchers. That left £1.2 million for other interventions, such as helping families in need to get white goods or to pay their heating bills. It is a mischaracterisation to say that this is about political choice; it is a reality we face, and it that will be addressed only if we work together across party. There is not a Member in this place who is not pained by the struggles faced by some families and young people in greatest need. Let us work together, support the Government where they deserve it and challenge them when needed.
This year alone, Renfrewshire food bank has provided more than 9,000 food parcels. Of those parcels, 2,500 went to children. According to the Government’s own statistics, the number of children in my constituency living in poverty is 2,598. I mention that because, comparing the Government’s figure with the number of food parcels that the food bank provided to children, we see a difference of only eight, yet this Government maintain with a straight face that there is no link between their policies and the rise in food bank dependency. There is clear uptake by people who never expected to be dependent on its services during the pandemic, particularly those who have been left out of any Government support.
The reality is that poverty can pounce on anyone at any time. Once it seeps into someone’s life, the ramifications are painful, debilitating and long-lasting, both physically and mentally. Thanks to our Scottish Parliament, we are seeing some relief in Scotland, where we already have free school meals and are now seeing that extended to all children in Scotland. The difference in direction of our Governments could not be starker: while the Scottish Government set a target to eradicate child poverty in statute, the UK Government have scrapped targets altogether.
Since I was elected, we have had 29 debates on child poverty. This is the 30th. I am tired of this Government’s indifference to the consequences of their actions. I am tired of the Scottish Government having to spend millions protecting people from policies that they did not vote for. I am tired of local unpaid volunteers having to plug the holes gouged out by this Government. But I am still nowhere near as tired as the children living in poverty, because, most of all, poverty is exhausting.
In my maiden speech, I said:
“Food banks are not part of the welfare state—they are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.—[Official Report, 14 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 775.]
Six years on, what has changed? The fact that this Government knowingly force people to be dependent on the generosity of strangers to literally eat is barbaric. We cannot punish people out of poverty; we have to support and empower them. People in poverty are not the problem; the Government who ignore them are. And if this Government still will not act after 30 debates, then it is time they moved aside for those of us who will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. In the opening speech we heard about the fact that in this country—one of the six wealthiest in the world, and a country that has among the cheapest food in the world—any child or any family should not face a problem with food poverty, and I entirely agree. As Members of Parliament, we need to share our challenges and our ideas about how we implement an effective policy solution to that fact. I recall how, during my time in local government, the last Labour Government included councils such as mine to support the development of local food banks. They recognised that for many families, despite there being cash loans available, a relatively—at the time—generous benefit system and widespread access to free school meals, that support simply was not reaching all children.
We must also recognise that the implementation of policies intended to address child poverty has not always resulted in a material change in their circumstances and, in particular, the circumstances of the most vulnerable children. I commend the Government and the Minister for responding not by taking a one-size-fits-all policy approach through free school meals, but by providing financial support to local authorities. It is those local authorities that best know the circumstances of their area and those of their most vulnerable families, and are therefore best placed to ensure that the support that is provided makes a material difference to the daily life of those children. It would simply be a disgrace if we were to take an approach where we implement a policy and pat ourselves on the back, but that policy has not put a meal in the belly of a hungry child, or helped a family facing chaotic and difficult circumstances to turn their lives around.
Over the years, through the approaches we have taken to everything from the troubled families project under the coalition Government to the initiation of the Sure Start programme under the last Labour Government, we have learned that it is about having that local knowledge, experience and understanding of circumstances. I commend the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government for the policies they have implemented, because in the context of Scotland those things are right. However, we also need to recognise that in England, where there is not the equivalent—an English Parliament—it is our local authorities that know the circumstances in their communities and are best placed to make the crucial difference.
Certainly, having visited my local food bank and spoken to people in my local authorities who have been implementing the Government’s response, running the programmes to tackle the risk of holiday hunger and engaging with schools, this element of flexibility—providing funding so that local authorities can make the difference—has been much appreciated. It has demonstrated that some families are far more needy than we might have thought, and others have been able to turn their situation around with a relatively small amount of support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) highlighted, it is right that we recognise that there is no real party political disagreement about the need for action on this; there is total cross-party agreement. We need to make sure that we have effective policy responses that make a difference for the better in the lives of our most vulnerable children in this country. We need to focus on what we agree on, and in my view, that is what the Government’s policy approach to date has entirely been about.
I welcome this opportunity to highlight rising food insecurity among children. Relative child poverty has risen sharply. The Resolution Foundation found that nearly half of families with three or more children were in relative poverty after housing costs in 2019-20, and the family resources survey, which covered food security for the first time this March, shows that 43% of universal credit claimants have low or very low food security, so we have a big problem. In the year to last March, the Trussell Trust distributed 1 million emergency food parcels to children. The Independent Food Aid Network, with food banks outside the Trussell Trust, told the Work and Pensions Committee this month that demand last year was more than double that of the year before.
Troubled by those developments, the Work and Pensions Committee set up an inquiry on children in poverty. Our next public evidence session will be on Wednesday. Last December, Ben Levinson, headteacher of Kensington Primary School in my constituency, told the Committee that the plight of families with no recourse to public funds and other pressures compelled the school to set up a trust to provide food packages and parcels for the needy. Kellogg’s has told us that 18% of schools have started a food bank since the pandemic began.
These problems in childhood lead to attainment and health problems later. The University of Liverpool health inequalities team told our inquiry that it has repeatedly found strong evidence of a causal relationship between child poverty and
“mental health problems, cognitive disability, overweight and obesity, and longstanding illness.”
In 2014, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported that poorer children were far less likely to achieve high levels of educational attainment. Dr Kitty Stewart from the London School of Economics recently told our Committee that
“money itself makes a difference to children’s outcomes”,
partly because poverty causes stress and anxiety among parents, making it harder for them
“to focus on children’s needs, listen to them, help with homework and so on.”
I support the Sutton Trust’s call for universities to have access to free school meals information, so that they can take account of these issues in admissions decisions. Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, who is due to give evidence to the Committee again on Wednesday, has called for a return to better joined-up working between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We need a clear Government focus on tackling the growing problem of child poverty.
The extension of free school meals at the start of the pandemic to families with no recourse to public funds was exactly the right thing to do. I hope that will be made permanent. I know that the Minister’s Department is looking at that, together with the Home Office. It would be very helpful if she could let us know today where that review has reached.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone, I think for the first time. I give the customary recognition and thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who opened the debate.
I think I need to start by saying that wanting all children to have access to nutritious and filling meals is not a party political issue. Not wanting children to go hungry does not define which political party we are in, but how the political debate has been conducted around the issue sadly has. As of March this year, our data highlights that 6% of children live in households with very low food security. That does not mean that 6% of children are going hungry all the time, but it does mean there is a risk that they might.
This may upset some people, but there has been a lot of discussion about what levelling up actually means, and I think in the context of this debate it is appropriate. For me, it is all about equality of opportunity. It is about the opportunity for someone to move their family and their children out of that low food security category. That is why it is something that we should focus on. Jobs, income and security for families are our mission, and our mission is clear.
This is an excellent petition, and I am pleased that we are debating it. It is right to highlight this issue, and it calls for three clear things: expanding access to free school meals; providing meals and activities during holidays, in order to stop holiday hunger; and increasing the value of and expanding the Healthy Start scheme. I thank Marcus Rashford for highlighting the challenges facing families across the United Kingdom, and I agree with his point that it is hard for a child to learn at school if they are hungry.
First, on expanding access to free school meals, the critical point that we need to consider is that the view has been taken to support not only children but their whole families during this crisis. The role of the family is important in our society—it is about jobs, income and security for families.
Secondly, on providing meals and activities during holidays, the holiday activities and food programme has provided healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children, and it has been expanded in England this year. Supporting children in the summer holidays means that we are supporting families and relieving them of the burden of childcare in either cost or time, so that parents can focus on work.
Thirdly, Healthy Start scheme payments have increased, which is a good thing, and the Government are committed to increasing the funding for Healthy Start vouchers across the period.
This is an important topic. Nobody here wants to see children go hungry. We are making progress, and we all agree that there is more work to be done. I look forward to working collaboratively with colleagues to ensure that our ambition to level up opportunity across the United Kingdom can be measured in a real reduction in food insecurity for families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, although it is a source of shame on this country that we are having to discuss this issue at all. The fact that over 900,000 food parcels were delivered to children in the last year, in one of the richest countries in the world, is a national scandal, and responsibility lies squarely at the feet of this Government.
This issue has a special resonance in my constituency, where over a third of all children are living in poverty. In fact, there are few communities in the country more left behind than the north end of Birkenhead. Here, a male resident can expect to live 11 fewer healthy years than the national average. The typical household income after housing costs is just £16,000, and over half of all children are living in poverty.
The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but it is particularly bad for young people living in north Birkenhead and the many communities like it. For too long, they have borne the brunt of an austerity agenda that has decimated frontline services. For many of these children, a school dinner is the only hot meal they can rely on in a day, and with schools closed and unemployment soaring, covid-19 has plunged many of them into deprivation and food poverty.
These young people desperately needed this Government to be true to their word and ensure that no child was left behind as we battle this virus, but time and again this Government have had to be shamed into taking even the smallest steps to support these children, whether that is extending free school meals over the summer holidays or maintaining even temporarily the £20 uplift to universal credit. I welcome the Minister’s presence here today, but she should know that defending this Government’s disgraceful record on child hunger is an almost impossible task.
As public health restrictions are eased, I look forward to visiting schools across my constituency. I will be meeting the dedicated educators and support staff who everyday bear witness to the devastating impact that child hunger has on their students and, of course, I will be speaking to the young people who sit at the very heart of this debate. When those children ask me why we have a Parliament and a Government, I would like nothing better than to be able to say, “To look after you,” but in all conscience, I cannot do so while this Government continue to let so many children languish in poverty and hunger.
I urge the Minister to do everything she can to ensure that the blight of child food poverty is stamped out once and for all. That means listening to organisations such as the Trussell Trust and making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent. It means heeding the calls of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and incorporating the right to food in the national food strategy. With 72% of all children struggling with food poverty having at least one parent in employment, it means delivering on the promise of an employment Bill that can end, at long last, in-work poverty.
There is no political divide in the desire to grapple with the perennial issues of childhood poverty and child hunger. We can describe child poverty as a perennial since the definition of it is a relative term—a child growing up in a household whose income is less than 60% of the national median. It is as much a commentary on the spread of household earnings as an indicator of want. But childhood hunger is an absolute—either a child is hungry or not. And no child in this country should be hungry.
The reasons for childhood hunger are complex and it will hamper our ability to address those causes properly if we choose, for political campaigning reasons, to over-simplify them. They include unemployment, a sudden change of family income, chaotic finances, drug dependency, poor access to good-quality food shops, poor food education, the breakdown of relationships and low pay in employment. I do not have time today to go into the raft of Government measures that have supported children and families through covid and beyond. I will focus on overall income, because if these things that I have mentioned are the causes of child hunger, then the solution to the majority of them is to focus on the overall income of low-income families.
I say that because providing for one’s children is at the heart of what it is to be a parent. If the state takes responsibility away, it also takes away dignity and self-reliance— it diminishes parenthood. As a parent myself, one of the key life lessons I try to give my own children is that of personal responsibility, so we should be wary of intervening in such a way as to undermine the ability of parents to do the same—storing up, as it will, trouble for the next generation of parents.
The Government must ensure that employment truly is the answer to food insecurity, and for that to be the case employment simply needs to pay enough. I am glad that it was a Conservative Government that introduced a national living wage and it is right that the Government should build on the early foundations to increase the national living wage over a timeframe that allows businesses to adapt their models to accommodate it. This year, the national living wage has increased above inflation yet again to £8.91 per hour and it will continue to grow until it reaches £10.50 by 2024—two thirds of median earnings, which is enough to lift families above child poverty, as it is defined.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) when he says that local authorities are best placed to help the most vulnerable families. However, universal credit, as a stepping-stone to readily available employment at a wage that is enough to get on with the basics of life, is the policy that will help to lift most families out of food insecurity.
I look forward to the publication of part 2 of the national food security paper and I welcome the Government’s undertaking to produce a White Paper within six weeks of its delivery. However, when seeking to provide long-term solutions to child hunger, I hope that the review will bear in mind the value and responsibility of parenthood, and make sure that its recommendations support parents in their role as the most important teachers of the next generation.
A staggering 4.3 million children in the UK currently live in households below the poverty line, according to the End Child Poverty coalition, and of the four UK nations Wales has the highest level of child poverty. In my constituency of Cynon Valley, 35% of children live in poverty, well above the UK average of 30%.
The rising levels of inequality, poverty and hardship in our country are no better illustrated than by the shockingly increasing prevalence of food poverty in the UK. It has been estimated that 2.4 million children in Britain are at risk of malnutrition as a result of living in poverty. Words cannot describe how incensed I am by that, and we should all be filled with anger about the fact that we in the UK, one of the richest nations in the world, have allowed this situation to arise. We should be ashamed that food banks have been normalised in this country; it is a political choice and a shocking indictment of us.
The benefits of free nutritious school meals for children are well known: the health and wellbeing of our children; improved educational attainment; and boosting local economies. I must commend the Welsh Government for the work they have done to date on tackling child poverty. We are the only country in the UK to have a scheme providing universal free breakfasts in primary schools in Wales, and the Welsh Government are the first in the UK to provide such provision during school holidays, which has now been extended until Easter 2022. And that has been achieved in spite of decades of underfunding and austerity from Tory Governments.
However, more can and must be done throughout the United Kingdom, drawing on the excellent and tireless campaigning of organisations here in Wales—the anti-poverty coalition, Child Poverty Action Group and the Bevan Foundation—and especially at a UK level on the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), Baroness Chakrabarti and fan-supported food banks in Liverpool. I call on every nation in the UK to enshrine the right to food in law, which could include an immediate expansion of eligibility for free school meals to all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits; a move towards the provision of universal nutritious free school breakfast and lunch for every child in compulsory education; and the school kitchens to become community kitchens; welfare benefit system changes that give people security and dignity, including but not limited to a permanent £20 uplift to universal credit, which should be extended to legacy benefits; and piloting universal basic income following the lead from Welsh Government.
I recognise the cost implications, but they are not insurmountable. We can afford it; we are the fifth richest country in the world. Why not introduce a wealth tax—a windfall tax—on covid profits and end tax evasion and avoidance by the rich? There is another way. We need to get our priorities right as a country, and I am determined to do everything I can in collaboration with others to end the scourge of child food poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, in a debate on one of the most important issues facing our country. We Members of Parliament will rarely debate anything as pertinent and pressing as child poverty.
We already know that the rich list has come out this week and shown that the wealth of the richest of our society has increased exponentially while tens of thousands of families saw their income slashed. I must disagree with many Members today—this is a political issue. Among the figures which stood out in the rich list was the fact that the UK’s richest person, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, saw his wealth increase by £7.2 billion last year to some £23 billion, in the same period that 4.3 million children languished in poverty. It is not just the lack of money in the pocket, it is the terrible stigma of child poverty. The fact that one individual can gain so much wealth so quickly while millions exist in abject poverty is frankly obscene and reminiscent of Dickensian levels of poverty from a bygone era which has no place in modern Britain.
Even more harrowing is the fact that these levels of poverty are not just the result of Brexit or the covid-19 pandemic. Figures released in March by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that poverty among children had been a rising trend for six years prior to the terrible pandemic: 31% of all children growing up in poverty, an increase of 600,000 since 2013-14. In my borough of Haringey, huge levels of inequality are in sharp focus—an increase of 1,748 kids becoming eligible for school meals since the autumn, adding to the total number of over 8,000 or 20% of all children. In the same report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that three-quarters of children growing up in poverty are from a working family.
What is the solution? First, the living wage should be paid by all employers who can afford it. Why cannot the big supermarkets pay the living wage, whether £10.85 in London or £9.50 outside London? Secondly, we need more controls over ever-rising energy prices in our homes. We should keep transport affordable. Why should water bills keep going up month after month? Let us keep them below inflation.
The most expensive childcare in Europe is in the UK. Discretionary housing payment cuts mean people go into unnecessary debt. There is more debt around unaffordable buy-now pay-later schemes which are promoted all over the place, without any control on their advertising.
I am disappointed that the Government have done away with the industrial strategy. We need growth in the economy, higher wages, and more provision of universal things. The reason everyone loves the NHS is because it is universal. Let us bring in universal school meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) mentioned. Let’s bring in universal housing, where we can, and really address the issue with some energy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to Marcus Rashford. I have no doubt that if he had not lent his support to the campaign, it would not have moved the Conservative politicians in the way it did. I also want to single out for special praise my good and hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) who has championed the right to food campaign and for its inclusion in the national food strategy.
This debate is particularly timely, as it comes after the publication of shocking new data about child poverty in the north-east. Last Thursday I attended a virtual briefing that was organised by the End Child Poverty coalition and the North East Child Poverty Commission and that revealed that in the three years before the covid-19 pandemic, the north-east had the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK, having an average of 37% compared with the UK average of just over 30%. The north-east saw the biggest increase in child poverty from 2014-15 to 2019-20. It rose by more than one third, from 26% to 37%, meaning that it has risen from just below the UK average to be the second highest rate of any region. More than one third of that increase came between 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Let me say to Conservative Members who have spoken in the debate that this is the defining issue of our time, and it is not happenstance that so many children have been driven into poverty; it is a direct result of Government policies. Closing Sure Start centres and depriving local authorities of the means with which to support children are deliberate policies of this Government, and this is the consequence.
Of the 20 parliamentary constituencies across the United Kingdom with the highest increases in child poverty from 2014-15 to 2019-20, more than four fifths are in the north-east. Child poverty in my constituency of Easington rose 10.7 percentage points, from 26% to 37%.
Like other MPs, I pay tribute to the volunteers and those who have stepped into the gaps, but they are trying to paper over the cracks of Government and their agencies failing to do their job. Urgent action is needed. That means supporting children by boosting child-focused support such as child benefit, which has lost 23% of its value since 2010. We need to reverse the planned £20 cut to universal credit. To help struggling families, we should extend free school meals to all families in receipt of universal-credit-equivalent benefits, legacy benefits, and to those with no recourse to public funds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I commend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this important debate. We all know that this Tory Government are never short of, or far from, a scandal, but this petition raises one of the most shameful scandals—4.3 million children living and growing up in poverty in the UK. That is nine pupils in every classroom of 30. It is an absolutely outrageous statistic for one of the world’s richest countries.
The Government can start to address this woeful record today by expanding access to free school meals to every child under 16 who currently lives below the poverty line, and by implementing the recommendations from the national food strategy to provide meals and activities during holiday periods to stop children going hungry. I must commend North Lanarkshire Council in my own constituency for its groundbreaking Club 365, which facilitates play and nutrition throughout holiday periods, and has been in place for the past couple of years.
Furthermore, the Government could increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expand that scheme today. Tens of thousands of families in the United Kingdom every year are not getting enough food to live on and are being forced to turn to non-state, charitable aid. Of course, we see the rise in food banks across every constituency in the UK.
It can be no coincidence that this new phenomenon of growing hunger has emerged alongside a wide range of draconian policies from the UK Government and the restructuring of the country’s welfare system since 2010. With reductions in welfare support year on year, the number of people, including families with children, going hungry is rising at an alarming rate and constitutes a troubling development in the world’s fifth largest economy.
New figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions on household food insecurity showed that between 2010 and last year, 19% of children lived in households with either low or very low food security, and of those children in poverty, 38% are in households with low or very low food security. That is new and stark data, and it is a stark reminder that child poverty has been rising in every part of the UK, even before the pandemic struck. The challenge now for the Government is to take every possible step to ensure that no child is born into a life of poverty.
Unlike the Tory Government, the Scottish Government have taken bold steps to address child poverty. The introduction of our new Scottish child payment, which is unique across the UK, has been described by many anti-child poverty charities as absolutely game changing in the fight against child poverty. The payment, worth £40 every four weeks, has already benefited thousands of families on low incomes in Scotland. Additionally, the Scottish Government are providing support worth around £5,000 by the time a child turns six through the Best Start grant, Best Start foods and the Scottish child payment.
Time is beyond us, so I will just conclude by saying that the UK Government need to recognise that endemic poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable. Social security is a fundamental and inalienable human right. The safety net that it provides has never been more important, and nor has it ever been more scandalous and unnecessary that so many children in our society are continuing to go hungry.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the petition to the House.
Today we are debating the need to end child poverty, how we have reached this point and how we can fix it, because of the efforts of a footballer from Manchester who experienced poverty growing up and never forgot. I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his transformative work, which has put child poverty right at the top of the political agenda and which has resonated with and united people across the country. In Liverpool, West Derby, 6,487 children live in poverty—a heartbreaking 34%. That figure, which is from the Child Poverty Action Group, represents the level before the pandemic, and the effects of the virus and attempts to control it have hit the poorest hardest in terms of jobs and income. The picture is likely to be even worse now.
As parliamentarians, we must act, and we must push for systemic change. The Government must tackle the root causes of food poverty, such as the current system of universal credit and legacy benefits, which we know provides nowhere near enough support for families to afford food, and which has built-in delays that leave people with no means of support for weeks on end. We must tackle the current system that led to the Government initially denying children free school meals during the holidays—a system that has still not fully met the asks of the petition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North outlined in her speech.
Part of that systemic change includes putting our “right to food” submission into the national food strategy, and then into legislation, so that the Government are obliged by law to ensure nobody goes hungry, and so that they are never able to deny children their right to food again. We should guarantee universal free school meals, including a breakfast and a lunch, for every child in this country. Universal provision would avoid the bureaucracy and stigma of means testing our school-age children and would help all to achieve their full potential.
As I have said, we need systemic change in order to achieve the end of child food poverty. The great Nelson Mandela said:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
The time for sticking plasters is over, and the Government must listen to the voices of the 4.3 million children in poverty. That is when the heartbreaking figures will shame the Government.
I was appalled to hear some of the earlier speakers suggest that this is not a political issue. I want to thank Marcus Rashford and the 1.1 million people who have signed the petition. When it needs 1.1 million people to sign a petition to call for a debate, it absolutely is political. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Despite this, UNICEF—an organisation that is responsible for humanitarian aid to children worldwide—launched an emergency response to the UK. There would have been no need for that if this issue was not political. There would have been no need for 1.1 million people to have signed the petition.
In the year 2020, Bradford Metropolitan Food Bank gave out 20,000 emergency food parcels, including to constituents in my constituency of Bradford West. That represents a 67% increase. The injustice of child food poverty cannot be permanently addressed by emergency food parcels and generous donations from local businesses such as those in Bradford West and across the country. The Government must commit to eradicating child food poverty, and should not go ahead with their plans to scrap the £20 universal credit uplift. I have said it before, and I will say it again: it is clear that a cut to the £20 increase risks plunging children and families into food poverty and further destitution. It is just not good enough. The Child Poverty Action Group has stated that lifting the two-child limit and the benefit cap would lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, and an increase to child benefit would substantially reduce poverty.
The Government cannot allow children to bear the burden of the pandemic while people are losing their jobs. People need food security. The hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) talked about the dignity of parents. If the Government want to give real dignity, they should reverse the austerity, give people what they are entitled to, build back, and level up properly so that people such as those in my constituency do not continue to suffer because of the Government’s failures.
I am grateful for the self-discipline that Members have exercised in this very important debate, but we have run over slightly to get every Back-Bencher in. Front-Benchers, could you take one minute off your maximum allowance? I call Patrick Gibson. [Interruption.] Sorry—Patricia. I read what is in front of me. I apologise.
I have been misgendered in better places than this, Mr Bone. I am delighted to participate in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her comprehensive exposition of the shocking issue of child poverty. It should be a cause of shame and embarrassment to us all that, in 2021, across the UK some of our children are still going hungry.
It is clear that the current welfare system simply does not fulfil its avowed aim, which is to assist those who are able to work to re-enter the job market. It seems that the route to achieving that has been woefully misunderstood. Otherwise, there would be no five-week wait for support. There would be no so-called advance payments, which those who eventually receive universal credit, and who are already on the breadline, are forced to pay back, throwing them further into financial distress and consequently further away from the job market. No reputable lender would lend money to those living on welfare because they do not have sufficient means to repay, yet the DWP is content to lend money to claimants in the full knowledge that repayment will cause even further financial distress and reduce their means of returning to the job market. Why on earth would someone design a system in that way?
As a great admirer of Charles Dickens, I think it is worth remembering that he criticised the new Poor Law of 1834 as being unable to elevate the conditions of the poor, and was concerned that the law pushed the poor further into poverty while the rich became richer. It is all starting to sound very familiar. In Dickens’s times, we had philanthropists and public donations to relieve hunger. Today, we have replaced that with food banks. Even now, in 2021, we know that there are children in our communities who turn up to school hungry. We know that the poverty in which they live goes well beyond the material.
Material poverty is the midwife to so many other privations that our children suffer as well as hunger. It brings with it poverty of self-esteem, poverty of opportunity, poverty of cultural experiences, poverty of family support and poverty of potential. Children who grow up hungry sadly lose their innocence long before they should, yet it seems to be the case that those with the power to address that are content in the belief that they are doing all that they should to address it, as did those on the Poor Law boards during the 1800s.
The logic seems to be that if someone is poor they could improve their poverty if they really, really tried. Therefore, to some extent their poverty is a choice. The only folk who could believe that are those who have never gone without. For a variety of reasons, not everyone is able to dig themselves out of the pit of poverty. Sometimes the obstacles are simply too great, and most children living in poverty are in homes where a parent is working.
To improve matters, we could fix elements of universal credit, which traps families in poverty and keeps them out of work. We could replace advance payments, which are in reality loans provided to those with no possible way of repaying them without being driven into a pit of debt. We could replace those payments with loans that are not repayable, or we could get rid of the five-week wait so that claimants can be paid more quickly and can look after their families, and we could do more to promote the real living wage instead of the pretend living wage that we currently have.
In Scotland, the SNP Government are expanding free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil. Best Start food payments across Scotland are increasing, and eligibility will increase by about 50% to all in receipt of universal credit. Alongside that, we have a UK Government that scrapped targets to reduce child poverty, but in Scotland we have ambitious targets to eradicate child poverty. The Scottish child payment of £10 per week per child for those on qualifying benefits will increase to £20 per week per child, assisting 450,000 children across Scotland. Meanwhile, the UK Government refuse to commit to retaining the £20 uplift in universal credit. They are scrapping targets to reduce child poverty while presiding over a rise in the same.
Despite their limited powers, the Scottish Government understand that with the Trussell Trust handing out a food parcel every two and a half minutes, the status quo is not an option. More can and should be done to tackle child poverty and hunger. Hungry children are robbed of the opportunity to be happy children and are scarred in ways that we cannot always see. The Minister can forget trying to close the attainment gap if childhood hunger is not tackled. Hungry children’s education suffers. Their life chances and health outcomes, even in later life, suffer. Their self-esteem suffers, and their ability to reach their potential and contribute all they can to their community suffers. The cost of hungry children is far more expensive to the state than that of feeding our children. The social cost is almost incalculable. The UK Government’s welfare policies are hard for Scotland to swallow since they are served up to us on a plate by a Government we have repeatedly rejected.
As someone who grew up in grinding poverty, I can testify personally to the ill effects that it brings beyond what can be seen on the surface. In Scotland, real efforts have been made by the Scottish Government, with their limited powers, to tackle child poverty and child hunger, but more can and should be done by the Westminster Government. Some 85% of welfare powers are reserved to Westminster, so I urge the Minister to ensure that ways to tackle child poverty and child hunger that will actually improve the lives of children and their families are implemented as a priority, otherwise, just as Dickens pointed out with regard to the new Poor Law of 1834, the current system will not elevate the conditions of the poor, but push people further into poverty while the rich become richer. Despite what anybody else might say, these decisions are political decisions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for moving the motion, and the more than 1 million people who signed the petition to end child poverty, including 3,000 of my constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn. I also thank colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Our country owes a huge debt of gratitude to Marcus Rashford MBE, whose powerful advocacy has pushed the issue to the forefront of our political debate and forced Ministers to confront it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) pointed out. Many more children would have gone hungry last summer and Christmas if it were not for his efforts.
We know that the Prime Minister enjoys stretching the truth from time to time, but one of the most maddening claims that he has ever made was that no child would go hungry during the pandemic. As we have heard today, that could not be further from the reality, with 200,000 children forced to skip meals in the early months of covid-19. Some 2.3 million children live in households that experienced food insecurity this winter, and more families than ever are having to rely on food banks to feed their children. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, no child should go hungry in a country as rich as ours. But they are, and in increasing numbers.
Although we should focus on making sure that hungry children are fed, we need to understand that this food poverty is a result of poverty itself, which has been rising dramatically since 2010. Some 4.3 million children were in poverty at the start of the pandemic—up 500,000 from five years earlier. In that period, child poverty rose in every region in England, with shocking high rises in the north-east, where an astonishing 37% of all children were in poverty at the start of last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) pointed out so powerfully. In practice, that means that many more parents are struggling to put food on the table—despite their best efforts—with all the dreadful consequences that brings for the child’s health, wellbeing, development and education, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) outlined.
The truth is that rising levels of child poverty are a direct result of policy choices over the last decade, which we knew would eventually lead to this outcome. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) said, this is a political choice. Both Members powerfully made the case for food security for children in their constituencies. Since 2010, the Government have slashed the social security system to ribbons. Universal credit was designed in a way that punishes ordinary families, with its five-week wait, two-child limit and other design flaws. They have presided over an economy where wages have been stagnant while housing costs soared. The predictable result is that communities all over the country have been forced to set up food banks, the use of which has skyrocketed in recent years.
If we continue along the current course, the Resolution Foundation projects that three-quarters of a million children could be added to the already swelling ranks of those living in poverty by 2024. That must be avoided at all costs, but there is no sign that a change of approach is coming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) pointed out, having failed to uplift legacy benefits, including disability support, the Chancellor still will not confirm that he has scrapped the plan to cut universal credit from October this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North argued so powerfully, it is shocking that we have no shortage of food in this country, only a shortage of money to buy it. We will never be able to abolish child poverty without tackling the root causes of poverty, but there is a lot more that the Government could do to get food to hungry children.
I turn to the points in the petition. I am delighted that Marcus Rashford and others have been able to secure an uplift in the value of Healthy Start vouchers. At present, hundreds and thousands of eligible families are missing out on the vouchers, and Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that the support gets to those who need it. The same goes for free school meals. Clearly, the Government need to do more to ensure that those who do not qualify for free school meals can get the food support they need. Labour wants to replace universal credit with a fair and compassionate system that delivers support to those who need it. The hardship of the pandemic has exposed the need to ensure that all children can get free school meals during the holidays, although Ministers have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept that and do the right thing.
Although I welcome the countless U-turns that the Government have made in the face of public pressure, their holiday activities and food programme in its current form offers only 16 days of food support over the summer, and will not guarantee that all children who qualify can access it. They need to rethink. I hope the Minister will rethink and give a proper guarantee of support in the pandemic.
Making sure that no child goes hungry should be our national mission, not an unfounded boast bandied about by the Prime Minister as a smokescreen for the fact that so many children are skipping meals and relying on food banks. Our children need fewer warm words and more warm meals. That will require far better and more compassionate leadership on issues such as free school meals, as well as a Government who are serious about tackling the root causes of the hardship and financial insecurity that families face. I hope, for the sake of our children and generations to come, that we get that very soon. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about the petition.
As ever, Mr Bone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank everyone who has signed the petition for securing this important debate, and I thank Marcus Rashford for launching the petition, which promotes the crucial work of the National Food Strategy’s independent review. This Government are dedicated to supporting all children and families, especially the most vulnerable. The Government are fully considering all the recommendations of the National Food Strategy, and I am pleased to be able to report on the actions already taken on the recommendations that are covered in this petition.
During this pandemic, this Government have not only been listening; they have been acting. The Government have taken substantial action to provide additional support to families and children at this incredibly challenging time, including investing an additional £7.4 billion last year to strengthen the welfare system, because supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families and their children is at the heart of this Government’s response. The petition calls on the Government to ensure that Healthy Start vouchers are worth at least £4.25 a week. That has already been done: from April, Healthy Start payments increased from £3.10 to that £4.25 a week. The scheme supports pregnant women and those with children under the age of 4 on lower incomes to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and the Government are developing a digital approach that will make it much easier for families to apply for, and use, this Healthy Start benefit.
When it comes to holiday activities and food, the petition calls on the Government to provide those meals and activities over the holidays. Again, this is an area on which we have taken action. Families welcome support during school holidays, especially in the long summer break. Children benefit from engaging holiday activities, which help them to be ready to learn when they return to school. I am therefore delighted that after three years of our developing these schemes through really successful pilots, we are now able to expand the holiday activities and food programme all across England this year. The programme launched this Easter in every local authority, and will provide support this summer and Christmas, too.
The programme is available to children in every local authority in England. It provides not only food, but opportunities to have fun and make new friendships—things that children have so missed out on this year. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to visit clubs in Ipswich, in Stoke, and in my own constituency and elsewhere in Essex. I have seen at first hand the real benefits that some of those vulnerable children get from attending the clubs. Those activities are a vital component of our recovery work and of levelling up, because these kids build their confidence, which helps them to tackle the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. I ask Members please not to diss these clubs, but to get behind them in their constituencies and support them and their children.
Thirdly, the petition calls for the free school meals eligibility criteria to be further extended. During term time, the Government already support schools to provide a free school meal to over 1.6 million pupils from the lowest-income families, because that helps them to concentrate, learn, and achieve in the classroom. The Government have already extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government for the past half century. We extended free school meals to all infant children back in 2014, and to students at further education institutions from disadvantaged backgrounds at the same time. During the pandemic, we further expanded free school meals eligibility to many of those families who have no recourse to public funds.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) asked for an update about our review of support for no recourse to public funds families, which—like so many other areas—involves work from all sorts of different Departments. However, he knows that the review is progressing, that it is drawing conclusions, and that we hope to report back soon. He knows this because he met the Secretary of State for Education just a few weeks ago to discuss that review. So, yes, we are doing this work, and we will work not only with other organisations but across parties, because this issue is about getting the best support for children and it should not be a party political issue.
During the pandemic we also made sure that those who become eligible for free school meals can get immediate access to those meals. As well as lunchtime meals, the Government support more than a quarter of a million children with our breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. We have recently announced another £24 million to continue and expand our breakfast club programme.
Throughout the pandemic, we spent almost £0.5 billion on food vouchers, so that children had access to food when schools were restricted from opening. My colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions have also provided local authorities with an additional £269 million of local welfare funding.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) pointed out, local authorities know their local needs best. This funding has helped local authorities to provide targeted support to families and individuals, keeping them warm and well fed. Its principal focus is on supporting disadvantaged children and families, both in term time and in the holidays. The scheme will run right through until 21 June, which is the end of this stage of the road map.
Our expanded holiday activities programme will run this summer, in every local authority in England, and we are exploring any additional support that may be needed through the summer. Fundamentally, it is right that free school meals remain primarily targeted at those on the lowest income, but the Government will fully consider eligibility, alongside the other recommendations of the national food strategy.
I cannot take interventions because we are really short of time, and I want the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) to have time to respond.
Education is the No.1 route to opportunity and prosperity. Because this Government believe in levelling up for young as well as older age groups, we invest more in the education of disadvantaged students so that they can unlock the best life chances. Our weighted national funding formula and the £2.5 billion spent annually on pupil premium funds academic interventions as well as important pastoral initiatives.
Furthermore, we invested £1 billion in the covid catch-up fund, including investing in the national tutoring programme, which offers high-quality tutoring to small groups of disadvantaged pupils who have fallen further behind. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw this programme first hand working with a group of five-year-olds and helping with their early language skills. We are working on this project with 40% of our primary schools across the country. The national tutoring programme is making sure that those children who need it most get the best send-off on their education journey.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) pointed out, work is the best route out of poverty for families. After taking into account housing costs, a child living in a household where every adult is working is about four times less likely to be in absolute poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. Therefore, through my colleagues at DWP, we are doubling the number of work coaches to help people find a job. Our brilliant kickstart scheme is offering work placements for 16 to 24-year-olds and the skills Bill not only unlocks new opportunities for young people, but, through the lifelong learning grant, it will open up opportunities for people of all ages to access new skills and opportunities, and find better paid jobs. All of this helps families and children.
I am grateful for the support that hon. Members have given this agenda today. I thank everybody who contributed to the national food strategy, especially Henry Dimbleby for his leadership. I am delighted, as hon. Members might have heard in the tone of my voice, about the roll out of the holiday activities and food programme. I hope hon. Members will get behind those programmes in their constituencies this summer.
As agreed at the start of the review, the Government will fully consider all the recommendations of the national food strategy and we will respond more fully following the next and final report, which is due in the summer. The Government are taking a wide range of comprehensive measures to support children and their families at this very difficult time. The health and the happiness of children will remain at the heart of Government as we build back better from this pandemic.
The Minister crammed a lot into her response, but I did not hear a commitment to extend free school meals and healthy start vouchers, to continue the holiday activity funding or to expand the food programme—the three asks in the petition. Each one of these demands is recommended in the Government-commissioned national food strategy review. Indeed, Marcus Rashford has tweeted during the debate to say,
“It’s confusing that we are debating the implementation of government-commissioned findings. Gov did the research. Gov gathered the data. And solutions were formed from that (NFS). I endorsed them…so what’s to debate? Let’s discuss the findings and discuss the solutions.”
However, we have listened to Conservative Member after Conservative Member, including the Minister, say that this is a cross-party issue, that it is all very unfortunate and that no one wants to see children going hungry, but that it is not political. I agree that politics is at its best when we pull together in the same direction, but the fact is that we would be doing the ever increasing number of children growing up hungry and in poverty—on this Government’s watch—no favours at all if we did not call it out.
There is no shortage of food in this country, and children are not going hungry because they cannot get food. They are going hungry because their families cannot afford food, as they are stuck in a cycle of insecure work, lack of opportunity and high cost of living, and they are let down by a social security system that is failing in its most basic function. The most important step the Government could take to address child food poverty is to address child and family poverty, with a proper joined-up strategy across Government.
We are one of the richest countries in the world, and there is nothing inevitable about millions of children going hungry in this country, but unless we get to the root of the problem—rather than just treating the symptoms or, worse, failing to take responsibility for it—it is a problem that will not go away. The Government need to step up now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 554276, relating to child food poverty.
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2019-21, The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation sector: Interim report, HC 1257, and the Government response, HC 28; Summary of public engagement on covid-19 restrictions on international travel, reported to the House on 20 May, HC 243; Seventh Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2019-21, Safe return of international travel?, HC 1341.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Another petition and another covid story that is either desperately sad or frustrating on an emotional and economic level—sometimes both. Governing is always challenging, but since March last year the Government have had to make a series of exceptionally difficult decisions. One issue that has been a source of continuing controversy is travel—who should be able to do it and for what reasons, where they should be permitted to go, and the conditions that should apply on their re-entry. Of course, when deciding those restrictions protecting public safety is paramount, but I know that Ministers have had to make those decisions while balancing a number of competing demands.
The debate concerns two of those competing demands, which affect both the personal and professional lives of people in my constituency and across the country. First is the effect of travel restrictions on people in long-distance relationships. The second is the financial hardship that the travel industry has suffered. Let me speak on the travel restrictions first. While most people who do not live with their partner have spent the last year worrying about bubbles and outdoor walks, those whose partners live abroad have dealt with concerns that are on another scale.
People in long-distance relationships are used to spending time apart, but 14 months is quite a long time. For a substantial period of that, travel has been illegal to all intents and purposes. Even when it has technically been allowed, the cost of testing and quarantining has made travel prohibitively expensive. I recently spoke with a young woman named Katie, who started the petition. Her partner David lives in Germany and they have known each other for four years. Before the pandemic, they used to visit each another regularly. Those trips would cost on average around £200. Now that Germany is on the amber list, the same trip would cost her £600, not including any income that she may lose while isolating. If Germany were on the red list, it would cost £2,400. As a result, Katie and David have seen each other only three times in the last 18 months.
According to a survey conducted by the group Love is Not Tourism, the impact of extended separation on people in long-distance relationships has been significant. Of 400 people in binational relationships questioned for the survey, many had felt depressed and hopeless and said that they were finding it difficult to do their work or take care of things at home. Sadly, Love is Not Tourism has said that 18 people in long-distance relationships have lost their partners to suicide. While suicide is a complex issue and does not have one single cause, it is impossible to deny that the distress caused by extended separation must have played a part.
In a survey run by the Petitions Committee of those who signed the petition, one respondent said:
“I have been separated from my partner for over a year…The stress, sadness and wait alone (literally alone) for any news the travel restrictions to the US will be lifted is horrendous. He cannot come here (to the UK) because of work commitments, only I am in the position to travel to him.”
That comment is typical of those who submitted feedback. While this issue primarily affects partners, parents and children who live in different countries have also been significantly impacted. Travel restrictions have meant that some people with young children have not been able to see them in many months.
I know the Government will have looked at the data on the risk of infection when setting out valid reasons for travel during the last lockdown, but it strikes some people as unfair that one can travel abroad for a business meeting, but seeing one’s partner or parent is treated the same as a holiday. This was a common theme in the feedback the Committee received, with one respondent writing:
“My father splits his time between the UK and Argentina. His wife is Argentine and has children resident in Argentina. Dad has myself, my sister and three grandchildren who are all desperate to see him. I haven’t seen Dad since 13 March 2020. I understand why restrictions had to be put in place, I’ve followed every rule. Dad doesn’t want a holiday—just contact with his family.”
Since last August, the German Government have allowed non-EU, unmarried partners into the country, provided they can demonstrate they are in long-term relationships and have met in person before. Those are reasonable requirements that the vast majority of those in long-distance relationships would be able to meet. If we had had something similar during this past year, it might have saved many people quite a lot of heartache and stress. Unfortunately, now that Germany has declared the UK an area of virus variant concern, people such as Katie and David will face even more challenges to seeing one another.
I understand that travel restrictions have been necessary over the past year. In the middle of our loosening restrictions, the appearance of the Indian variant has not helped the petitioners’ argument. However, I urge the Government to consider making allowance for people to visit their partners along the lines of Germany if we are ever to be in this position again—let us all truly hope not.
Turning to the professional side of the debate, travel restrictions have clearly had a severe impact on all parts of the travel industry. This covers a range of businesses from hotels to airlines, including my very own Doncaster Sheffield Airport, but today I would like to discuss travel agents who, I believe, have been disproportionately impacted, even among those in the travel sector, simply because of the structure of their businesses.
Since the pandemic began, travel bookings have been down 80%. In March, 57% of small and medium-sized travel agents said they did not have enough cash to survive more than six months given current restrictions, and 87% thought they would fail within a year. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Luke Petherbridge of the Association of British Travel Agents. He stressed that, in addition to suffering all the same pressures as the rest of the travel industry, travel agents have been in a particularly precarious position because they do not receive their commission until their customers actually travel. When customers cancel, travel agents have had to issue refunds out of their own account, while waiting for suppliers to refund them. ABTA estimates that 195,000 people working in travel agencies have already lost their jobs or are at risk of doing so.
Travel agents have not been able to take full advantage of the furlough scheme, either, because staff have been required to issue refunds and manage rebookings, activities that do not bring in any revenue but prevent companies from using the job retention scheme. I know this from speaking to two private travel agents in my constituency. Ideal Travel and Small World Travel have worked desperately hard to keep their customers happy. I hope this will be repaid locally when my constituents are booking their holidays over the coming years.
Frequent changes in travel advice, although many will agree necessary, will prevent travel agents making long-term plans. ABTA members are also concerned that what Government support they can access will be wound down too quickly because of the amount of time it will take for their industry to return to normal operations.
The Government could take a range of measures to help travel agents and I ask the Minister to consider them. Extending the self-employment income support scheme, along with full business rates relief for businesses operating in international travel would make a notable difference. The wider use of NHS covid tests and lateral flow tests can help both those travelling to visit their loved ones and travel agents, whose livelihoods depend on tourism. The requirement for multiple PCR tests was heavily criticised by petitioners, who believe that it is disproportionate and exploitative. One survey respondent wrote:
“I think it is excessively expensive. Seeing your family shouldn’t be a luxury”.
People also do not understand why the NHS test is not accepted for travel, with people instead having to pay hundreds of pounds for private PCR tests. Another petitioner said:
“Flights don’t allow NHS tests to be used as pre departure tests, which seems odd, surely the tests provided by our national health service should be sufficient”.
Therefore, my ask of the Minister here today is to work with colleagues in Government to see whether it will be possible to allow people to use NHS and lateral flow tests, as that would remove a significant financial burden from travellers visiting loved ones and be a more realistic possibility in helping the travel sector to recover more quickly. My ask of the petitioners and the good people of this country is to please continue to come forward for your vaccination and, although it is hard, just for a little longer bear with the restrictions. That really is the only way to get us and the rest of the world back to some kind of normality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I thank all those who have signed the petition, including 300 of my own constituents. Many of them have heartrending stories of separation from family or other loved ones or of missing deathbed visits, weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some, this separation, with all its consequences for mental health, goes back well over a year, particularly if they were not lucky enough to be able to make use of the limited travel allowed to some countries by last year’s travel corridors.
Tonight’s debate is a useful corrective to the recent media coverage of travel, which has tended to focus on holidays. We should not have a problem with people taking safe holidays—I certainly do not—but this is also about the millions of people in Britain who have family or loved ones in another country, who have been unable to see them and who are longing to do so. More than one third of children born in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who was not born here. That illustrates the scale of the separation that many of our constituents are experiencing.
Outward travel from Britain in a normal year generates £37 billion for our economy and sustains 526,000 jobs. Inward travel generates £28 billion and sustains 450,000 jobs. That does not include the value of business and professional travel, which is estimated by the Business Travel Association to be even greater. Nobody—at least almost nobody—has been arguing that we should not have any restrictions on travel at all. Every other country that is similar to the United Kingdom in its economy and the impact of covid has had foreign travel restrictions, but my concern is that the Government, having perhaps not been cautious enough on travel earlier in the pandemic, are now being over-cautious, as we come out of it, given the evidence and the data, and especially given the success and advanced state of our vaccination programme.
Look at what other countries are now doing, Ms Fovargue. Vaccinated Americans are free to travel. Most of our European neighbours are free to travel with either proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, which is cheaply and widely available, including at most airports. A number of countries, including Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal—yes, they are popular holiday destinations for British people, but they are also countries with which people living here have many family and other ties—are already welcoming British people with open arms. They are at most requiring proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, or, in the case of Spain from today, neither, but for most people in Britain, the fact that those other countries are ready to welcome us is meaningless because, with the exception of Portugal, all are on the Government’s orange list, requiring quarantine on return as well as multiple expensive PCR tests.
Back in February, as our vaccination programme was roaring ahead compared with those in the rest of Europe, there was a front-page headline in the German tabloid newspaper Bild Zeitung along the lines of, “The Germans are green with envy because the Brits will get to the sunbeds first this year”. That was a comment on our stellar vaccination programme. It may sound glib for me to press the point, but the Germans and other Europeans are already on the sunbeds in Spain, Greece and Italy. The British, by and large, are not.
We were promised and led to expect a vaccine dividend, but when it comes to foreign travel, we have the opposite. The British are not only under tighter travel restrictions than our European neighbours; we are more restricted than we were last summer, despite having the most-vaccinated population in Europe after Malta.
Some will say in response, and I am sure that the Minister will say later, “Ah, but the variants.” Of course, we must be on guard against new variants, against which the vaccines might not provide such a strong defence. However, we already know—the Government confirmed it this week—that the vaccines are successful against all the known variants. If the post-vaccine reality is that we have to live with the virus, and on that there seems to be a consensus, then, yes, by all means have a red list of countries of concern, but are we really going to keep our borders effectively closed and restrict travel from places that do not pose a risk, with all that entails in prolonged family separation, lost jobs and even greater damage to our economy?
The Government themselves claim to take a risk-based approach, so perhaps the Minister could answer these questions. Why does she believe that Germany, which overall has a very good record in dealing with covid and just as much concern for its citizens as we do, and other comparable countries are allowing their citizens more freedom than we allow ours? Can she explain why the long-awaited green list of countries was so limited, when infection rates in America and across Europe have been falling rapidly and vaccination rates increasing rapidly? Why was Malta, which has a higher vaccination rate and a lower covid rate than the UK, left off the green list? It would be really helpful, to the public and to our long-suffering travel and transport sectors, if the Government published their criteria for deciding whether a country is red, amber or green. The European Union has done that. Why can’t we?
The Government say they still have an islands policy, as they did last year, but that was not apparent when they published their green list, as numerous Greek and Spanish islands, which have lower infection and higher vaccine rates than Portugal, were not on that list. So, will the Minister confirm that we still have an islands policy, and that that will be clear in the next review?
What conversations has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about the unacceptably long waits and the mixing of people arriving from different traffic-light countries at Heathrow airport? It is welcome that there is belatedly to be a designated terminal for people arriving from red-list countries, but the rest of Europe already operates digitisation for arrivals and that must surely be possible here, especially for people arriving from green-list countries.
Will the Minister ensure that the inconsistency between what the Government in Britain say about travelling and what the Foreign Office advice says is addressed? That inconsistency has only added to the confusion for the public and for the travel industry.
When a pre-arrival 20-minute antigen test is enough for Germany and most of our neighbours, why is the UK still insisting, even for green-list countries, on an expensive pre-return PCR test, which has to be in English, Spanish or French and so is not available everywhere, and another PCR test after someone has returned?
The sacrifices that people have made over more than a year, along with our very successful vaccination programme, should mean that, as we adapt to living with covid, the UK is in a better place and ahead of other countries as we emerge from this terrible period. However, when it comes to travel, we are not ahead; we are behind our main neighbours and competitors. That is already having consequences in prolonged heartache, and worse, for our constituents who are separated from family and other loved ones, and in the jobs that are lost in our vital travel and transport sectors. Before the pandemic, we were world leaders in those sectors, but “Global Britain”, as the Government like to refer to us, is losing income, business and trade to our competitors in other countries, because those countries have opened up for travel ahead of us.
All I ask is that the Government bear all that in mind, alongside their desire to restrict people’s freedoms to protect public health, when it comes to the important decisions that they have to take on travel in the days and weeks ahead.
Thank you for calling me, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I thank the more than 100,000 petitioners who have made their voices heard. I particularly welcome the case for families seeing their partners, where they are not married, and their friends and loved ones generally. For far too long we have been told that people should not be able to go on holiday. I profoundly disagree and, like the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), believe people should be entitled to go on holiday.
What has become of our country that we seek to demonise those who wish to go on holiday? For a lot of people, this is about a trip abroad to see their loved ones and those they are in a relationship with, whom they have not seen for over a year in certain circumstances. To me, that demonstrates a need for compassion so as to allow those individuals to get back to see their families, friends and loved ones. I absolutely get behind the e-petitioners; they have my full support to ensure that not just they, but others who have legitimate reasons to do so, are able to travel abroad. I believe that is now safe and proportionate.
I am grateful to the e-petitioners because the Transport Committee has been able to tag on to this debate the two reports in which we made our recommendations to Government. In the first report, dated 9 March this year, we pushed for the Government to ensure that the global travel taskforce recommendations were published by 12 April to unlock international travel by 17 May. We were glad that the Government largely met those dates.
Perhaps the more relevant report in terms of time is that of 20 April this year, in which the Committee made a number of recommendations, which are worth highlighting. The first was that the traffic light system should be populated by 1 May to give industry and travellers sufficient time to navigate the rules and comply with them. The second was that the criteria for changing the traffic lights should be set out in full by 1 May. The third was that testing requirements should be proportionate to the risk set out with respect to those traffic lights.
The final recommendation was that Border Force resourcing and the sponsorship of digital arrivals should mean that more people could safely come through the airport terminal. I was disappointed when nothing arrived by 1 May, but obviously we did hear something on 7 May. We heard about the criteria, which I welcome, but on those first two I was absolutely underwhelmed by the number of countries on the green list and the sheer number on the amber list. It was incredibly disappointing, for the reasons I will set forth.
I am conscious that I did not check what time I began speaking, Ms Fovargue. The right hon. Member for Exeter had the benefit of a clock, but I do not, so I will give myself two more minutes. I apologise if that makes me overrun.
I was pleased that the Border Force resourcing was stepped up by the Government, and indeed e-gates will come into force as well, so there is some progress there. I make my ultimate plea the Government: 70% of the UK population have been given a first dose of the vaccination, and 34% are fully vaccinated, which means that 60 million vaccines have been put into arms. It is essential that we get moving and give people back their liberties and freedoms—not just for them as individuals, but so as to employ the 500,000 people in our economy who rely on international travel.
I am not glib about safety, but it has been demonstrated that the vaccine is effective on the latest mutant strain, and if we take the view that we can never unlock because there might be a risk of a mutant strain, we will never be able to fly again. There has to come a point when we look at the proportionality, the health risks involved and the mitigation in place against those health risks, which is testing and quarantine, and we then look at what is good for the economy and for people’s individual freedoms. Otherwise, what is the point of having a successful vaccination programme? Where is the vaccination dividend, and when can we return to a situation whereby people are able to visit their loved ones, friends and families, or indeed take a well-earned holiday? We will then prove to the British people that it was worth it after all.
I apologise profusely if I have gone over time. Had I had the clock, I would have ensured that I did not do so.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your leadership, Ms Fovargue. I thank all the people who signed the petition.
I want to speak briefly on two important points. First, my constituents rely on Heathrow airport for jobs and the energy that it brings to the local economy, as do many people in the areas around my constituency. The past 15 months have been extremely difficult for them, and the recovery needs to be meaningful and consistent to save businesses and livelihoods. Local employers need the certainty that a safe return to international travel brings, and they need Government support for investment.
A dedicated red list arrivals facility will make travelling safer and increase confidence that the UK’s only hub airport is supported as a safe travel route. Government commitments to make that logistically and financially viable are needed, and an answer sooner rather than later would ensure that safe travel for millions of people this summer was possible. I have raised in the House the need for Border Force properly to staff entry points, and we can rebuild trust and keep people safe by employing sufficient staff. Infrastructure on the ground should not be a second thought; it needs to be central to our planning.
My second point is about where we support recovery. I want investment in recovery to be made in places that embody our values. We should not be supporting a return to normal, but building back better. Eco-tourism is not exclusively branding; it supports the communities where it takes place. It is not just the preserve of the wealthy; it can save environments, communities and species from extinction.
In supporting protection efforts around the world, good eco-tourism is about preservation and conservation. It is also about animal welfare, and I am proud to have been a parliamentary supporter of Save The Asian Elephants for many years. Its work has done more than any other to shine a light on unethical tourism, and the organisation’s latest petition reached over 1 million signatures last week. I urge all hon. Members present to sign it. Unfortunately, despite our work with STAE, we have not yet been successful in convincing ABTA—The Travel Association to dissociate itself totally from cruel and unethical elephant venues. I hope that when we think about the steps that we are taking to enable holidays and to open up international travel, we put our morals and beliefs at the heart of any strategy.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this important debate.
I very much agree with many of the observations that have been made by hon. Members from different parties. There is an important message that the Government have to grasp and be honest with the public about: if there is a point in the vaccination programme, it is to save lives and to enable a safe return to normality as swiftly as possible. International travel is a part of normality, be it for family reunions, as has been eloquently said—many of us will know it from our constituencies—for tourism or, importantly in constituencies such as mine with a big financial services sector, for business. Nor should we forget cultural and educational exchanges. We must have investment and a clear strategy for getting back safely to that normality. I am grateful to the 220-plus constituents of mine in Bromley and Chislehurst who for a number of reasons signed the petition.
I appreciate the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). First, we must say that we do not demonise those who seek to go on holiday; secondly, we must give real recognition to the value of the sector to the economy; and thirdly, we must be prepared to invest in technology. I am glad he picked up on the point about the investment in Border Force and the border.
A constituent of mine who works in the travel sector was made redundant and has now set up a small business herself. She is one of the 60%+ people who were working for travel management companies and have been made redundant since the pandemic. In her endeavour to get back on her feet, she points out the very good work being done in technology—artificial design intelligence, for example—by organisations such as VeriFLY seamless travel. The technologies that they have come up with are used in the United States already. They already work with US airlines and have technologies in operation at Denver International airport. They have pilot schemes and have discussed trial schemes with British Airways. We need to get behind and encourage that.
We must deal with the variants by being fleet of foot and adapting. If we can do that by investing in technology, and if, as was said, we can invest in better separation of people coming from different classifications of countries at the terminals, that is a safe means of moving things forward. If we are going to live with the virus or its variants for some time, hopefully with diminished toxicity, the investment is a long-term one that should be worth paying for.
May I also point out the importance of in-bound tourism to the UK? It is, as has been observed, worth about £28 billion in earnings. It is the third largest service export sector. There are real difficulties there because of what appear to be confused guidelines, an arbitrary approach, and a lack of transparency and clarity about the traffic light system and the criteria whereby countries that are sometimes—frankly, taking an objective view —better than us in terms of tackling infection are put on the amber list as opposed to the green one. Also, we need to recognise that the infrastructure of the sector needs to be supported. There is the question of continuing business rates support, for example, for those still operating on the high street. I have seen a firm in my constituency, which had been in business for 30 years, go under. That is a lifetime’s work gone.
What can be done to continue furlough and support on a sector-led basis? We need a new sector-specific scheme of recovery grants for travel agents. We need particularly to be able to look at the position of in-bound operators because they bring in, through travel management companies, some 50% of international visitors to the UK. The loss of that income to towns and cities across the United Kingdom has been estimated at up to £18 billion a year. Let us be frank. Although domestic tourism is worthy and certainly to be encouraged, and we all enjoy it, it will not make up the shortfall because the spend per head of domestic visitors is consistently significantly less—some £239 to £696 a head on average—so that will not plug the gap, and firms and businesses and towns, villages and cities dependent on tourism will suffer gravely and needlessly.
Our European neighbours, including Ireland, are being more supportive of the sector through their support regimes than we are at the moment, and they appear to be more fleet of foot as to how they put in place safeguards for the safe reopening of international travel. We need to learn from that. With the huge success of our vaccination programme, we need to be in front of the pack rather than playing catch-up. We need that for the long-term sustainability of a critical sector for our economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this important and timely debate.
I will stick to my five minutes by merely supporting what hon. Members have said already, in particular what was said by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and by the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I support many of their points.
There is no doubt that the Government have lots of difficult decisions to make about how we reopen our travel sector as we come out of the pandemic, which we all hope we are now doing thanks to the huge success of the vaccine roll-out. Many of my constituents are employed in or own businesses across the travel and tourism sectors. I hear from them huge frustration at the lack of clarity surrounding the overall strategy for allowing international travel and reopening the sector. Above all, we need a great deal more clarity on how decisions are being made, in particular with reference to which countries are on the green, amber and red lists.
I share the dismay of the Chair of the Transport Committee at the small number of countries that are on the green list; not knowing the criteria for the lists is causing a great deal of confusion. In recent weeks, we have heard a great deal about India, for example, not being on the red list despite its circumstances being more severe than those in other countries that were on the red list. It is important that we have clarity about why countries are on the red or amber lists.
What is most important for the travel industry is being able to plan and to predict, and to look at conditions prevailing in certain countries and think, “Are they on the way out? Have they got a vaccine programme that they are rolling out? What is the likelihood that we will be able to travel freely to that country in July, August or September?” If we had more clarity about why decisions are being made and when we might be allowed to travel to certain countries freely again, that would make a huge difference.
As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said, it is not just about the travel industry. We need clarity in order to provide certainty for many sectors that depend on travel. He highlighted in-bound tourism, which is a big issue for people in my constituency and the wider area. My former employer was Hampton Court Palace, and I know how much it depends on visitors from America and Europe, so it is suffering at the moment. It is about our broader economy, as travellers from our business and cultural sectors want to be able to plan for greater reopening in the autumn. Without much better understanding of how the Government are approaching the opening up, it is very difficult.
I want to highlight the issue with testing when people arrive in the country from an amber list country and need to test on day two and day eight. I was appalled to hear from a constituent about the cost of these tests. I had naively assumed that they would be free, as they are for every resident here who needs a test. I cannot understand why we are charging travellers up to £150 for each test. For a family of four who are travelling here and have to do tests on day two and day eight, that is an extra cost of £600.
This petition is about the needs of those who have family, friends and partners abroad. My heart goes out to people who have dying relatives in other countries, which is a situation in which far too many families find themselves. I have many constituents with family and friends in European countries—we have a lot of European nationals in Richmond Park—who are already finding it difficult to travel to those countries, but need to travel at this time because their families are struggling. To have the additional cost of the tests is inconceivable.
If we have a wider strategy to make international travel possible and safe again, it beggars belief that we are charging that extraordinary amount for those tests. I urge the Government to have another look at that. It is not just a barrier for people who are travelling for whatever reason they want to travel now, but it will continue to be a barrier. If it is going to be part of our strategy for opening up, it will be barrier to business, trade and tourism, and we must address that. As such, I urge the Government to look at providing greater clarity about how travel can be made possible, and particularly about the cost of tests.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Fovargue, in this important Westminster Hall debate this evening. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing it.
Like other hon. Members, I have recently heard from many constituents on international travel and covid-19 restrictions. With over 1,200 signatories to the petition from within Cities of London and Westminster—my constituency—it is clearly a subject that is close to the hearts of my constituents, and one that should be reviewed in the light of new data. No doubt, we are now in a very different position from the one we were dealing with last year. We now have the tools to facilitate both travel and health, with advancements in testing, as well as the exceptional vaccine roll-out that was quite simply not available 12 months ago. Indeed, so much has changed even since the Government’s response to the petition was published last month, with new data suggesting that the vaccines are effective and working well against the new Indian variant.
I support the Government’s road map, and accept the traffic light system for non-essential international travel. However, when it comes to small-scale, case-by-case travel for the sake of a family unit or critical support network, I believe that there are circumstances in which we could be more pragmatic and reasonable to ensure that people are not penalised for something that could dramatically affect their quality of life. I can see how devastating family separation has been for them. People are finding themselves in hugely emotional situations, and as people get vaccinated and infections fall, one of the things that they want to do first is reconnect with their loved ones, particularly those abroad. After all, love is not tourism.
It is important to note that the issue my constituents are facing is not necessarily the ability to travel abroad. Instead, issues occur when returning to the UK. I do not have time this evening to expound all the cases that constituents have raised with me, but for example, a number of parents have been unable to afford to, or practically be able to, visit their children who are living with a partner overseas, particularly in amber-rated countries. Making parents with custody agreements exempt from hotel quarantine, for example, providing they are vaccinated or comply with testing on their return, would make a small dent in our current guidelines, but have a major impact on people’s lives across my constituency and across the UK.
Some of those parents have not seen their children in person for over a year. That is too long to go without a hug from your mum or your dad, and it would be sensible to adopt an approach for people in such circumstances who cannot afford an up-front payment of £1,750 or take 10 days annual leave away from work in a quarantine hotel. With this in mind, one option could be to open up the manageable payment plan for people who have a reasonable need to travel, not just those who already receive income-related benefits. To the same end, there could be a new assessment of allowing people to isolate at home, or even finding some exemptions for parents who are unable to see their children under the current guidelines.
We have a world-class vaccine programme, which has now administered over 60 million jabs. I absolutely believe that we need to reap the benefits of the vaccination roll-out with open and sensible policies that strike the right balance between safety and real-life situations. This is not to say that there should be carte blanche, but if there is reasonable cause and proof, I see no reason why people should not be able to travel without being subject to undue stress when returning to the UK. I hope the Minister will accept that although we need to remain vigilant as the pandemic continues, we will be living with covid-19 for some time to come, and we should provide responsible but practical help for those with loved ones abroad.
Everyone has suffered in this pandemic, and people are still suffering. It affects people, businesses and human relationships when, as we have heard, we are cut off from seeing one another in extremely difficult circumstances, which is difficult to bear. I have become an uncle in the last year, and I have not been able to see my sister’s first child for pretty much an entire year. However, we understand why: it is our effort to suppress this disease. The whole crux of our blunt efforts is to prevent its transmission, which means limiting travel and contact with others, no matter how painful that is and continues to be.
Pretty much every decision is based on necessity and risk. Border movements alone have been one of our toughest sets of rules to get right, and the Government seemingly cannot do right for doing wrong. Should they allow more movement and travel through borders, and risk transmission points, or do we shut ourselves off from the world, perhaps like Japan, Australia or New Zealand did? It is a simplistic idea, and, in reality, it is not really possible for a globally connected international hub of commerce that is home to nearly 70 million people, so we manage the process, as we are doing through the traffic light system. That means there are some harsh decisions that mean visiting families, boyfriends and girlfriends has to be deemed prohibited for just a little while longer.
I agree with the approach that the Government are taking, as hard as that might be, because policing what we have been doing is proving difficult enough. For the moment, relaxing the restrictions even further is a risk too far. Just in the past few weeks we have seen the Indian variant spread at the rate is has done, but we are incredibly close to that point because of our vaccination programme. Quite frankly, what on earth is the point in not allowing movements if we have vaccinated over 60 million people? There are already reasonable excuses to visit family, such as supporting someone after the birth of a child, providing care and assistance, generously being able to go abroad for one’s wedding and, indeed, seeing loved ones for funeral arrangements.
I will end by saying there is a topic that is just as big as this: the international travel industry, which has been mentioned many times. It will need more support. While the restrictions are in force, it is absolutely essential to continue the life support, as we have done with many businesses. My constituent Nick Lee runs Broadland Travel Worldchoice in my North Norfolk constituency, and we understand that the traffic light system may still be in place until 2022, placing enormous restrictions on the 20,000 people working for retail travel agents. Indeed, green list countries for holidays are still very few in number.
As leisure and hospitality receive specific grants, it seems only fair that while the travel industry is still experiencing suppressed trade for at least another year on top of the 18 months that it has already had, we have to consider giving it some specific support. When furlough ends in September and many people will be getting their lives back to normal, the international travel industry, across the sector and the supply chain, will undoubtedly still be getting back on its feet. Without travel agents and all the stakeholders connected to international travel, we will undoubtedly see more bankruptcies.
We have to do something about this situation, so I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little about what we could do for those businesses that still hope to get back on their feet.
It is a real pleasure, Ms Fovargue, to serve with you as Chair, and I apologise for being chronologically challenged.
My contention today is that there is a real policy inconsistency between the success of our vaccination programme and the ongoing caution in our travel sector, and I will make three points, if I may. First, I would urge countries that are successful in their own vaccination roll-outs to open up and send people here, and a negative test result and/or a covid passport should be enough for travel to be fully resumed. Secondly, there is a need for clarity—something akin to the UK road map—around why each country is on which list and when they are likely to be moved between lists. Thirdly, as I said earlier, we need to support those who are employed by the travel sector. As we know, UK airlines have announced over 30,000 job cuts so far. That is devastating, and I suspect that more support is still needed for this important sector, along with support for hospitality and leisure.
To start with, the Government should be commended for the success of our vaccination roll-out programme, which is one of the best vaccination programmes in the world. To put it in statistical terms, as of yesterday there have been 37 million first doses and 22 million second doses—over 60 million in total, as one of my hon. Friends said. It is the best vaccination programme for any country with a population of more than 20 million people, with 89% of all adults having received one or two doses of the vaccine. We need to move as soon as possible to reconnect friends and family across the world who have been unable to spend time together throughout the pandemic.
The speed at which we open up our travel sector is paramount, and we must prioritise business travel to countries where the national vaccination programmes have proved successful, such as the United States, which will lift the burden on our travel sector to a certain degree. And we need one or other countries to be added at this point in time to the green list, too.
The reasons for travel are multifarious, as we have heard. Travel is about leisure, family, business, emergency travel and of course holidays—and why not? In the UK, 76% of people are deemed to have plans to fly abroad in the next 12 months. In 2019, over 21 million trips were made by air for the purpose of visiting friends and family overseas. Also, the figures of the Business Travel Association, whose member travel management companies account for more than 90% of all travel booked in the UK, equate to 6.4 million journeys and 32 million transactions, resulting in £220 billion of UK GDP in a typical year. And that is just by air. These figures are eye-watering and our economy depends upon travel. However, the resumption of business travel can only begin in earnest once the green list is updated. As I mentioned earlier and as I will say again now, it must also include major business hubs, such as New York, Singapore, Frankfurt and Dubai. And that is just a start.
What about Bracknell? My constituency is very important to me. I have 15 travel agency businesses that employ people in Bracknell; my constituents work at Heathrow, Gatwick and beyond; we have hundreds of jobs in the travel and tour operators sector in Bracknell; and there are literally thousands of people who want and need to get away, and that is not next month, but now. We need to open up comprehensively as quickly as possible. And, of course, our country is global; it is part of the international diasporas. It depends upon global trade and global movement, and it is movement that remains essential to getting our economy up and running once again.
To conclude, it is now time to get back to normal. Yes, new variants, such as the Indian mutation, are worrying, but mankind has lived under the spectre of new viruses for centuries and thankfully has mitigated this one with our fantastic vaccination programme. So it is now time to open up safely, and life, as we know it, has to go on.
Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to take part in this e-petition debate, which calls on the Government to allow international travel to visit partners and family. There can be little doubt that the travel and tourism sector has been the part of our economy hardest hit by the pandemic, and that, of all those wishing to travel abroad, those separated from loved ones have been the most adversely affected.
Often when we think about international travel we think about holidays, so I am grateful to the petitioners, who rightly focus on the need to see loved ones. I know from my own experience how upsetting this can be. My partner’s parents live in Kerala, and we have not been able to visit each other throughout this prolonged period. Now, with India on the red list, who knows when we will physically see Rajamma and Chandran next. Like many other families, we speak daily by video call, but it is simply not the same.
Perhaps the most upsetting component of my constituency case work in this area has been that of separated families requiring international travel to take part in end-of-life visits to hopefully see their loved ones for a final time. In some cases it was not possible. In others it was complicated by quarantine arrangements, all of which made an already difficult situation seem even worse. For a lot of people, the current rules are clearly distressing and there is a need to restore normality to international travel as quickly as possible, but we must be sensible as we do that in the light of the risks that we face and that we see across many parts of the world. We have made so much progress in suppressing the virus and we must not put that at risk now by enabling new variants to enter the country too easily.
The current Scottish position on overseas travel is that earlier this month the First Minister confirmed some changes to the rules on travel from Scotland. From 17 May, Scotland moved to a traffic light system informed by risk assessments prepared by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Those assessments are based on the state of the pandemic in each country across the world and will include the presence of variants of concern. Anyone entering Scotland from a red list country will still be required to enter a managed isolation hotel and stay there for 10 days. If they arrive from a country on the amber list, they must self-isolate at home for 10 days and take two PCR tests during that period. If they travel from a green list country, they will need to take a PCR test shortly after arrival, but will not be required to self-isolate.
The Scottish Government will of course continue to take the decisions that they consider right for Scotland, and will not sign up to decisions that might put our progress at risk. One area of risk that causes me concern is that UK Border Force has been warning for weeks that it is not sufficiently resourced to handle passengers at the borders. With Border Force officials warning that passengers this summer could face four-hour waits at UK airports due to processing documentation for covid, one Border Force worker has been quoted as saying that
“the truth is that there simply isn’t the capacity for staff to carry out the checks demanded by the government.”
Passengers are reporting that they are waiting at border control side by side with arrivals from red list countries, despite guidance stating that they should be separate. Heathrow airport has said that Border Force is responsible for separating red list passengers in its immigration halls, while the Home Office has said that arrangements for queues and the management of returning passengers are the responsibility of the relevant airport. That blame game needs to be brought to an end, and the Home Secretary needs to take responsibility for those warnings at the border before the summer.
In my opinion, everyone should continue to limit their travel abroad, and when it comes to holidays we should be playing it safe by holidaying at home and supporting our local tourism sector as much as we can this year. In saying that, we must also be cognisant of the thousands of jobs that depend upon international travel—jobs in aviation and the travel sector, and their supply chains. I am told that, pre pandemic, the outbound travel sector employed more than 221,000 people, contributing £37 billion to the UK economy and more than £6.3 billion to the Treasury annually.
In advance of the debate, ABTA wrote to members with its ask for a risk-based restart to international travel, and targeted financial support to see the industry through to recovery—not an unreasonable ask, given how much the UK Exchequer has benefited from the industry in previous years, how badly hit the sector has been, and the likely prolonged delay in international tourism returning to anything resembling normal. However, for many people, overseas travel is not about tourism or holidays but about seeing family and loved ones, and clearly more needs to be done to facilitate that. Family reunion visits should, in my opinion, be prioritised over sightseeing and international tourism, and I commend the petitioners for highlighting that need.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing this important debate on international travel and covid-19, following the e-petition signed by more than 100,000 people. As he set out very clearly, all those people have particular personal circumstances—involving long-term relationships and parents and children—that mean that they are in a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, I think that, with the situation that we have seen with the Indian variant, things are not going to get any easier anytime soon.
I also thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the very important issue of the effect on the travel industry. Like him, I have local independent travel agents in my constituency. It seems at the moment that they are in the worst of all worlds: they have the workload from having to deal with cancellations and rebookings, but they do not have the ability to access additional support funds, and of course they cannot furlough all their staff, so I think that there is an argument for greater long-term support for that particular industry. The hon. Gentleman also raised a very important question about the cost of tests for people re-entering the country—a topic that we will come back to later.
There were a number of very good contributions today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) set out several important issues, including the economic impact of this situation on the travel industry and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it. His most important point was that many countries are allowing in those who are vaccinated without additional checks. At the moment, in the terms of our policy on letting people into this country, no distinction seems to be made between those who are vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It would be useful to hear from the Minister why that is the case.
Most hon. Members talked about the importance of the economics as well as the personal situations. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) has a particular interest, given all the employees of Heathrow in his constituency. I think he said that what they really need is clarity and certainty; indeed, a lot of Members referred to that.
As we have heard, the petition calls on the Government to class in-person interaction with family members and unmarried partners as a reason to travel. I am sure that, on a human level, we can all understand that—many of us have not been able to see our loved ones as we would have liked during the lockdowns—especially when we consider that in 2019 more than 20 million trips were made by air out of the UK for the purpose of visiting family and friends. The current situation means new parents not being able to see their families, and grandparents not being able to meet up with grandchildren—actually, many people have not met their new family member for the first time.
The timing of this debate is apposite, given last Monday’s announcement that holidays abroad are no longer illegal, but there are of course, as we have heard, different rules for different countries. It should have been a simple colour-coding scheme—amber, red and green, according to each country’s risk. But of course, as we saw last week, there are as many different interpretations of what amber means as there are countries on that list.
We saw on Tuesday the Environment Secretary saying that people could fly to amber-list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends—something that the signatories of this petition would of course like to see—but then in the afternoon the Health Minister in the other place said that nobody should travel outside Britain this year at all. Later the same day, though, the Welsh Secretary said that some people might consider holidays abroad as essential.
That was three Ministers with three different interpretations in just one day, so it was left to the Prime Minister—the paragon of precision in this place—to clear up any confusion or contradiction at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, when he came up with his own definition that people could still travel in “extreme” circumstances. That, of course, is also open to interpretation, but it does at least set the bar a little higher—until we remember that the new rules that he has actually brought in make it easier for people to travel to amber-list countries.
In fact, it is even easier than that, because if someone returns from an amber-list country, they can halve the time that they spend in self-isolation by paying for an additional test after five days. It is hardly a consistent message when it comes to what extreme circumstances in relation to international travel means. Perhaps the problem is that there is no definitive answer—it is all guidance. We have had issues in the past year where there has not been a clear-cut distinction between guidance and law. The Foreign Office website tells us:
“Whether travel is essential or not is your own decision… Only you can make an informed decision based on your own individual circumstances and the risks.”
That is the nub of the problem: everyone can have their own view on what is essential, which means there is ambivalence at the heart of Government policy, which I am afraid the virus is set to exploit.
We have spent the last year painstakingly legislating for every facet of life where covid could intrude, from when people could leave home or leave the pub to how many people can attend a funeral, yet when it comes to one of the biggest threats to our future prosperity—variants from abroad—this Government are inexplicably and recklessly letting people interpret the rules for themselves. The ambiguity over amber has to end. People should not travel to particular countries. Do not let them—it is not difficult.
I cannot believe that the more than 100 countries on that amber list all have the same level of risk. As Members have said, it is clear that more clarity and transparency are needed about why countries are on that list. One might conclude that it has been left deliberately vague so that the Government do not have to compensate the travel industry for all the cancellations that would happen if there were proper laws in place on restricting international travel. Last week, it was reported that 1,300 flights, carrying up to 54,000 passengers a day—[Interruption.] Ms Fovargue, should I continue?
Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is almost as if someone does not want me to carry on speaking, but I will not be put off that easily.
We have all seen images from airports of people from red, amber and green countries mixing and standing side by side for hours in conditions where the virus can be transmitted. That makes a mockery of the sacrifices that people have made over the last year. Then, they move through the airport, on to public transport and go back to their homes, without proper controls in place.
I asked the Home Office how many visits had been made to check on people who are supposed to be quarantining at home after returning from abroad. I was told that there is no data on that, because it is an operational matter for the police. In short, the Government do not know whether people are complying with these rules. The Government could be overcompensating that lax approach by having so many countries on the amber list. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said, it is not clear how a country gets on or off that list. It seems that putting lots of countries on the amber list is a quick and easy way of solving some of the issues in the rest of the system.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) mentioned the cost of tests for those who have to quarantine at home. Actually, it is not just the cost of those tests but the service that people are receiving that is a problem. Hundreds have had complaints about these firms, which are listed on the Department of Health and Social Care’s website. Some people have either not received their tests or not got them in time. Some have not got their results at all and have been left in limbo.
Last year, some of these private companies did not exist, and some had zero experience in the area they are benefiting from, but with the Government’s open-door policy it seems they can request to be put on the list on the Government website if they declare that they meet the required standards and either they are UK Accreditation Service-accredited or they have applied for accreditation but do not yet have it. As of March, the UKAS website said it had received 80 applications from such companies and had accredited nearly 30 such providers, but many more than that are listed on the Department’s website as providers of day two and day eight testing—when I checked this afternoon, it was 333.
I do not know about the Minister, but I find it astonishing that for one of the most critical parts of our defence against covid we are relying on companies to self-certify that they can do the job, and less than 10% of them have been properly accredited to provide the service. We must get much more rigorous in our testing and ensure that these companies can do the work accurately and safely. Will the Minister update us on how many companies are now accredited and what the Government are doing to investigate how they are operating to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do?
Why do these restrictions at the border matter? It is because the emergence of new variants of concern is the biggest single risk to the road map. We have seen outbreaks of South African, Brazilian and now Indian variants in this country and, once again, the Government have been too slow off the mark to deal with the Indian variant. It was first identified back in February, yet travel from India was not banned until more than two months later. During that time, travellers from India came into the UK without any need to quarantine at a hotel. The consequences are now clear in the clusters of outbreaks we see.
There is a suggestion that the Prime Minister delayed adding India to the red list until he decided that he had to cancel his trade visit to India. I suppose we will add that to the long list of questions he will have to answer at the inquiry. If it is true, it is another serious error of judgment from him. In the meantime, will the Minister confirm whether decisions to place countries on particular coloured lists are all to do with health issues and not also trade deals and other such considerations?
We need to get this right now. A comprehensive, easily understood system that does not undermine the gains we have made is necessary. The Government finally decided to introduce a hotel quarantine system only in February, over a year after cases first arrived in this country. That is inexplicable. That they continue with an ineffective system that is clearly not working and is creating the injustices we have heard about today is also inexcusable. They have failed with their inadequate covid border protections. They were late to home quarantining, late to mandatory border testing, late to hotel quarantine and late to add India to the red list. We cannot afford to have the Government be late to fix the ambiguity and confusion over the amber list as well. The public have made huge sacrifices, which must not be undone now by laxity and ambiguity. The Government need to get a grip of the situation as a matter of urgency.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for raising this important issue on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thank all Members of the House who have taken time for this wide-ranging debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) Bracknell, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). The one thing it did absolutely perfectly was display the complexity of the area and how difficult it is to get to a perfect solution.
I will take from the debate that we all agree that people have made enormous sacrifices, both in the country and out of the country, and that the vaccine roll-out has been a tremendous success. However, I point out that we have not yet reached the under-30 age group. While everybody was lucid about allowing people who had had a vaccination to travel, nobody said anything about those who had not, or what the solution was for them. This debate has ranged from the travel industry to business travel and has covered the Department for Transport, jobs and a wide range of Departments, but at its heart is how we are dealing with family and friends.
The past 14 months have presented huge challenges for all of us, and it is only right that members of the public, like Ms Sinclair, should debate such issues of enormous interest to us. My heart goes out to everyone who, 14 months ago, did not want to spend the past year like this. However, many of the reasons why people make sacrifices, in this country and without, are well known to us all. Last Monday, we took an important move to step 3 of the Government’s road map, in that we removed the provision to stay in the UK. International and leisure travel is slowly—I repeat, slowly—starting again and there is a new traffic light system.
In essence, the petition asks whether family members and unmarried partners should be able to visit their families and partners abroad, specifically regarding the “stay at home” and “stay in the UK” measures, which were in effect until 29 March and 17 May respectively. Under “stay in the UK”, individuals had to have a reasonable excuse to leave the UK. As with all restrictions during the pandemic, no decision has been easy, and none has been taken lightly. Where international travel is concerned, we acted to control the spread of the virus and to reduce the risks of variants being imported and exported. It struck me as interesting that people assume that that is completely possible while exempting people in a whole range of different areas.
I have often argued against the party of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which has said that we should have a more stringent managed quarantine system. Everyone cannot have everything; we have to have a balanced approach in what we are doing. At the heart of everything is protecting people. We are opening up, but we are going slowly. Where international travel is concerned, we do not want to export or import variants, as I said.
Infection rates have fallen back at points but, crucially, a large amount of the population are not yet vaccinated, so it is vital that we maintain additional restrictions while the programme continues through the cohorts and to counter the risk of import or export. I of course appreciate the desire to see loved ones. I sympathise with those who have not seen partners and family members for a long time. I, too, like everyone else in the Chamber, have constituents who have come to me with such challenges. I recognise how difficult it is for people with family and partners based abroad. The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges. My thanks go to everyone for their contribution and to all those working in the health service. That is what has allowed us to arrive at where we are today.
Acknowledging instances of those with family members overseas, the “stay in the UK” regulations included a number of reasonable excuses—no one appeared to allude to them—to allow international travel in circumstances where visits could not be delayed. I have had constituents—[Interruption.] I will try to beat the bell. I have constituents who have used those exemptions, which include travel to support someone giving birth, to accompany someone to a medical appointment, to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person, including those of 70 years or older, a woman who is pregnant or those with underlying health conditions, or to say your last goodbyes at the end of life. So, there have been possibilities; to say that there has been none is just wrong. People could also travel out of the UK to attend their own wedding or civil partnership, or that of a close family member if at least one of the persons getting married or entering the partnership lives outside the UK.
As part of the road map, however, the Government took the prudent decision, informed by the latest data and analysis, not to allow international travel to see family members and partners more generally, however hard that feels. It was not an easy decision. Indeed, it is one of the many tough but necessary decisions taken as we continue to follow the road map out of lockdown. It is about finding a balance between priorities, including the need to save lives and to mitigate another surge in infections, as well as to avoid putting pressure on the NHS.
Those restrictions have bought us time: time to establish the vaccine roll-out and reduce the spread of disease, time to vaccinate front-line staff and care staff, and time to vaccinate care home residents and the most vulnerable. We continue to make good progress. As of 22 May, over 37.9 million people have received their first vaccine, another 22.6 million people have received their second dose and a staggering 60.5 million covid vaccine doses have been administered across the UK, through the enormous efforts of our general practice teams, pharmacists and mass vaccination centres.
Public Health England reports that the UK covid vaccination programme has prevented about 12,000 deaths in those aged 60 or above in England. Furthermore, it has saved 33,000 hospital admissions for those over 65. Restrictions on international travel have helped us achieve these things and have helped protect people so we can move to step 3. It is important that we remain vigilant and continue to manage the risks, so that we do not lose the benefits gained through the efforts thus far. Step 3 includes a cautious, managed return to international leisure travel, which I hope colleagues across the House will embrace.
I will address some specific points raised by hon. Members. When we talk about opening up, it is important to keep in mind that we had the indication only this weekend that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were both effective against the Indian variant, so asking us to see into the future is incredibly difficult.
On 17 May, we moved to a traffic light system that categorises countries based on their level of risk to public health and the potential effect of variants of covid-19 to limit the efficacy of the roll-out. Decisions on designating countries to red, amber or green lists and the associated border measures are under constant review, to ensure that we manage the risks. These risks are challenging. They are about the impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and all those things, but they are predominantly about people’s health and wellbeing, and about protecting people.
The decisions are taken by Ministers, who consider the Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis, as well as wider public health considerations. As I have explained, decisions are under constant review so that we manage the risks. I was glad that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) outlined how rigorous this process is and how we are now in better lockstep with our friends across the border.
We are making progress as we journey along the road map, but we have to remain vigilant. Variants continue to pose a significant risk that we are monitoring closely, and action will be taken as necessary to stop the spread. Border measures, including testing and quarantine, continue to help manage the risks. That includes the requirement for international arrivals, except those from green list countries, to take a pre-departure test and isolate for 10 days, either at home or in a managed quarantine hotel if they have come from a red list country, and to take a post-arrival test on day two and day eight.
Several hon. Members talked about testing. From May 15, NHS Test and Trace reduced the cost of tests from £210 to £170, and day two tests for green list countries went down to £88. These costs include genomic sequencing if someone has a positive test. Other private providers are stringently tested to ensure quality, and they are available. PCR tests continue to fall in cost, to around £100 to £120 for a day two test. We expect green arrival tests to be somewhere between £20 to £60. As the market develops, that cost will keep dropping as prices become more competitive, but I gently ask, is the British taxpayer meant to pay for the test for leisure purposes and travel?
I understand the point that the British taxpayer should not be expected to pay for these tests for leisure purposes. However, a person who goes on to the Government website now does not need to give a reason to receive a lateral flow test, and we know that for a number of sporting events that have taken place, the condition for entry has been tests, which have also been free. There is not any consistency here, is there?
As I say, these things are kept under constant review. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is testing large-scale events involving large groups of in-country crowds. That is completely different from testing those people who are returning to the country. Measures for these international journeys are essential, and it is vital that we follow what restrictions remain in place.
It is also essential that offers of vaccination are taken up by everybody as soon as possible. We hope that the continued success of the vaccination roll-out, including increased testing capabilities, alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, will allow us to continue to lift restrictions. However, we have to protect our hard-fought gains made over the past few months, and we are taking a cautious approach to opening up international travel, given that the risk from those travelling back from countries with high prevalence or where there are variants of concern is not only to the individual, but to wider society.
Some Members brought up the difference between allowing us to enlarge business travel and travel to visit family, friends and so on. They are, in fact, completely different—I very rarely behave with family and friends as I might in a business meeting, so I would urge a little caution before drawing a comparison between the two. Like everybody else, I feel for travel agents and so on in this time of uncertainty. However, they are supported by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the different interventions that have been put in place. Those things will be ongoing after we open up on 21 June, so long as we keep on the road map, and there is some assistance for businesses going forward.
This is a first step, and more opportunities will come along. It is important to remember that, and to highlight that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation looks at the outcome of vaccine programmes on reduced levels of infection, high levels of vaccination, and the transmission risk and variants of concern. I reiterate my sympathy for those who have not been able to visit family and partners, and my thanks to those who have stepped up. Getting to this point has taken remarkable perseverance and resolve, and I am grateful to everyone who has got us here. The collective effort has meant that we can reopen our borders, allowing us where possible to reunite families, loved ones and friends. We must continue this careful approach. It is a risk-based approach, informed by the latest data and scientific evidence and by the abiding need to protect the population’s health and wellbeing, and thereby the economy.
With all this in mind, I believe we have good reason to feel optimistic, although there will be new and unexpected challenges, and there will be some setbacks as well. I have not hugged some of my children for 14 months, and they all live in this country—we have a large family. It is tough, and I get that, but we are doing what we are doing for the right reasons. We are better protected and better prepared to take on those challenges than we have ever been.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who is a real champion of the travel sector, made an excellent contribution. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). His point about how valuable inland tourism is for our country is something we should all take note of. I hope that when we do open up, we will welcome tourists with open arms, because £28 billion will really help to get our country back working again. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) reminded us of how successful our vaccination programme has been, and I thank all who have played their part in making it happen.
I hope the petitioners feel that they have had their voices heard. I personally enjoyed speaking with Katie and Luke, and I wish them all the best in the coming months. I thank the Minister for her understanding of our country’s sacrifice and her compassionate reply. I know, as she does, that every exemption in this country brings with it another infection, and she also mentioned the exemptions that have been allowed. I agree that a balance is difficult, but I also agree with the petitioners that more economical testing would help with that balance, so I look forward to falling costs. Finally, I thank you, Ms Fovargue, for your chairmanship today; it has been a pleasure serving with you in the Chair.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.