Wednesday 26 May 2021
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Business Rates Reduction Services
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Welcome to Westminster Hall from the Boothroyd Room. I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to those of us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is firstname.lastname@example.org. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regulation of business rates reduction services.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I must first draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about this issue. This debate is obviously the most important event happening in Parliament at 9.30 this morning—no doubt we will not be distracted by anything else that is going on.
This is a very simple issue. It relates primarily to one single company, and I can describe these people as no better than a group of con men, who prey on unsuspecting business people, usually very small SMEs—small and medium-sized enterprises—and con them into signing a very unfair contract, which often is completed after the event, after they have met with the business person. The contract that they tie them into, which is a very long-term contract, effectively diverts tens of thousands of pounds intended to be Government support, Treasury support, to SMEs—usually smaller businesses—from them and into their own bank account. The company that I am speaking about specifically is called RVA Surveyors. This is a company in Manchester run by a gentleman called Stephan Hughes.
The support, of course, is small business rates relief, which is supposed to be there for small businesses; indeed, it is the relief granted by the Treasury to help people through the covid crisis. About half of this support has been diverted from the businesses concerned into the relevant business, RVA Surveyors, and there is not even a service provided. It is a simple letter that is required; all these people do is send a simple letter to the local authority and that effectively diverts the relief.
Dozens of cases are known to Members of this House. I think that 13 different Members of Parliament supported a letter that I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to the Insolvency Service. They include the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), whom I am delighted to see here today, but also other Members who have expressed keen support for this debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is detained at other proceedings this morning.
Dozens of cases are known to Members of this House, but according to RVA’s own website, RVA has about 10,000 clients around the UK, so I think it is safe to assume that hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses have effectively been defrauded in this way. I can describe these people, RVA Surveyors, in no better terms than by saying that they are shysters, carpetbaggers, parasites. It is a simple con trick that they carry out, and this happened to one of my constituents, which is how my attention was drawn to this particular issue. My constituent, Jude Carter, who owns Dreams Hair & Beauty Salon in Hunmanby, is a small businessperson.
Imagine how it is when someone is busy trying to set up a business. These people use a freedom of information request to find out which premises qualify for small business rates relief and which are not currently getting that relief. They then call on that particular business. The businessperson is setting up the business, painting the walls, furnishing the place, getting ready for the first days of trading, and those people come in and say, “We can save you lots of money—just sign this form and we will reduce your business rates.”
There are many business rates reduction specialists that offer a perfectly bona fide service. They will measure the premises, argue with the Valuation Office Agency, reduce the business rates and provide a service for which they quite rightly should be paid. They provide fair terms for that reduction, and both the business owner and the rates reduction specialists then benefit from that reduction in business rates. That is a perfectly reasonable service to offer.
This is entirely different, because the small business rates relief is almost automatically provided for that business. All that business needs to do is notify the council that they are the occupant, that they qualify for small business rates relief, and it will be automatically applied. It is a simple, standard letter. The measure is automatically applied and the rates relief from the Government is automatically provided. Anything up to around £6,000 or £7,000 a year in small business rates relief will be provided to that business.
However, some business owners are not aware that it is automatically provided. Those people go in and tell them, “We can reduce your rates bill—sign here.” They offer a very long-term contract. In Jude Carter’s case, she signed a 12-year contract, and she believes that the contract was amended after the event to become a longer-term contract. It was for a much shorter term, but they changed it.
Jude Carter’s premises had rateable value of £6,300 a year, which means, using the multiplier, that she should be paying around £3,000 a year. Small business rates relief applies, so there should be no rates at all for a small business owner occupying those premises. RVA just writes to the council and that small business rates relief is then applied, so Mrs Carter pays no rates. Some £3,000 have been saved with a single standard letter, and the contract says that Mrs Carter owes RVA 52% of that saving. For one standard letter, for 12 years, she is paying 52% of the saving from which she benefits. Typically, over that 12-year contract, £18,000 has been diverted. The Treasury wants that money to go to Mrs Carter to help her run her business, to keep her in business, but it is being diverted to RVA. It is simply, absolutely wrong.
As I say, contracts are tampered with. Mrs Carter has tried to get out of the contract, she has tried not paying the contract, but RVA has used many dubious tactics to harass her into paying. They ring the premises and speak to her or her staff, to say that the bills are overdue, which causes some distress within the business itself. Nobody wants to think that their business cannot pay its bills, so time and again, Mrs Carter has to pay the bill, despite the fact that there is absolutely no service being provided for that extortionate amount of money.
It is usually the very smallest businesses that fall prey to those tactics—and there are many cynical tactics that are employed. Those people forge signatures. There was one court case presided over by Deputy District Judge Lynds in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court. That case, involving Stephen Snell, has been reported and Judge Lynds dismissed RVA’s claims. RVA will take people to court to enforce contracts. For reasons I shall come on to explain, they are perfectly enforceable contracts—that is, if they have not been forged. However, in this case, it was determined that RVA’s representative had forged a signature. The judge stated:
Ordinarily I would not come anywhere close to make an assessment of these signatures but it’s plain to me”
that the signature did not bear any resemblance to Mr Snell’s signature, and he kicked the case out. There is therefore demonstrable evidence of fraudulent activity by that company. It uses other tactics as well. It completes contracts after the event, as I believe it did with Mrs Carter, and it changes them to extend the length of the contract or the percentage that it charges. When it charges 45% plus VAT, that adds up to just over 50% of the benefit received.
The company resorts to harassing owners and their staff, and there is evidence that it lies to the Valuation Office Agency when it assesses premises. It works on a damages-based agreement. According to the law, a reason for the charges has to be provided, but the company provides no reason, so it is debatable whether the contracts should be enforceable in law. Nevertheless, the courts generally enforce the contracts and make the small business pay the amount on the contract.
We are aware of most of these cases because of a very good campaign by Andrew Penman, who writes for the Daily Mirror. He has covered many of these cases time and again and has highlighted RVA’s dubious tactics. A surveyor called Steven Simon is helping my constituent, Jude Carter, with her case. Sadly, the company gets away with such tactics time and again, and the courts rule that the small business has to pay because a contract is enforceable. Even though the contract is patently unfair, the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which makes provision for unfair contracts, does not apply to SMEs, so once a business—even a very small business that probably has all the hallmarks of a consumer—has signed a contract, it is enforceable, however unfair it is.
The only way to tackle the company and to try to challenge the contracts—closing the company would be the most desired outcome—is through the Insolvency Service. I wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I know my right hon. Friend the Minister will say that perhaps BEIS has a greater jurisdiction over this than the Treasury, and I wrote to BEIS about this. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary wrote back and said that the Insolvency Service could deal with these situations where there is clear evidence of corporate abuse, fraud, scams and sharp practice. The Insolvency Service wrote to me and said that it did not see the hallmarks of that in my case, which astounds me. There is clear evidence of corporate abuse, fraud, scams and sharp practice.
I should say that RVA Surveyors is not the only organisation involved in sharp practice. There are others, such as SJ Associates. A simple solution would be to extend the consumer protection laws in the Consumer Rights Act to include microbusinesses. There is a precedent for that because microbusinesses were, for example, covered under the Financial Ombudsman Service, and that has now been extended to larger small businesses. In addition, the Financial Ombudsman Service has jurisdiction over some elements of utility contracts between microbusinesses and utility providers. There is a precedent for extending the laws for microbusinesses, which would resolve the problem, because the court would be able to look at the contracts, see that they are patently unfair and strike them out.
Another way to solve the problem would be to reform business rates completely. I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Minister about that on numerous occasions. I believe that business rates as they were first constructed are no longer fit for purpose. Businesses no longer trade only or primarily from high street premises. The business world has moved on. Business rates, based on property, were once seen as the right way to tax businesses, but I do not feel that it is the right way now. The Treasury is looking at this matter, and I know there is another review. In the recent consultation, three solutions were proposed: some kind of land value tax; an online sales tax; and an increase in VAT. The latter would be a much better option than the current business rates system or an online sales tax.
The difficulty with an online sales tax is that it would create more complexity by adding another tax to an already very complex tax system. An online sales tax also assumes that businesses trade one way or the other —online or through retail premises—when actually many trade in at least three ways: online, through high street premises and click and collect. An online sales tax would therefore require a business to think about how it sold a product, whether click and collect, online or through the high street, which would add complexity. An online sales tax also assumes that retail is the only sector affected by the move to online shopping, but that is far from the case.
Due to the opportunities of online activity, there are many new competitors in various sectors, not least the restaurant sector, which sees more and more competition from dark kitchens using Deliveroo, Just Eat and others for deliveries. In my business world—I am in the estate agency business, as you know, Mr Hollobone—we have seen new online competition, too. An online sales tax may look from that retail perspective as if new competition is only for retail in the high street, but that is not the case.
A much simpler way of levelling the playing field between online businesses and high street or premises-based businesses is a simple increase in VAT. It would affect everyone in the same way and, if we increased VAT by about 4p in the pound, we could scrap business rates altogether. Perhaps we could look at the VAT threshold as well, which can be a barrier to some businesses growing. With that, there would be no need for rates and therefore no need for rates relief, no need for rates reductions and no need for the Valuation Office Agency and many of the rates specialists, who could move into the productive economy and do something far more constructive than, say, two surveyors arguing about the rates on a particular property. It would settle the issue once and for all in Parliament and create that fair and level playing field for all businesses. The best thing is that there would be none of the reprobates from RVA, because there would be no business for it to try to hijack, moving rates relief from a business to its own bank account.
That is one way of solving the problem—but we need to solve the problem. It cannot be right that we leave these smallest of businesses at the mercy of complete charlatans such as RVA. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to do what he can to persuade the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to get the Insolvency Service to look at this, close down RVA and ensure that the relief that he has directed from the taxpayer to small and medium-sized enterprises ends up where he intended.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who has been a doughty campaigner on this issue, and rightly so. He said that 13 of our colleagues are affected. I suspect there are many more but that they have not felt able to raise the issue.
Let us be honest: we recognise that we may not be the main event this morning in Parliament, but these issues are our bread and butter as MPs. They cut across the political parties because a rip-off is a rip-off. When we see companies preying on and exploiting our constituents, who are trying to do that most basic and important thing of setting up businesses and being successful in our local communities, selling a wide range of goods and services to those communities, it inspires anger in all of us and frustration that we cannot do something more quickly to help. I recognise that we may not be the box office hit this morning that we would want to be, but I agree with the Minister—consensus is breaking out—and I hope that we can make progress today on something with a longer lasting effect, because in some sense this should be a simple open and shut case.
Like the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, I was contacted by a local resident absolutely at their wits’ end dealing with RVA as a company. They have a small business with one or two employees—not a large multinational—and are trying their best to understand and navigate the range of regulations and rules that they have to abide by, and to understand what they can do to give their business the best fighting chance. Six years ago, like the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, my constituent was contacted by RVA and offered what appeared to be assistance. There are many different companies that would offer assistance to small businesses that seem, on the face of it, to be helpful. It is not just about small business rate relief; often it can be about recycling or rubbish collection—all sorts of areas where there are different rules for businesses than for individuals. For a small business, particularly a sole trader, having someone help them to get their head around them seems like a blessing. Unfortunately, it was anything but a blessing.
The stories are very similar, which is why some of us have been exasperated by the lack of reaction to the company —it has been going on for many years. My constituent was contacted and told that they could reduce their business rate cost; RVA visited the office and took measurements—allegedly on behalf of the council, as though it was part of a public service—and then billed the company for the savings on small business rate relief. But those savings would have been automatically due to the company anyway. My constituent, not unreasonably, did not know the ins and outs of business rate relief. I am sure that if the Minister gave us all a test on it, I would wager that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton would beat me, but even he would not know everything about this scheme. To expect our constituents who are setting up a business to know all that information is simply unreasonable. That is why I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman when he uses the term “carpet-bagging”. There might be some more choice terms, but I am very conscious that they would not be not parliamentary language.
My constituent is now part of a long-running legal battle with that company—I will limit what I say to ensure that there is no issue for them but, like the hon. Gentleman, they have issues with the documents that appear to have been falsified and claims about signatures. RVA claims that my constituent agreed to a seven-year contract, when they only had a five-year lease on the premises. It does not make any logical sense. My constituent has had years of torture, causing real distress, through the court case and the impact on their ability to run their business at all.
When people come to us—I am sure the Members participating virtually have had the same experience—we want to help. I thought, surely, this is almost a police matter if fraud is involved. To find that this company is able to continue to operate to this day, ripping off businesses around the country, is deeply distressing. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have pursued this issue with trading standards in the area where the company operates, but I am told that they cannot act. Many moons ago I scrutinised the Consumer Rights Act 2015, where we talked about providing a reasonable service at a reasonable timescale for a reasonable price. None of that is reasonable. I am at a loss to understand why we cannot have stronger enforcement. We have not seen stronger enforcement, which is why this debate is so important.
I hope the Minister is open. I know that he, like me and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, would be aggrieved at seeing people ripped off. My constituent asks for a simple solution: she says that the small business rate should be automatic. Actually, the Federation of Small Businesses has been talking about licensing those companies, partly because, as I say, I do not think the rip-offs are restricted just to companies talking about business rate relief. Small businesses, especially in the post-covid environment, have really struggled over the past 18 months and are getting back on their feet, and they will desperately want help and advice about how best to navigate the new environment that they are operating in. It is entirely reasonable for the FSB to call for those companies to be licensed. We should be thinking about licensing business service companies so that we can stop what the FSB itself calls cowboy practices.
This is a matter for Government, not least because it is changes in Government policy that these companies are exploiting. When changes in business rates relief happen, these companies make their money; they make their money in a way that undermines the very policy of the Government. Governments of all political persuasions have tried to support small businesses. They are trying to pass on money—they are trying to help small businesses with their costs—yet, because of the practices of these companies, they can inadvertently end up charging them more, because the bill comes for the fact that the relief has changed.
I hope the Minister will listen and be not just sympathetic, but proactive, in calling to account the Insolvency Service, asking for an investigation into RVA, and in helping to shut down this awful company once and for all, as well as in learning the lessons from this situation on how we can best support small businesses when it comes to regulation.
We cannot have a debate in this place without talking about the B word, Brexit, and I always thought the concept of red tape and how much more of it might be coming was ironic. Here is a very clear example of where removing red tape could really help to support our constituents and make sure that people are not being ripped off, if only we have the political will to do so. I genuinely hope that the Minister will listen to this cross-party call for action and respond accordingly.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for highlighting the issue today.
I beg indulgence. The hon. Gentleman and I worked alongside an incredible person and I want to take a moment to place on the record in this House the passing of a gentleman whose work was monumental on regulatory issues. He was a good friend of mine and a good friend of the hon. Gentleman, and well known to many other Members of this House. He was Brian Little. He was one of my constituents, a good friend for nearly all my life, and all his life as well—we were of a similar age. He was a passionate advocate for the underdog, well known in this House in the realms of finance and reform. Brian will be sadly missed. His shoes are difficult to fill. I just want to have that on the record, Mr Hollobone.
May I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s words? Brian was a great man—a great man who did much work for many businesses that could not fight for themselves, in the battle against larger banks. He did a tremendous job, in his inimitable way. He was humble. It was never for himself. It was always, as the hon. Gentleman says, for the underdog, fighting an almost impossible battle. He had many a great success in that regard.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His words resonate with my own. The family will be greatly encouraged by our comments.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and her reasoned and valuable contribution—a well-thought-out contribution, which we wholeheartedly support. She referred to cross-party support. I hope my comments today will add cross-party support to the two previous speakers.
I understand that the regulations for business rates relief are handled in a different way in Northern Ireland than here on the mainland, and in Scotland, but the issues are the same. The ten-minute rule Bill regarding business rates means that we perhaps can and should take a UK-wide, holistic view of this matter.
I read with great interest the comments that highlight the belief that business rates were designed for a bygone era, where business went hand-in-hand with high street premises. The way we shop is now changing forever and the coronavirus has exacerbated those changes. Online sales now account for 33% of all retail sales, compared with 20% only a year ago.
I have been very impressed with my local council in my constituency of Strangford, which is working with businesses on the high street to retain their presence while they enter online forums. I have seen businesses, many of which were only able to open last week in Northern Ireland, come to terms with the new click-and-collect era and other ways of doing business. As we have watched businesses roll with gut-wrenching punches, it has highlighted to me that perhaps we, too, in this place, must advocate for change that makes sense in the post-covid world, where we are today. I see the wisdom, as I have seen many times in the past, of the rationale of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. I am interested to hear more and learn more of the outworking of the proposals that I have heard from my respected colleague and friend, as well as of those from the hon. Member for Walthamstow.
When I read the Library briefing for today’s debate, I was dismayed but not shocked at the companies seeking to take advantage of struggling businesses who are appealing the rates. The scams were wide-ranging and intricate, and it is clear that the current system leaves itself open for the kinds of abuses that both hon. Members refer to—yet another indicator that something needs to change, and change soon. The FSB contacted and asked me to put on record, as others have done, that they believe business rate companies should be licensed to access business rates records on behalf of businesses. There would be a low barrier to access, but a condition of the license would be to ban cowboy practices. The hon. Gentleman for Thirsk and Malton’s introduction used a lot of descriptive nouns for them without using any bad language, which I thought was quite good and I really relate to that. We could probably think of other things which would be unparliamentary and not appropriate. Nonetheless, it illustrates how we all feel.
While recent business rates reductions during the pandemic were welcome, too many businesses find themselves with an unexpected bill from these companies. Their predatory payment tactics mean that where Government policy reduced the bill to nil, these companies claim the reduction as part of their work, and charge year on year. Many businesses end up with a bill for £1,000 plus, when the only change has been as a result of Government policy. The Government does it, and they do it because that is their job. These guys come along and charge for it, when the Government does all the work. It reminds me of the cuckoo. We all know what the cuckoo does—he jumps into the nest of another bird, eats all the food that the parents give and has nothing to do with the parent birds. These are cuckoo companies and in my opinion deliver something that is totally wrong. Too often the conditions are hidden in the trading terms and conditions.
I welcome the schemes in England, such as extra targeted support packages for businesses and relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, and the corresponding help in Northern Ireland. I put on record my thanks to the Minister and the Government—my Government—for all they have done to help businesses in the constituency of Strangford, and across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They have kept those businesses afloat and we thank them for it. However, the fact of the matter is that businesses will need ongoing help. Rather than further complex and detailed schemes, now is the time to overview and change the entire system, as the hon. Gentleman for Thirsk and Malton referred to in his introduction. There must be a genuine review of how we can support businesses to survive, maintain a presence, and importantly continue with job creation. I believe we will get a bounce whenever we come out of lockdown, but we need to continue that bounce right through into the months and years ahead. When it comes to business, we have to play the long game, investing in small businesses, and knowing that in the end we will recoup every penny that has been outlaid when jobs continue and taxes are paid in manageable amounts to keep the business open and viable.
In conclusion, I believe the suggestions of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton are useful in moving forward, and I join him and the hon. Member for Walthamstow in asking the Government to put serious thought and manpower behind making this change for the good of business, our economy, and consequently, the quality of life throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to begin the summing up in this debate. Like others who have spoken, it is clear that if there had not been other major attractions on elsewhere in the House, there would have been far more people wanting to take part in this debate. I presume that is why the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) applied for the 90-minute debate. In normal circumstances, I think the 90 minutes would have been heavily over-subscribed. The initial title of the debate that appeared in the business last week made us in the SNP wonder if it was relevant in Scotland at all, as business rates, and everything to do with them, are devolved. However, it is obvious that the concern is not so much about how the business rates system operates in the different UK nations: it is about the regulation of business practices in general.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton spoke very eloquently, and clearly on the back of a significant amount of work to find out his facts, for which I commend him, but he spoke about a problem that is not specifically about the regulation of one particular service; it is about business practices that are dishonest, predatory, unacceptable in any circumstances, illegal in many circumstances and, as Members have suggested, probably illegal in the circumstances that we have heard about today.
I believe that such practices should be illegal, and enforceable not only in the civil courts. There should be circumstances where this behaviour crosses the line and is recognised as criminal activity, so that the directors of the companies concerned can find themselves personally facing financial sanctions or even imprisonment for the damage that they are doing to other people’s businesses and livelihoods.
My concern about the way the hon. Member introduced the debate is that if we close down the opportunity for the shysters, to use his term, to exploit businesses by setting up fake business rates reduction schemes, it will not take them a week to find a new way to scam other honest businesses, or even the same honest business again—for example, the provision of telephone services. A long-established and very well respected household-name business in my constituency was brought close to insolvency by a telecoms scam. A business offered it a better deal on its phone systems than the one it already had.
Many of the practices that the hon. Member mentioned happened to my constituent, and to many others as well—contracts being changed, documents being taken away and never returned, and customers not seeing the contract that was being used against them in a court action. All the practices that will happen with dishonest business rates advisers will happen with dishonest telephone system salespersons, and with dishonest businesses in almost any sector of the economy that we look at.
Although I recognise that there are specific issues about the way that business rates reliefs and reductions operate that can provide an opportunity for dishonest so-called advisory services, we need to look at it much more widely than simply that one service. There are certainly legitimate questions about whether property valuation is the best way to assess businesses’ financial contribution to the whole community. There are legitimate questions about whether property valuation is the best way to tax individuals for their contribution to local council services. There are certainly questions about whether it is sustainable that those are the only two taxes that most councils can vary to any extent in order to fund their services.
Those are discussions for a different day, possibly after the economy has recovered from the shocks of covid and the subsequent lockdown. The difficulty that we face is that a lot of individuals have been persuaded to incorporate their self-employed microbusiness as a limited company, and they did not realise when they did it that they lost almost all the consumer protections that they had as an individual. I put it to the Minister that we might need to look at amending consumer protection legislation so that very small businesses have a degree of consumer protection in the same way that we do as individuals.
Individuals get consumer protection because it is recognised that we are smaller than the people trying to sell us stuff. We often do not have the resources. We certainly cannot afford the lawyers that some of them can. That is why consumer protection legislation was introduced and has been amended. Is it time to apply the same principle to very small businesses? Even though they are businesses, and all businesses in some ways are equal in the eyes of the law, do we need to start introducing special consumer protection legislation that applies to small businesses, regardless of whether they are incorporated? I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that point.
For the record, when I have done some checks I have found at least one person called Stephen Hughes who has run property-related companies in the Greater Manchester area. There are obviously a lot of companies with RVA or very similar sets of initials in their names. We have to make it clear that companies and individuals who, simply by coincidence, have similar names to those mentioned today are, as far as we can tell, completely innocent of wrongdoing. Nothing we are saying here should be taken to impugn the integrity of anyone other than the specific individual and business named today.
I will bring my remarks to a close with a firm message for the Government: people who set up a business with dishonourable or dishonest intentions, simply to prey on legitimate, honest and hard-working small businesses anywhere in these islands, should not be allowed to trade. If they are still allowed to carry out their nefarious practices, regulation of those businesses is not strong enough—it has to be tightened, and it has to be tightened soon, before we see more valuable small businesses going to the wall.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the chance to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this important debate. I applaud the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for having secured the debate on the need to regulate business rate relief services and for drawing our attention to the shocking and distressing detail of what happened to Miss Carter’s business in his constituency and of the wider appalling behaviour of RVA Surveyors.
I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) on the wider need for action on predatory business practices, and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who added to the description of the shocking behaviour of RVA Surveyors, reminding us that she is a tireless campaigner for businesses in her constituency. I also recognise the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who mentioned the need for business rates to be looked at more widely to reflect the modern world and to support our high streets.
Our high streets are only just beginning to be able to get back on their feet after more than a year of covid restrictions in some form. Many of the problems they face, however, did not begin when covid hit; they have faced challenges in making ends meet since long before the pandemic started. In that context, it is shameful that con artists should prey on the financial insecurity of some small and medium-sized businesses at this of all times, and I am sure that all Members welcome the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton bringing such concerning practice to our attention.
Let us be clear about how some providers of so-called business rate relief services operate. As we have heard, they claim that they will navigate through the local authority’s system on behalf of businesses and perhaps play hard ball with the Valuation Office Agency to negotiate business rate relief for companies. Their claims, however, could not be further from the truth. In fact, some of the businesses that need support most are lured—often on a no relief, no fee basis—into multi-year contracts that entitle the service providers to a huge percentage of any business rates savings made by the company. That results in astonishing and predatory commission fees for arranging benefits that are often applied freely and automatically by local authorities. Many businesses are entitled to small business rate relief, and others in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors receive grants automatically or can apply through their local council website.
To spell out what that means in practice, let me set out an example, using conservative values nowhere near as bad as the worst cases that have been reported in the media. Take a new small business with a rateable value of about £13,500—a nursery, perhaps, or a small café. Its business rate prior to any relief would be in the region of £6,750. Were it unaware that it was entitled to small business rate relief, it might be tempted to contract with a business rate relief service, which would promise to negotiate a discounted rate for business in exchange for—again being conservative—say a 30% commission on any money saved. The service might stipulate—again, conservatively—a two-year contract, well below the five years or far longer that we have seen in the press or spoken about today.
In the 2019 financial year, that business would have been entitled to a 50% deduction through the small business rate relief. In the following year, covid measures increased that to 100%. Over those two years alone, with just a 30% commission, the provider of that so-called business rate relief service would take just shy of £3,000 off the new café or nursery. That is money that the new business was automatically entitled to and should have benefited from, yet the service provider took it off that business having added no meaningful value.
That is a deeply unethical business practice; it is exploitative, and targets those who need the relief the most. At present, these services are free to prey on vulnerable businesses, because there is no regulation in place and perhaps because too many businesses are unaware of the reliefs they are automatically entitled to. Although the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton disagrees with me fairly often in the Chamber, I have no disagreement with him whatever in saying that there is no place for this kind of practice in the UK. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government intend to do about this parasitic behaviour, which can do so much to harm small businesses.
I would also be grateful if, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to, the Minister would take the opportunity in his response to set out his position on some of the wider challenges posed by the business rates system to small and medium businesses, particularly those on the high street, which have faced difficulties for many years in making ends meet. I am of course aware that the Government have said that their final report on a fundamental review of business rates will be published in autumn 2021, so perhaps the Minister can start by confirming that this deadline will still be met. While recognising the promised publication date in the autumn, will the Minister none the less take this opportunity to update us on the Government’s thinking regarding any alternatives they are considering to the current system, as introduced in 1988? Can he guarantee that high street businesses will benefit from the reform and that online retailers will be asked to take on a fairer share? Finally, despite restrictions potentially—hopefully—being lifted on 21 June, we expect the impact of covid on businesses to continue beyond that date. Are there any circumstances in which the Minister would consider extending the 100% business rate relief for a further three months beyond the end of June, as called for by the Opposition ahead of the Budget?
As I have made clear, we agree with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. He is right to raise them, and I hope the Minister will be clear about what the Government will do to tackle the parasitic behaviour of so-called business rate relief services. As he will know, however, business rates are in need of a comprehensive review, so I would welcome his also updating us on the Government’s latest position on the wider points I have raised.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for having secured this important debate on a matter that is of considerable public interest generally, but also locally in his constituency and to those affected by this company. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that is not disfigured by party politics; all Members have made very constructive contributions, and I am grateful for them.
I will start by expressing my sadness that, inevitably, proceedings elsewhere in this House at the moment are going to be overshadowed by this very important consideration of business rates. I only hope that the media will find some time to indulge Mr Cummings in his comments in between reporting on this vital topic. In a slightly more serious vein, I apologise that the Government have not been able to supply a Minister with specific responsibility for this area to respond to the debate. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) rightly said, its focus is not on business rates—although there has been the occasional attempt to crowbar the rest of the business rates system in—but on the reduction services aspect that my hon. Friend raised. That aspect is a matter of business regulation, and therefore falls to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) have also focused on some individual cases of predatory practice by specific companies, and they will understand that I cannot comment in any detail on specific cases. It would set a very bad precedent for a Financial Secretary to do so, given the connection to the tax system in a different context.
I think Members recognise that, at its core, the system of business rates is a relatively simple and straightforward one. Companies and individuals who occupy non-domestic properties are liable for business rates. The rates bill is the product, in the literal, mathematical sense, of the rateable value of the property and the multiplier for the financial year concerned, offset by any rate reliefs. The rateable value is set by the Valuation Office Agency and, broadly speaking, it is the rental value at a set date —presently 1 April 2015.
In cases where businesses are unsure about the rateable value of properties, there are plenty of helpful resources on the website of the Valuation Office Agency. For example, I can go online and see a detailed valuation of No. 2, Marsham Street, which is the headquarters of the Home Office, and an explanation for how its valuation has been reached. You will be pleased to know, Mr Hollobone, that it has rather a high valuation, as befits its position in central London.
If ratepayers are unhappy with their rateable value, there is an online system known as check, challenge and appeal, which allows them to check the facts and, if necessary, to dispute the valuation that has been reached. This system was introduced to provide ratepayers with a service that is easier to use and understand than its predecessor and that enables quicker resolution of cases. An evaluation of the system last year found that it is working and that ratepayers are getting their cases resolved faster, without the automatic need to make appeals.
Rate reliefs are applied by individual local authorities, but most of these are automatic or require minimal information from the ratepayer. For example, transitional relief, which is used to phase in the effects of revaluations, is entirely automatic. For small business rate relief, rate- payers need only provide a little information about other properties on which they pay business rates, before being able to claim. All rate bills must explain the various reliefs available, and local authorities have many excellent websites that explain how to claim those reliefs.
Much of the £16 billion of relief that the Government have provided to the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in response to covid-19—this was picked up by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—has been applied automatically to rates bills. So there are many automatic methods of applying reliefs currently within the system. The relevance of that to the present debate is that there is no reason why a ratepayer should have to use an agent to claim rate relief. If they believe they are eligible for relief, they should instead contact their local authority. Of course, that is not in any sense to criticise people who have been found to be clients or would-be clients of the predatory organisations that have been highlighted by Members in the debate.
Let me pick up on the nature of some of the protections that exist within the system, of which there are several. One is the rules that apply to business-to-business contracts and that arise from the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008, which prohibit advertising that misleads traders. There is also the Misrepresentation Act 1967, which may also apply to business-to-business contracts, and which says that if someone has entered into a contract following misrepresentation by the other party, they would be entitled to rescind that contract. Additionally, if they have suffered loss, they can claim damages against the other party.
Small businesses can seek help through other channels. If a ratepayer feels that there may have been illegal or fraudulent activity, they can choose to take court action, as I understand a number of businesses have successfully done in at least one of the cases under discussion. Alternatively, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned the Insolvency Service, which offers some protections, although they appear not to have been availing in this case.
It is worth just picking up the point about consumer protections. At present, the services are provided to the businesses that I have described, and consumer protections do not apply in the case that we have described. I note, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has argued, that microbusinesses share many of the characteristics of consumers, and he and other Members have therefore argued that they are worthy of protections in their own right. Members have highlighted the predatory practices of the companies they have discussed, which are, I am afraid, also exercised by a relatively small number of other companies, and cause extreme distress to the people who are affected by them.
It is important to note that, in other markets—for example, financial markets—it has proved possible to differentiate between protections afforded to different kinds of people in the client relationship. Therefore, there is a clear case here for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to revisit this area and to assess what further protections can, in principle, be provided. Let me conclude with a very simple message.
I hesitate to stop the Minister in full flow, because it is very interesting to hear what he is saying. I just want to come back on a point he made about businesses being entitled to rates relief automatically. Of course, that does require businesses to know about that. I agree with him, and I think we all agree, that differentiating between businesses—often small businesses —and consumers does not make any sense in terms of the expectation of protection, which is the reason why we have consumer regulations.
However, might he be convinced that it would be helpful in these instances for Government to be proactive in telling people that they might be entitled to rates relief? One reason why this company has been able to exploit people is a lack of awareness of the scheme. Although the Minister may feel that it is relatively straightforward, for a new business, the idea that there might be some things that do not have to be paid and others that do adds complexity. Is there a case, perhaps, in the absence of the further consumer protections we are talking about, for requiring local authorities, when they send a bill, to say, “Most small businesses would be entitled to rate relief, and therefore it is worth your time investigating”?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have already said that all rates bills are required to explain the various reliefs available and that local authorities have, in many cases, excellent websites that explain how to claim the reliefs. Of course, the fact that reliefs in the cases I have described are automatic means that they flow through in and of themselves. That is a very attractive feature, where that can be engineered into the system. Where it cannot, it is for good reasons, and it may not be possible.
I do not think it is right to suggest—I do not think anyone who has participated in this very thoughtful debate would suggest—that there is any easy fix here, but there is a clear case to be addressed. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for bringing it to our attention and for raising it with the Government. I think the Government—across my colleagues and myself—need to consider what more can be done, both by themselves and in their further discussions with local authorities.
I thank all hon. Members for their support in this debate. Everybody made very well thought through comments. I particularly thank the Minister. There is no doubt that this issue has arisen as an unintended consequence of the generous targeted support from the Treasury for small businesses. Very small businesses, generally, are then subject to predatory behaviour from the rip-off merchants, as has been mentioned by various hon. Members today. In the case of Jude Carter, the contract will divert £18,000—which the Treasury intended to give to her in taxpayer support—from her to RVA. That is simply unacceptable. In many cases—hopefully not in Jude Carter’s case—that would be a matter of life or death for a business of that size; £18,000 is a huge amount of money over 12 years.
Clearly, this is a scam. It is disappointing that the Insolvency Service has chosen not to investigate. It did write back to me, saying that, despite the fact that it does have jurisdiction over scams of this nature, it found no grounds on which to take further action within its powers. It is very surprising that the Insolvency Service will not act in this clear case of abuse by a business of other businesses. It has the power to close down this business. It has the power to strike off directors. I hope it will listen to the debate and act. It has decided to look at the issue again—it recently wrote to me asking for more information about hon. Members who have such cases—so I really do hope it will act.
I appreciate the comments from my right hon. Friend the Minister. This is a specific case, but there are other cases of predatory behaviour inflicted on microbusinesses. I am very heartened to hear what he said. There is a good case for extending the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to cover microbusinesses, which would resolve this problem, because I am sure that these contracts would be struck out by the court on the basis of the very unfair terms. I think there will be other contracts, under which small businesses are subjected to unfair behaviour to persuade them to sign, where the courts could intervene to prevent that behaviour from happening in the future.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, and I hope we can make more progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered regulation of business rates reduction services.
Istanbul Convention: Position of the UK Government
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Istanbul Convention and the position of the UK Government.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. There is an urgency to this debate, which I will come on to explain, but one of the primary concerns of the Council of Europe, representing 47 member countries and about 800 million citizens in those countries, is to safeguard and protect human rights. Violence, particularly violence against women, including domestic violence, undermines the core values on which the Council of Europe is based.
The urgency of this debate comes about for very good reasons, and just let me say that I initiate the debate, as the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, in order to highlight the problems that we have with regard to the Istanbul convention. Those reasons stem from the fact that the Turkish Government have decided to withdraw from that convention. People may think it very strange, as it is called the Istanbul convention, that the Turkish Government have decided to withdraw from it, but also the Polish Government appear to be giving indications that they wish to withdraw from it. I think that this is a very serious challenge to a particularly important treaty of the Council of Europe, which I will come on to in just a second.
The reason the UK becomes involved in this is that the Turkish delegation has been saying, “What do we care about this? Look at the UK. A founder member and grand payeur of the Council of Europe has signed the convention but not even ratified it. If they haven’t ratified it, what use is it and why are people getting on to us?” That is something that we should take a strong stand against, because, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will come on to say, we have been doing a lot in order to ratify it.
I commend my hon. Friend for calling this debate today, because it was back in 2012 that the UK Government signed the Istanbul convention, demonstrating their real commitment to tackling violence against women and girls. I join him in urging the Government to set out when the ratification process will come to a head, because I agree that it is deeply concerning that other countries might be taking the lack of ratification as a sign that they do not have to be as cognisant of the treaty as they should be.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. What I would point out on that is, first, that it is a question that I would like to put to the Minister, and I am sure that she will want to comment on it, during her reply to the debate, and say something about the timetable. But we in this country, unlike many countries in Europe, try to change the law first, before ratifying the treaty. It is a simple issue: we try to get the law right in this country. Let us look at some of the other countries that have approached ratification. Ireland signed it in 2015 but did not ratify it until 2019. Luxembourg signed in 2011 but did not ratify until 2018. There is often a long period during which treaties are discussed and the law is changed, but it is such a great shame that the rest of Europe does not follow our advice and change the law in order to get the treaty right. That is certainly something that I have put to the group; and the group, to a person, completely agrees. That is an important point to remember.
The Minister, in her evidence to the House of Lords, said that we have gone further in what we have implemented than the treaty requires. It would be useful to have how we have gone further on the record, so that I have a piece of paper that I can wave—if that does not create too much of an impression of Neville Chamberlain—and can say, “This is what we are really doing.”
The Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul convention, protects women against all forms of violence. It obliges countries to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence, including domestic violence, against women.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I am always interested in his debates because he highlights issues that I am particularly interested in, so I thank him for that. This House has just passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and I believe we have done a great job on that. The Act addresses compliance with article 44 in relation to extraterritorial jurisdiction. However, there are issues with our treatment of women migrants and spousal visas, for example, that we must seek to address—not to sign off on the convention, but simply to do the right thing by these sometimes very vulnerable women. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him. We need to do the right thing, but the right thing in this case is to ratify the treaty. The treaty sums up the whole approach to the protection of women, and it is the treaty that right across Europe provides women with the confidence that they have protection.
The convention also establishes a specific monitoring mechanism to ensure effective implementation of its provisions by individual countries. It is worth stopping for a moment to look at what the convention covers. I have a list, which I hope is comprehensive, of the things it covers: stalking; sexual harassment; sexual violence, including rape; physical and psychological abuse, including at the hands of intimate partners; forced marriage; forced sterilisation; female genital mutilation; and forced abortion. In all of those areas, as far as I can see, we have already done quite a lot to be able to take the treaty forward. If we think of the work that we have done against female genital mutilation, for example, we have been setting a lead across the European continent. Not only women and girls suffer domestic violence. Parties to the convention—the countries that have ratified it—are encouraged to apply the protective framework that it creates to men too, so that they are covered by the convention, because they, too, suffer violence.
The purpose of this debate is to hear from the Minister what we have done, what we are doing and what we are likely to do, and to hear a bit about the timetable for that. The Governments that have ratified the convention agree to take a number of steps. They agree to train professionals so as to have close contact with victims; to regularly run awareness-raising campaigns; and to take steps to include issues such as gender equality and non-violent conflict. They agree to have a go at resolving the issue of interpersonal relationships in teaching materials and to set up treatment programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders. They agree to work closely with non-governmental organisations and civil society in general.
Most importantly, those Governments agree to involve the media and the private sector in eradicating gender stereotypes and promoting mutual respect, because preventing violence against women and domestic violence should not be left simply to the state alone. It is important that all members of society, men and boys in particular, should help in that process in order to make a good stand.
When preventive measures have failed and violent incidents have happened, it is important to provide victims and witnesses with protection and support. Some examples of the measures set forth in the convention include granting the police the power to remove a perpetrator of domestic violence from his or her home in situations of immediate danger. There is a whole list of other activities recommended by the convention.
The convention also recommends that countries have to introduce a number of new criminal offences, if they do not already exist. Those include psychological and physical violence, and laws against sexual violence, including rape, stalking, female genital mutilation and those other areas, as I said.
The Minister kindly spoke to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee a little while ago, setting out a lot of what we are about. She said that we are complying with the convention and, indeed, exceeding the requirements of the convention in all but three areas. I would like her to set out how we are exceeding the convention, because that would be helpful. The three areas that she mentioned were psychological violence, extraterritorial jurisdiction and non-discrimination relating to refugee or migrant residency status in the UK.
Northern Ireland is not yet compliant with article 33 of the treaty, but it will be once the new domestic abuse offence in its Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 is implemented by the Assembly. I understand that will come before the Assembly again to be sorted out, probably in the autumn of this year.
The issue is of enormous concern to us and to our European allies. A lot of work has been done, but I want to press on the Government that, as soon as we possibly can, we should ratify the treaty. One of the biggest pieces of work to take the treaty forward is the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has done so much to turbocharge what we as a country are doing to tackle some of the individual crimes against women and girls. Domestic abuse affects about 2.5 million adult victims in England and Wales, so it is a big activity to target.
On those three areas that we are not yet reaching—I think the Minister will agree—the UK has clear measures on how to address those gaps in the law. It would be useful for her to set out how we are dealing with them.
The convention is really important. We signed up to it in absolute good faith in 2012. We have wanted to go beyond the convention and I have commented on that. However, I hope that Members will treat the Minister kindly, because she has been a great champion of the convention. Building on the recommendation for the protection of women against violence, the convention for the first time in Europe sets out a legally binding standard to prevent violence against women and domestic violence, to protect the victims and to punish the perpetrators. That is a very important element for us to rejoice in, and to be able to take forward.
Violence against women seriously violates and impacts on, or nullifies, the enjoyment by women of their human rights, and in particular their fundamental rights to life, security, freedom, dignity, and physical and emotional integrity. It therefore cannot be ignored by Governments—I am not suggesting that this Government are ignoring it; I am simply stating that as a fact that comes out of this treaty. Governments must recognise that such violence affects not only women, but society as a whole, and that urgent action is required to take this forward. With those remarks, I leave it to the Minister to respond, because I know that she has to appear in the House of Commons shortly, and I want to give her time to be able to give this issue a good outing and to make her meeting.
As always, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate on the Istanbul convention. I pay tribute to his leadership on the Council of Europe in many areas, but in particular in the area of tackling violence against women and girls and the Istanbul convention. We signed the convention in 2012, signalling our strong commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, and we remain absolutely committed to ratifying it as soon as possible.
However, before I discuss the United Kingdom’s progress towards ratification, I will take a moment to address Turkey’s recent decision to withdraw from the convention. We are very disappointed by this action and have, alongside our partners, publicly urged Turkey to reconsider its position. My hon. Friend the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas has raised Turkey’s regrettable decision with the Turkish ambassador and her Turkish counterpart. The UK has also endorsed statements of criticism by UN Women, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s permanent council, and the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has been equally tireless in raising his concerns, including through the report that he presented to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month about the functioning of democratic institutions in Turkey.
I should just add that I am also the rapporteur on Turkey for the Council of Europe. This is a major issue that we bring up time and again with the Council of Europe, in order to make sure that Turkey knows what it is doing on this— because it was done by presidential decree—and to get it to reverse its decision, if we can.
Very much so. It is not acceptable for Turkey to seek to excuse its own actions by referencing other countries, including the United Kingdom; it is responsible for its own decisions. In fact, we are proud that the United Kingdom is recognised around the world as a global leader in tackling violence against women and girls. We are delighted to be co-leading the new Generation Equality Forum’s global action coalition on gender-based violence. We will use this platform to protect and promote the safety and rights of women and girls in all their diversity, and call for all member states to remain committed to international conventions, including the Istanbul convention.
However, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the United Kingdom insists on implementing measures and laws before ratifying international conventions, and that is the approach we have maintained while considering this convention. We have in play some of the most robust measures in the world to protect women and girls from violence and, in all but three respects, we comply with, or indeed go further than, what the convention requires.
I am listening very carefully to the Minister’s argument, and she is absolutely right to say that, as a nation, we want to make sure that we sign up only to things that we know we can adhere to, but this is a treaty that was signed in 2012—almost a decade ago. Leaving such a long time before ratification allows countries such as Turkey to take other meanings from the delay that has occurred in the UK.
In a little while, I am going to encourage countries to follow our lead on some of the measures we have taken, including in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, in which my right hon. Friend played such a vital role in her work chairing the joint Committee that scrutinised the draft Bill. I will address the timeframe in a moment.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, to which colleagues of different parties have referred in their contributions, will transform the response across all agencies for victims and their children. We have also introduced new guidance for professionals, as well as a range of new protective tools, such as protection orders for FGM, stalking and forced marriage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out, the range of crimes, and the range of forms that violence against women and girls can take, is very wide and very harmful. As I say, however, there are three outstanding issues to address before we can comply fully with the convention.
The main obstacle delaying our ratification has been compliance with article 44, which relates to extraterritorial jurisdiction. All parts of the United Kingdom need to obtain the power to prosecute their nationals and residents for certain violent and sexual offences committed overseas. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 includes the necessary provisions, which will make all parts of the UK compliant with article 44. I am pleased to inform the House that the extraterritorial jurisdiction provisions for England and Wales will be implemented automatically on 29 June, and I understand that Scottish and Northern Irish Ministers also plan to commence their provisions within a similar timeframe. That will be a significant milestone towards ratification. The only exception to that timescale will be extraterritorial jurisdiction for psychological violence in Northern Ireland.
That brings me to the second issue, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has addressed—namely, article 33 and psychological violence. Unlike England, Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland is not yet compliant with article 33, because it does not have in force an offence that criminalises psychological violence. The Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, which became law in March and should be implemented by the autumn, provides for a new domestic abuse offence that would criminalise psychological violence in Northern Ireland. Extraterritorial jurisdiction for that offence will be implemented at the same time, representing the last piece in the jigsaw for article 44. Once that offence is implemented, the UK as a whole will be fully compliant with article 33—the second significant milestone towards ratification.
The final outstanding area concerns migrant victims of domestic abuse and relates to articles 3, 4 and 59. In April last year, I announced that the Government were committing £1.5 million in this financial year to fund the support for migrant victims scheme, in order to provide protection and support for vulnerable migrant victims who are unable to access public funds. The scheme launched in April and is intended to run until 31 March 2022. The Government will use this pilot scheme to better assess the level of need for such victims, and to inform evidence-based long-term funding and policy decisions. Therefore, the compliance position for those articles is under review, pending the evaluation and findings for the support for migrant victims scheme.
I understand the frustration that we have not yet been able to ratify the convention. I can reassure hon. Members that we are doing everything we can to ensure that ratification happens as soon as possible within that context, and I must emphasise again that we are taking significant action to tackle violence against women and girls, including going further than the convention requires us to do in many instances. Indeed, I hope other countries will look at what we have achieved in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and non-legislative measures. Perhaps, dare I say, they will follow our lead. For example, only last year we launched the successful #YouAreNotAlone campaign to ensure that victims of abuse, and people worried about friends and family, know how to access help and advice. As of March, the campaign is estimated to have reached 35 million people.
Another example: in January, we launched the Ask for ANI codeword scheme to support victims of domestic abuse, with around 5,000 pharmacies participating. This scheme alone has already helped more than 70 victims and their families to escape domestic abuse. Throughout the pandemic, our absolute priority has been ensuring that victims can continue to access crucial support services. We have provided more than £28 million to domestic abuse organisations, including boosting helplines, web services and refuges, and we have provided additional funding to help victims of sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children.
However, we want to go even further. Since 2010, we have created two new stalking offences, criminalised forced marriage, and committed to reviewing the way in which the criminal justice system responds to rape. Later this year, we will publish a new violence against women and girls strategy, which will help us to target perpetrators and support victims, while enhancing our ability to tackle emerging crime types, such as revenge porn and other online offences. Our determination to listen to women and girls in order to shape our strategies—both violence against women and girls and tackling domestic abuse—is proven by our decision to run the first-ever public survey on violence against women and girls.
Following the tragic events earlier this year, during which thousands of women and girls shared their own experiences of violence against women and girls, the Home Secretary reopened the public survey so that more people could contribute to this vital work. I am pleased to tell the House that that survey has received around 180,000 responses, which anyone who keeps an eye on Government surveys will appreciate is an extremely high level of response. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who took part in that survey. Their contributions are being analysed and will be absolutely invaluable in helping us to shape this new strategy, as well as the specific complementary domestic abuse strategy which we are publishing later this year.
On the progress of the Istanbul convention, as required by law, we will publish our next annual progress report on ratification of this by 1 November. On the details of where we are complying and exceeding measures, our most recent ministerial statement sets out details of the convention. I would very much like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley for raising these important issues, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Gentleman for Strangford for their contributions. I am grateful to them for allowing me the opportunity to address the Government’s position.
Question put and agreed to.
Support for Children Entitled to Free School Meals
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, and there will also be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us here in the Boothroyd Room.
If Members who are attending virtually have any technical problems, can they email the Westminster Hall Clerks? I think everyone was emailed with the instructions this morning, but the address is westminsterhallclerks @parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them, and as they leave the room. I think there are baby wipes for everyone. Mr Speaker has also reminded Members to wear masks in Westminster Hall unless they are speaking; the Chair is exempt, because we may need to speak at any time, but apart from me, everyone should have their mask on. Members can only speak from a place with a microphone, but I think everybody is in the right place.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for children entitled to free school meals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
The UK is a rich country. As a G7 nation with a GDP that many countries can only look at in envy, we simply must do more to provide for our own citizens and combat the ever-increasing levels of child poverty. With huge wealth in many parts of the country and an economy with the most potential in Europe, we can do far better than we are, and MPs should not need to apply for debates such as the one we are having today. However, across the country and in this very city, the richest 1% live a gilded life, a handful of streets away from the most deprived neighbourhoods in the most unequal areas. We live on the same streets; we walk the same streets; but we inhabit different worlds. We are a deeply unequal society, and the fact that so many families rely on the meagre support available from the state to feed their children is nothing short of a national outrage. It is a clear demonstration that our economic system is not working for so many.
In some local authority areas, child poverty is reaching 50%, while the wealth of the richest 1% has grown exponentially. As per The Sunday Times’ rich list, printed last Sunday, the richest man in the country saw his wealth grow by £7 billion last year, while in my own borough of Haringey, some 8,000 children—a staggering 29%—rely on free school meals. That figure has increased by 1,700 over the past year. The Trussell Trust has said that over 50% of those using its food banks had never used one before this year, so we are seeing a huge increase. Some 1 million eight to 17-year-olds visited a food bank in the months of December and January—I would like the Minister to dwell on that for a moment. We see this stark inequality among many families in every part of London, and not just in London: people are relying on state support to feed their children, not through any fault of their own but as a damning indictment of the soaring cost of living and the broken economic system. Families are facing above-inflation increases in water and fuel bills and the Government’s council tax increases, and family budgets are at breaking point.
Outside London, Labour analysis has shown that the number of children eligible for free schools meals has increased in nearly every region and nation of the UK. It would be wrong to say that this rise in entitlement is purely down to the pandemic. Analysis released in March by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that child poverty had been increasing for six years before the pandemic hit, with three quarters of children growing up in poverty being from a working family. That is because many people are being paid paltry national minimum wage levels. Where families get the London living wage, or the living wage outside of London, it increases the likelihood that they will be able to pay for nutritious food. The shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is right to say that feeding kids is not a half-time activity—a reference to Marcus Rashford.
What is also clear beyond any doubt is the wider and life-long impact of the poverty and deprivation faced by children eligible for free school meals. While these children will have support during school hours, for other parts of the week and throughout the year when they are not in school, they face going hungry and their attainment, health and prospects will suffer. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), has shown in this House over a number of years, statistics have repeatedly shown that this has a serious impact on the rest of a child’s education, with far lower numbers of those on free school meals attending university, compared with their peers who are not.
The hon. Lady has outlined the fact that child poverty is rising, and has been rising for a number of years. In light of that, does she share my shock and disappointment that today at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that child poverty was falling, showing that he does not actually understand the scale of the problem, much less how to fix it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am not sure whether it is ignorance, or not wanting to tell the truth. All who have signed up to this debate know what our inboxes are showing, what our constituents tell us when they walk in the door, and we know that things are getting worse. One of the poor health outcomes is on people’s teeth. Research from the British Dental Association has shown that 11% of children in England have tooth decay by three years old, which rises to 23% by the time they are five and reaching school. Even though this is completely preventable, it continues to be the No. 1 reason why children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital in the UK. With a rise in free school-meal entitlement because of grinding levels of child poverty, this is no surprise.
Problems with teeth can have an impact on a child’s ability to sleep, concentrate in school or develop good speech and language skills. We need to take action and be bold in our approach through a less threadbare welfare system and a more generous system of school meals provision. We also know the importance of action before school, such as breakfast clubs. As a former council leader, I wanted to know which schools did not have a breakfast club so I could ask them to put one on. Not only do they help working families to have children in school on time and have an early start, they also show that where breakfast is of a high quality, it helps enormously with academic achievement and concentration. Teachers say that, with good nutrition, children’s behaviour is good right through into the afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who used to be a teacher, will confirm that. Likewise, after-school activities should provide healthy options because, for some children who are in school for many, many hours, this could be the only hot meal—at lunchtime and then in the afternoon—that they might have, so it is incredibly important.
Members in this House have championed the need to address school holiday hunger, and I hope that the national food strategy will focus the minds of Minsters on that, so that we address what is going to be a very long break this summer, with many people on really low incomes.
I will conclude soon, but I am sure the points that I have made are abundantly clear. In response to the very good debate earlier this week on a similar topic, I will make a short point. We do not want to make this particular topic very party political. We want everyone to pull together, but sadly when the Prime Minister mentions that child poverty is reducing, and we know that child poverty is not reducing, that is when it becomes political. When a footballer has to lead the charge because many MPs vote against children having nutritional food during the school holidays that is when it becomes something that really hits home, and something we must do something about.
In conclusion, this is the prescription for the levels of child poverty that we are seeing: first, to make the £20 universal credit uplift permanent; secondly, more help for families with fuel bills, water bills and council tax; thirdly, high-quality debt advice—too many households rely on buy now, pay later financial products, which quickly become unaffordable; fourthly, help with housing costs—too many families spend over a third of their income on expensive rent payments. Shelter, the charity that specialises in housing, recommends no more than 35%, but far too many families are spending way over 35% on housing payments, which does not leave enough to pay for food. Fifthly, childcare costs: if a family has two children in childcare, the cost is often more than rent, so that needs to be urgently addressed.
Britain’s children deserve better. We have the wealth in our society to deliver a better society for all our citizens. We need a Government with a heart to act. I implore the Minister to do her utmost to address this full-on. We must not sit on our hands; it cannot take any further debates or votes in Parliament. Do what is right. Work with us and implement the policies that we need to be a real and noticeable help to families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this important debate.
Before coming to this place, I was a schoolteacher. I saw first-hand the impact of free school meals. Access to a healthy meal can make such a difference to a child’s learning and health. Over the last year, we have all seen headlines about holiday hunger and the fact that too many children go hungry in the school holidays, as families struggle to meet the rising cost of living throughout the pandemic.
In my constituency, 25% of 0 to 15 year-olds live in poverty. Take a moment to consider that statistic: a quarter of children in Barnsley live in poverty. More than 3,000 children are currently eligible for free school meals. As has been mentioned, the Trussell Trust has reported that almost 1 million emergency food parcels were given to children in the last year alone—a 36% rise on the previous year. We should take this opportunity to praise Marcus Rashford for his work to highlight the issue, and for shaming the Government into a U-turn on their decision not to feed hungry kids during school holidays. It should not require a public shaming for that to happen, and it is telling that not a single Tory MP is here for the debate, other than the Minister who is required to be here.
Last week, I visited the holiday hunger project run by Barnsley Council, to see the great work it is doing with the help of volunteers. Barnsley Council is committed to providing good quality food hampers that meet its school meal standards. The good food boxes are provided by the council’s in-house school catering service. Almost 10,000 children were eligible during the Easter holidays. Of that number, more than 2,000 families applied for a box, and 4,000 boxes were put together. That was a huge task for the council, but it could only reach 42% of children. Sadly, the number of eligible children is only set to rise. The Government are funding only half the holidays, leaving the rest of the burden on already cash- strapped councils such as mine in Barnsley. My council has stepped up to the challenge and delivered for our children, despite having its budget cut by 33% since 2010, and despite the financial burden of covid-19. Without urgent and direct action, the problem will only get worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this important debate.
When it comes to what should be a primary role of Government—ensuring that our children have enough food so they can concentrate in school—this Administration should be ashamed of themselves. Recent figures published by Trussell Trust show that nearly 10,000 food parcels were delivered in Leicester over the past year, of which more than 2,000 went to children. The most shocking statistic is that the number of food parcels delivered to adults increased by 303% between March 2020 and March 2021. For children, the increase was 166% during the same period. During the same period during the pandemic, the wealth of UK billionaires increased by 22% to £597 billion. Given the extensive range of faith and community organisations engaged in food bank delivery in my constituency alone, even these shocking figures from the Trussell Trust do not give a complete picture of food bank usage in Leicester. The actual figure is much higher.
One way to limit the reliance on food banks is to ensure that children receive the food that they need at school, as is the case in countries such as Sweden and Finland that provide universal school meals for all. In Leicester East, over 7,000 school-aged children were living in poverty before the coronavirus pandemic hit, yet only 3,300 were eligible for free school meals. That means that nearly 4,000 children in Leicester East were not eligible for free school meals, despite living below the poverty line. That will have worsened during the pandemic, especially as there are now 11,113 children trapped in poverty in my constituency.
The current free school meals threshold is very low, requiring an annual income of £7,400 or less. This means that two in five children living below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals. The Government are happy to fork out millions to private consultants and large companies, yet balk at the prospect of guaranteeing food for vulnerable children. I believe that the Government must follow Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and significantly widen access to free school meals and improve their quality. The temporary extension of free school meals to children from families with no recourse to public funds must be extended further, and this callous policy must then be scrapped for good.
Some 4.3 million children are living in poverty in the UK, which is nine children in every classroom of 30. In my constituency of Leicester East that is almost one in two children, as 42% of children are living in poverty. These figures have become entrenched because of the policy choices that have been made, yet the pandemic has also caused a sharp rise in food insecurity. Some 12% of households with children experienced food insecurity between August 2020 and January 2021, and that figure includes 2.3 million children.
Children enduring food insecurity during term time are at increased risk of food insecurity during the school holidays, especially in families who are forced to attend food banks. The Government must make their holiday food schemes both more generous and permanent. The Government must extend and increase the uplift to universal credit, scrap the two-child limit and remove the benefit cap. A long-term, more universal and generous benefits policy must be considered, alongside introducing a statutory right to food for everyone in the UK.
I volunteer with many food banks in my community and I know, from first-hand experience, the incredible selflessness that is involved. While they are currently necessary due to widespread poverty in Leicester and across the country, the overreliance on food banks is a symptom of our unacceptably unequal society. It is appalling that in one of the world’s richest countries workers are paid poverty wages and are forced to live on the generosity of others. It is even worse that not all children who are living in poverty are eligible to receive a proper meal at school. I urge the Government to work with us on this side of the House and fight for a future that is built around solidarity and dignity for every child, no matter their background, in which poverty, child hunger and food banks are a thing of the past.
Thank you, Ms Huq. It is an absolute pleasure to speak on this issue. I have applied to speak in such debates a great many times but they have always unfortunately been over-subscribed. I thought that if the opportunity came my way today, I would certainly try to make a contribution. I have said this many times, and I think it is probably the same for us all as elected representatives: one of the things we always reflect in our speeches is our own constituency issues, and child poverty and free school meals has been a massive issue through the lockdown period in my constituency.
I am clear that the Minister does not have responsibility for back home, but I want to reflect those comments in the debate. I must say—she will know this—that she and I share the fact that we were both born in Omagh in County Tyrone, so we have got something that unites us. Indeed, more than one thing unites us, but sharing the same home town is one of them.
Of all the resources this great nation has, our children are the most important. Indeed, their education must be paramount, and a part of that education is ensuring that children can concentrate and are well fed. In many cases we are, unfortunately, failing some of those children.
My home town of Newtownards—the major town of the constituency of Strangford—was the first place in Northern Ireland to have a Trussell Trust food bank. It has become an integral part of everyday life for many people in Strangford, and indeed across the whole of Northern Ireland, where there are now 13 or maybe 15 major food banks plus a lot of smaller ones. In the last year, almost 1 million emergency food parcels were given to children: a record high and a 36% rise on the previous year. That is higher than the increase for adults, which stood at 32%. It is therefore obvious that the issue for children is even greater than for adults, but in many cases the adults will ensure that the children get the first crack of the whip.
The number of emergency food parcels provided to children by food banks in the Trussell Trust network was already rising year on year before the pandemic hit. I see the food banks as a plus for the area and not necessarily as a negative, because they unite all the Departments and bring church groups, individuals and people who want to help together, and through the food banks they can give some of the help and assistance that is needed. The figures for 2020-21 represent a 135% increase in need compared with 2015-16. Single parents and larger families are at particular risk of needing to turn to a food bank. Single-parent households are highly over-represented at food banks, with 90% of households in early 2020 being single-parent families—more than twice the proportion in the wider population.
My constituency office in Newtownards is one of the bodies that hands out vouchers for food banks and we are told that we are the biggest contact point for the food banks in the constituency. It is important that we recognise how critical food banks are for people in the area. Larger families are also at particular risk, with 39% of families—two in five—referred to food banks in early 2020 having three or more children. In the general population, just one in seven families—14%—has three or more children. That gives an idea of how that particular category is affected. The figure has risen from 36% since 2018, which suggests that those with three or more children may be at particular risk due to policies such as the two-child limit and the benefit cap. A colleague of my good friend the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has spoken on so many occasions about the two-child policy, and I support her on that.
I want to give a quick plug for the Education Minister in Northern Ireland and what he did by making sure that food vouchers were available in schools. That was a Rashford campaign, but our Minister responded immediately. Perhaps we should look towards the summer to put ourselves in a position where we are able to offer continuity should there be a need for that help.
It is imperative that we retain free school meals and expand the remit for longer. We must invest in the next generation. I know that the future is about my five grandchildren—two are at school; three are yet to get there—and everyone else’s grandchildren, so I believe it is the wisest investment that we can make, and I support the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in her calls for that. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Although it is a real pleasure to be able to speak today, it is disturbing to be speaking in a debate about children going hungry, especially as the UK is the fifth richest country in the world by GDP. A quarter of the country’s wealth is held by a mere 1% of the population, however. That is an absolute shame. That is why, in 2021, I and other Members are still having to call on the Government to keep children fed during the school holidays.
The issue of food poverty goes well beyond children relying on free school meals; it affects our whole community. Indeed, it is a crisis of the Government’s own making. Cuts to funding have resulted in a reduction of local authorities’ spend, which has meant the loss of youth services and children’s social services. The cuts have also reduced the third sector’s capacity to deliver services and, in some cases, the ability of those services to exist at all. In my borough of Lewisham, the council has to make additional £28 million of cuts for this coming year, after 11 difficult years of austerity. Schools desperately want to support families in need, but they have also had their own budgets decimated.
Members have already heard this, but they will hear it again: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation writes that
“food poverty is just poverty”
and that the only way to solve poverty is
“with better jobs, affordable homes and strong social security.”
I agree. Too many adults continue to struggle through jobs that are high effort but low income. Indeed, food banks in my constituency, like those in other Members’ constituencies, have seen a rise in users and people suffering from in-work poverty. Those people may have two or three jobs, but still have little security and measly wages. They are struggling, their families are struggling, and the people around them are struggling.
Universal credit’s initial five-week delay to benefits harms families by presuming that debt is the norm. That was ludicrous at the beginning and remains ludicrous now. Universal credit works against women as it is only paid into one person’s bank account, and its two-child limit discriminates against families. Child Poverty Action Group estimates that childcare costs have risen by 42% since 2008, but child benefit has not risen accordingly. With rising rents in London and higher energy bills as a result of the pandemic, families repeatedly have to make sacrifices to make ends meet. Many parents are themselves going without food so that they can feed their children.
That is a miserable and cruel situation for any parent, but it is not inevitable. The last Labour Government brought 900,000 children out of poverty. We can do it and we must do it, so why are we not doing it again? The real question is this: why have this Government chosen to keep children in food poverty?
Thank you for your indulgence, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing the debate. At the heart of this issue, Marcus Rashford scored the most important goal of his career, using his platform to highlight that food poverty is not restricted just to school term times. It was a campaign of which any left winger wearing red would be proud.
I will argue that support for children who are entitled to free school meals should be about far more than just the food, because when schools closed, it was not just lunch that disadvantaged children missed out on, but connectivity. Through the lockdown, millions of children started the day with Joe Wicks’ online exercise classes. They completed schoolwork sent remotely by their teachers, and they joined their classmates in live remote-learning lessons. It was not perfect, but it was an extraordinary feat, achieved thanks to the dedication of our teachers and to the support and patience of home-schooling parents. However, the lockdown exposed the digital divide in our society.
About 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per day during the first lockdown, but just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same. That is no surprise considering that one in five children did not always have access to a device for online learning while schools were closed. How does the Minister think those children logged in and learnt from home? The simple answer is, they did not. Those without have fallen behind even further.
The Government’s roll-out of devices was nothing short of shambolic: 5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students had a device, compared with 54% at private schools. The Minister may point to those devices that finally were distributed, but the conclusion of the National Audit Office in March was utterly damning. The Department for Education did not even aim to provide equipment to all children who lacked it. Every click simply widened the attainment gap. So much for levelling up!
With schools open and lockdown lifting, this is no problem of the past. The days of pen and paper are long gone, and the technological age we now live in is here to stay. Homework, research, resources, catch-up—so much is now online. The consequences for those children on the wrong side of the digital divide is that they are now even more disadvantaged than before.
This afternoon, we debate the support that should be provided for children entitled to free school meals. I say to the Minister that support must be about more than just food. I am calling for all children entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device, so that they can log in and catch up from home. I recognise that free school meals are not a perfect indicator, but it is the best we have. Compared with the vast sums squandered through the pandemic, this is a low-cost, straightforward and tangible step forward. It is no silver bullet, but it would make a life-changing difference to children on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Take 10-year-old Abi in my constituency. In lockdown, she secured entry to the Tiffin Girls’ School, one of the most prestigious grammar schools in the country. She was working from a cramped homeless hostel, with only a refurbished smartphone to get her connected, one of 140 given to me by Tesco Mobile. Social mobility, levelling up—call it whatever you want—the impact for Abi was lifelong.
I put on the record my hon. Friend’s excellent work on the digital divide during the pandemic. It was right at the beginning, when highlighting it made such an impact. Of course, we all jumped on it when she raised the matter, but I wanted to put on the record the huge impact that had for so many children and learners in our society. A debt of gratitude is owed by so many families to her work.
I thank my hon. Friend. So many people got involved in providing devices, such as football clubs like my own AFC Wimbledon, which has now donated more than 2,000 refurbished laptops. I thank all those charities that did such work. While it was brilliant work, however, it cannot be enough—the Government need to step in.
I hope that the Minister will consider the merits of my proposal to provide devices and an internet connection to all children on free school meals. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss how it could be rolled out in practice. It took the intervention of a premier league footballer for Ministers to agree that no child should go to bed hungry. What will it take before we all agree that no child should be left behind because of their internet connection?
I am glad to be able to participate in today’s important debate about support for children in receipt of free school meals, and I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing it. What we are really talking about, of course, is child poverty, and only on Tuesday, we had quite a similar debate to the one we are having today. During that debate, I pointed out the chilling similarities between welfare arrangements as they are today and the kind of support that was offered to the poorest in society in the 1834 new Poor Law. I know that some people will scoff at that comparison, but I am willing to sit down with anybody and talk them through the similarities, which are striking.
As delighted as I am to see the Minister in her place, it is quite telling that when we have debates about child hunger and child poverty, no Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions is prepared to stand up and defend the policies of their own Department. Those watching, as well as those participating, will draw their own conclusions from that fact.
We know that for some children, the free school meal that they receive during the school day may be the only proper meal—the only hot meal—they will have on that particular day. We also know that only one third of children who claim free school meals achieve five or more good GCSE grades or equivalent, compared with two thirds of children whose families are in better circumstances. This is not surprising, given that underneath the free school meal figures is the more pernicious challenge of child poverty, which free school meals alone cannot even begin to address.
In Scotland, the SNP Government are expanding free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil and every child in state-funded special schools. That way, there is no stigma, and no child will fall through the net. Best Start food payments across Scotland are increasing to £4.50 a week, and eligibility will increase by about 50%, to all in receipt of universal credit.
There is a tale of two Governments here, because while the UK Government scrapped targets to reduce child poverty, the SNP Government in Scotland have set ambitious targets to work towards eradicating child poverty. The Scottish child payment of £10 a week per child for those on qualifying benefits will increase to £20 a week per child, assisting 450,000 children across Scotland, a measure that the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has paid tribute to.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s mean-spiritedness is laid bare as they refuse to commit to retaining the £20 uplift in universal credit for the poorest families, and scrap targets to reduce child poverty while presiding over a rise in it, with a Prime Minister who—it gives me no pleasure to say this—does not even seem to be aware that child poverty is rising. That will not inspire confidence in my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, nor, I would imagine, in any other constituency.
While the SNP Scottish Government are doing all they can to tackle this social ill with all the limited powers that they have, 85% of control over welfare is reserved to the Westminster Government. That is where the real solutions can be found, if there is the political will to implement them. However, we know that the current welfare system does not fulfil its avowed aim. Apart from the fact that in the past year, the Trussell Trust delivered a food parcel every 2.5 minutes, if the goal of welfare is to support and assist those who are able to work to re-enter the job market, it seems that the system is not fulfilling that goal: otherwise, there would be no five-week wait for support. There would be no advance payments, which force those who eventually receive universal credit and are therefore living on, or beyond, the breadline to be deemed capable of paying back these advance payments, throwing claimants further and further into financial despair and further and further away from the job market.
I have said this to the Minister before, so it will not surprise her to hear me say it again: no reputable lender would lend money to somebody on universal credit, because they understand that they do not have the means to repay that loan. However, the DWP is quite happy to lend money to claimants in the full knowledge that their attempts to repay it will put them in deep financial distress. Why on earth would anyone design a system along those principles?
Even now, in 2021, we know about the disgrace of children in our communities going to school hungry. We know that free school meals are really important, but we also know that we need to do more to address the deep poverty too many children currently live in, and we know it goes well beyond the material. Most children living in poverty have at least one parent in work, and I wonder whether the Minister is at all disturbed by that.
Although we lack the political will in the Westminster Government, we also know that there are things we can do to address some of the really pernicious problems that are aggravating and fixing child poverty in a very stubborn way. We could replace advance payments, which are loans that people cannot pay back without real hardship. We could get rid of the five-week wait. We could also actually talk about a real living wage as opposed to the wee, pretendy living wage currently trumpeted by the UK Government.
I do not know whether anybody in this debate shares my shock and horror about the Prime Minister saying today in Prime Minister’s questions that child poverty is falling. One of the many reasons why that is so disturbing is that, only this week, the DWP released figures showing that 4.3 million children were living in relative poverty in the UK in 2019-20—an increase from 4.1 million in the previous year. That amounts to one in three children —31% of children—living in poverty. Those statistics predate the pandemic, so we know that the figures are even higher as we sit in this Chamber.
We also know of the serious impact that living in poverty has on children’s wellbeing. Disadvantaged children are four and a half times more likely to develop severe mental health problems by age 11 than their well-off peers. Children in poor housing are more at risk of respiratory illnesses and meningitis. Those in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health than children in places with more resources and affluence. I wonder whether the Minister finds that as disturbing as I do.
We know there is a direct correlation between poverty and under-attainment at school, so if we do not tackle child poverty with every weapon in our armoury, we can forget tackling the attainment gap. As we have heard, school closures during the pandemic have hit the most deprived children hardest, and will undoubtedly widen an already worrying attainment gap, especially in the short term. I look forward to hearing what new and additional poverty measures the Minister thinks can be brought forward in view of the decisive impacts that poverty has on educational attainment.
Not tackling poverty is a significant cost to the state, so I hope that the Minister’s plans for preventive spending to tackle child poverty will be revealed to us today, because that would be the wisest and most humane course of action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq, for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate, and for her powerful speeches today and at the debate on Monday. She is right that it is a national outrage that our country is so unequal, with an economic system so broken that so many parents are forced to rely on inadequate support from the state to feed their children, despite their best efforts.
I really regret the fact that not a single Conservative MP has chosen to speak in today’s debates. Yet, a few years ago, this very same room was packed with Conservative Members who wanted to defend Donald Trump’s right to a state visit. With over half a million children qualifying for free school meals since March last year, a debate on this support has never been more important. Free school meals are often the only hot meal that some children get all day, and they are a lifeline for many families who are struggling to make ends meet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) set out so clearly, drawing on her experience as a teacher in a previous life. The huge rise in free school meals eligibility is therefore very significant and further evidence of how devastating covid-19 has been for family budgets.
There was a very real and growing problem with child poverty in this country before the pandemic, and we have seen today the new, shocking statistic that more than one in five Londoners in working households live in poverty. We also heard powerful testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) about the huge increase in food parcels delivered by the Trussell Trust in this pandemic. The fact that more than 2 million children have now been pushed into food insecurity and that hundreds of thousands have been forced to skip meals in the pandemic has really shone a light on the need to ensure that proper free school meal support is delivered to all children who need it all year round.
However, that realisation, which has been obvious to pretty much everybody, particularly after Marcus Rashford’s powerful campaigns, has not come as easily to Government Ministers. I am sad to say that they have had to be dragged kicking and screaming time and again to do the right thing. I do not take any pleasure from this, but the Prime Minister’s right-hand man told us today that his boss decided to “pick a fight” with Marcus Rashford over free school meals rather than take action to feed hungry children in a pandemic.
What did the Government do? They initially refused to extend free school meals over last summer, when millions were being forced to apply for unemployment benefits. They whipped Conservative MPs to vote against providing free school meals over the October 2020 half- term through to Easter this year. They presided over a moment of national shame in January, when utterly woeful food parcels, which were near-identical to the Government’s own guidance, were given out, and then they voted against Labour’s motion to ensure that families get the full value of that support.
Just contrast us with Wales, where families have known from the start of the pandemic, and many months ahead of time, that the full value of free school meals would be available in every upcoming school holiday, and that is now guaranteed until Easter 2022. That is the leadership that we should have seen from the Prime Minister, who instead picked a fight with a premier league footballer. It astonishes me that, after all that failure and the uncertainty that the Government have put families through, they have still not learned the lessons and are still refusing to guarantee free school meals in the upcoming summer holidays.
I know that the Minister will point to the holiday activities and food programme, but the Government’s guidance on that scheme says that councils should provide just 16 days’ of food support over the entire six-week summer holiday. It does not say that that support should be guaranteed. The Local Government Association has said that
“the scheme is unlikely to see all eligible children participate and will not be suitable for everyone.”
I am extremely concerned that many children will miss out on that if they do not do the activities, and that there will be a postcode lottery in support. That is especially concerning in the light of the deep cuts to local government budgets, the impact of which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) spelled out so clearly in her powerful speech.
The failure to deliver free school meals is not the only way in which the Government have let down children who qualify for this support. Children on free school meals are less likely to have digital devices and internet connectivity than their peers, and there has been a failure to rectify that for home learning during school closures and self-isolation. Ministers have missed every single target for delivering laptops. Their schemes ensured that only a third to a half of those who needed one got one, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her contribution, and her tireless campaigning for children on free school meals to get digital support.
Most recently, and perhaps most shockingly, the Government implemented a stealth cut to the pupil premium by excluding anyone who became eligible for free school meals since October last year from the calculation of how much more to give schools. Labour analysis of freedom of information data shows that more than 115,000 children will miss out on over £133 million of support as a result. There is no end to the ways that this Government are prepared to sideline the needs of some of the most disadvantaged children in the country.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. Why did the Prime Minister pick a fight with Marcus Rashford over free school meals? Why on earth are the Government implementing a cut to the pupil premium in the middle of a pandemic? Why will they not simply guarantee that all children who qualify will be able to get free school meals over the summer holiday? Why are the Government refusing to consider Labour’s suggestion of allowing families to get cash payments for this support? Are they still planning to withdraw free school meals support from children who have no recourse to public funds at some point? Finally, what steps are they taking to support children who do not qualify for free school meals but who, none the less, face food insecurity?
The point was made several times in the debate that, in a country as rich as ours, we should not need free school meals. At the very least, children should not be as reliant on them as they are right now. Sadly, they are a necessity because 4.3 million children in the UK live in poverty. For far too many people, work does not pay enough to live on. The Government spent 10 years gutting the social security system, and our economy is built on insecurity and inequality. All those things are getting worse as a direct result of policy choices over the last decade. We need to start making different choices as we emerge from the pandemic.
The Government need to show the moral courage and leadership required to eradicate child poverty and ensure that no child goes hungry. That starts with the Government learning the lessons from mistakes that led to children having to skip meals in the pandemic. I hope we will hear some humility from the Minister when she addresses our arguments. I look forward to her answering all the questions posed throughout the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I understand that at least one Member had endeavoured to speak in this debate, but had technical challenges. I thank you for raising that issue with the Speaker’s Office so that we can address it for future debates.
I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate, which enables us to continue the debate that we started on Monday. I said then, and I repeat, that this Government are absolutely dedicated to supporting all children and families, especially the most vulnerable. That is even more important during the pandemic, which has brought so many challenges to so many people.
During term time, the Government provide more than 1.6 million free school meals, providing pupils from the lowest-income families with a free, nutritious lunchtime meal. That helps them to concentrate, learn and achieve in the classroom. The Government have extended free school meal eligibility to more children than any other Government in the last half-century. We extended free school meals to all children in their infant years, and to eligible children in further education institutes. Last year, we expanded that free school meal offer to many families who normally have no recourse to public funds whatever.
As well as free school meals at lunchtime, the Government fund breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. That supports more than a quarter of a million children. We have just announced another £24 million to continue that successful support for even more children.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about the devolved Administration’s approach in Scotland. School food and free school meals are fully devolved, and all the devolved nations have a range of different food provision in place, including free meal support for families on welfare benefits. However, in England, we provide free school meals and milk to the children of those who are out of work and on the lowest incomes, and we have our national school milk subsidy scheme, universal free milk provision to all infant schools and our breakfast club programmes. We also have the school fruit and veg scheme, which we jointly fund with the Department for Health and Social Care and, of course, our fantastic holiday activities and food programme.
These days, the use of cashless payments in schools is normal. It is widespread, which means that free school meals pupils are not identifiable among their peers, which helps to remove decades of stigma. In terms of wider support, the Government are completely committed to levelling up for not only adults but people of all ages. That includes helping to raise the educational attainment of pupils from all income backgrounds, and especially those from lower-income backgrounds. We therefore ensure that those in greatest need of support have every chance to realise their potential. Investing in education is a key route to levelling up the playing field for all, so our pupil premium fund is additional support for children who have claimed free school meals at any point in the last six years, as well as children and young people who are in care or who have recently left care.
In 2020-21 alone we distributed £2.4 billion through the pupil premium, and that supported almost 2 million disadvantaged children across the country. School leaders know their pupils best, and schools have the autonomy to use the funding in the most effective way for their learners. That can include a mix of educational interventions and pastoral support. We know that working in that way has had a real impact on attainment. Against a background of rising school standards, disadvantaged pupils have been catching up on their non-disadvantaged peers. The attainment gap has narrowed at every stage from early years to age 16, and the majority of pupils from lower-income backgrounds now attend a good or outstanding school. Our education reforms and the focus provided by the pupil premium have supported that improvement.
From next year we will base the pupil premium on the October 2020 census instead of the January one, which will provide schools with greater certainty about future funding levels earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead. It also brings the pupil premium in line with how the rest of the core schools budget is calculated. However, the change does not mean that the pupil premium is decreasing. On the contrary, we expect pupil premium funding to increase to more than £2.5 billion in this financial year. As a result we expect a typical school to see an increase in pupil premium funding from the last financial year. In addition, the £300 million recovery premium will be paid out for the same pupils as the pupil premium.
The Government also use the schools national funding formula to distribute mainstream school funding more fairly by looking at the needs of schools and their pupil cohort. In this financial year, 2021-22, the funding is increasing by 3.5%, or £1.27 billion. The NFF continues to target funding to schools that have the greatest numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing £6.4 billion in funding for pupils with additional needs in this financial year, or 17% of the formula’s total funding. On top of that, we are providing the largest cash boost to schools in a decade, with core school funding increasing by £2.6 billion in the last financial year, by £4.8 billion this year, and by £7.1 billion in the year ahead. That also includes significant additional funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Members who have spoken in the debate might be interested in the impact on their own constituencies. The national funding formula allocation this year has increased in Hornsey and Wood Green by 2.3%, or £2.7 million; in Barnsley East by 4.5%, or £2.8 million; in Leicester East by £3.5 million, or 3.4%; in Mitcham and Morden by £0.8 million, or 1.3%; in Lewisham East by £2.1 million, or 2.7%; and in Hampstead and Kilburn by £1.2 million, or 1.9%.
Beyond the classroom, we also fund free home-to-school transport for children eligible for free school meals. Because we know that families also welcome support during the school holidays, I am delighted that our holiday activities and food programme has been expanded across England for 2021. I completely refute the allegation by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who speaks for the Labour party, that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something for children in the holidays. We started these programmes three years ago. We have been piloting them, perfecting them, working out what parents and children want. It was a manifesto commitment of this party that we would increase holiday wraparound care, and that is why we have introduced them. The programme launched in Easter and will run across England during the summer and Christmas holidays year. It provides engaging and enriching activities for children across the country.
The holiday activities and food programme, which we announced, during the spending review—this is a really important point—had been piloted by this Government for three years. We had a manifesto commitment to launch it, and we have launched it and delivered it. It is being funded by this Government and has been delivered in every single local authority in England.
We are working hand in hand with Conservative councils, with Labour councils, with Liberal Democrat councils, with councils with no overall control, with independent councils, even with a Green council. We should not play party political games with holiday activities and food, which are vital not only to our children’s food but also to their educational attainment, because we know that when children are engaged in enriching activities during the summer holidays, they come back more ready to learn in September and it helps to close that attainment gap. I ask hon. Members to get behind these clubs, work with their local areas, go and volunteer, take part and enjoy the children having fun.
During the pandemic, the Government have taken exceptional steps to support children to learn when they are in the classroom, but also when they had to stay at home. More than 1.3 million laptops were delivered. It was a massive procurement project, at times one of the largest in the world, and that was on top of an estimated 2.9 million laptops and devices already owned by schools before the start of the pandemic. We have provided extra funding for local transport authorities to procure dedicated additional transport capacity to enable children to travel to school and, in addition to the usual funding that schools receive for free school meals, during the period when school attendance was restricted, we funded almost £0.5 billion of food vouchers, so that children continued to be able to access free lunchtime meals while learning from home.
Right now, our focus is on building back better. We announced the £1 billion covid catch-up package last year, which has already enabled schools to directly tackle the impact of lost learning. Some £650 million was distributed directly to schools. In addition, the £350 million national tutoring programme specifically targets the most disadvantaged young people and enables them to access high-quality small group or one-on-one tuition, which we know helps accelerate academic progress and will help them to tackle the gap between them and their peers.
One example is the Nuffield early language initiative, which supports children in reception year, to which 40% of schools have signed up. The majority of those are schools with above average rates of free school-meal eligibility. Nearly a quarter of a million children are being screened under the programme, and 60,000 children are getting that one-on-one or small group help. It makes a massive difference to those children at the start of their education journey and it is just one part of this amazing national tutoring programme.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked about support for other bills. As well as the furlough scheme and more than £7 billion in covid-related welfare measures, the Government have provided an additional £260 million of local welfare funding to local authorities in England. The key focus is to support disadvantaged children and their families, including children who have not yet started school, with food and other essentials, such as the utility bills that the hon. Lady mentioned, during both term time and school holidays. It covers food and fuel, and it keeps children and their families warm and well.
In terms of childcare bills, over the past decade we have made unprecedented investment in childcare. We introduced 30 hours of free childcare for many three and four-year-olds from working families, which can save parents up to £5,000 a year. The 15 hours of free childcare for two-year-olds from lower-income families is also a significant help. We know that when a two-year-old attends an early years setting it helps them to develop social skills and communication skills that can set them up for life.
We have also introduced many other different measures to help with childcare, for example the tax-free childcare that people can use. We want to ensure that our childcare is of very high quality, which is really important to parents, but the cost of childcare and of other bills continues to be an issue that we will keep looking at. That is why colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions are doing additional work on the support we can give to reduce the cost of living for families from different backgrounds. The In-Work Progression Commission, which is led by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, is looking at this exact issue, to better understand the barriers faced by people in low pay and to look at what more we can do to support those individuals and businesses. That report is expected to be published shortly.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned support for families who get into debt. I am pleased that after many years of planning this month we have seen the launch of the breathing space scheme, which will help many hundreds of thousands of people who are struggling with their finances to obtain bespoke, tailored support to help them get back on track.
We know that the best way for families to get out of poverty is through work. 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 household where nobody works. That is why, through colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, we are doubling the number of work coaches to help people find a job. Our £2 billion kickstart scheme offers work placements for 16 to 24-year-olds. The skills Bill not only unlocks new opportunities for young people but, through the lifelong learning grant, it will also open up the chance to access new skills and opportunities to people of all ages. All of that will help families and children.
To conclude, this Government have extended the free school-meals offer to more groups of children than any other for half a century and we provide breakfast clubs in many disadvantaged areas. Our amazing holiday activities and food scheme, which we have spent many years working on, is now going to be available across the country. We also support these children to level up through educational opportunities, the pupil premium, which will increase, and the national funding formula.
We have provided unprecedented support in early years. During the pandemic, we supported families with vouchers, we gave out 1 million laptops and we invested in transport and educational recovery. We have put billions of pounds of extra funding into welfare payments, and taken real action to help parents into jobs and to upskill, so that they can get even better-paid jobs. Over the past decade, a Conservative-led Government introduced that national living wage and has doubled the personal tax allowance. That, and changes to the national insurance calculations, means that people working full time on lower incomes are now up to £5,400 a year better off than they were under Labour.
The pandemic has presented challenging circumstances for many families, and the Government have acted swiftly to ensure that children and families continue to be able to achieve the very best in life. I think about vulnerable children every single day, and every single day people across Government are working on how best to support them now, tomorrow and in the future. We will continue to take action where it is needed, focusing always on the most vulnerable first, as that is the right thing to do.
Thank you, Dr Huq, and I am sure I can keep my remarks to under five minutes.
Recommendation 1 of the Government’s food strategy was to
“make sure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind”.
Eating well in childhood is the foundation stone of equality of opportunity, and it is essential for both physical and mental growth. A poorly nourished child will struggle to concentrate at school, and the debate has fleshed out that concept a lot. Unfortunately, the Minister’s winding-up speech did not give me much hope. I welcome the increases to many of the constituencies that she mentioned, but an increase in pupil premium, or an increase in funding for disadvantaged children, means that child poverty is increasing. That suggests the Prime Minister was wrong when he made his statement today, which the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned earlier.
A number of actions desperately need to be taken. No.1 is to pay as many people as possible not the minimum wage, but the real living wage, which is £9.50 in most of the UK and £10.85 in London. By the way, when I was a borough leader, we introduced the London living wage to all staff who worked in kitchens in schools at the same time as we introduced universal free school meals for every single primary school child. It was a great day when we did that.
No. 2 is that the £20 universal credit uplift must be made permanent, and we must urgently review the two- child limit. Let us not forget that over 50% of people using Trussell Trust food banks had never used one with children before, and that 1 million eight to 17-year-olds visited a food bank in December and January. We desperately need to review child benefit levels, which have been frozen, and we need to look at more help for families with fuel bills, water bills and council tax. I welcome the breathing space initiative that the Minister mentioned, but I do not think it is well known. I do not think there has been enough getting the message out, because far too many people are still in debt for certain financial products that are “buy now, pay later”, which very quickly become unaffordable.
People desperately need more help with housing costs, and we must look urgently at the privately rented sector, which tends to be very low quality. These days, it has lower-quality housing stock than in social housing, and people pay over a third of their income on expensive rent payments and childcare costs. [Interruption.] I think we have to end there, Dr Huq.
I accept that not all of those elements are in the Minister’s brief, but she did very well to cover some of them. I think all Members in the debate would like to put on record the wonderful work that is done in schools by the women who cook the meals, our school meals supervisors, all our teaching assistants and all our teachers. They play an important role in promoting good nutrition and sitting down to have a hot meal in the middle of the day. That has important elements, such as learning to use a knife and fork and learning to have conversations with adults—all the things that sitting around a table does.
I hope the Minister will take this to heart as we go forward and as she looks at the implications of the national food strategy for schools, so that we can hopefully go towards a high-quality approach to breakfast clubs and school meals. We need to get as much free fruit into schools as possible—that was another cut during the austerity years that needs to come back. We should also look at any provision that we can offer in secondary schools, because children do not stop being poor when they turn 13 and go to secondary school. They still need all that nutritional support and help.
We have had a good debate, and I thank all Members for being involved. I hope that the Minister will take some of the recommendations from the debate into Government policy, so that we can aspire to have a society where the 23 billionaires who were added to the rich list do not get to eat all the food, but where our poorer children get to have a nutritional and fully based diet as well.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for children entitled to free school meals.
Injectable Vitamin B12
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Well, only one Member is here physically, so I do not think that I need to read all of this out. If everyone present here in the Boothroyd Room could clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room, that would be great. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall—apart from by me in the Chair, as I may need to speak at any second.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposals to remove classification of prescription-only medicine from injectable B12 vitamin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. First, I thank my constituent Tracey Witty who, since being diagnosed with B12 deficiency in 2012, has worked tirelessly to support others to secure the treatment that they have desperately needed and campaigned for, and to increase public awareness of vitamin B12 deficiency as well as the issues surrounding access to treatment. It is clear that she is making a real difference to the lives of people across the country; and much of the information that I will share today has come from her extensive investigation and research into this disorder.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is a progressive neurological disorder with a wide range of symptoms that affect all body systems and, importantly, people of all ages. Statistics from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence show that, in the UK, 6% of people below 60 years of age are deficient in B12, and the figure rises to 20% in people aged over 60 years. That means that hundreds of thousands of people are struggling with the symptoms of B12 deficiency, which can have a devastating impact on both physical and mental health, leaving sufferers unable to contribute to either family life or society.
Crucially, and in part because of the wide range of symptoms associated with the disorder, sufferers often struggle to receive the correct diagnosis. They are commonly misdiagnosed with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—and fibromyalgia. That means that they do not receive proper treatment and, in the long term, that can lead to significant complications, including permanent neurological damage.
Over the years, many people have contacted my constituent, Tracey, to discuss their experiences of living with B12 deficiency and the difficulties that they have faced in getting the right diagnosis. I would like to share a couple of their stories The first is of a mother, with three young children, whose serum B12 level first indicated a deficiency nearly a decade ago. Sadly, however, that was overlooked and, despite being unable to physically function because of her disorder, the woman was repeatedly denied access to B12 injectables by GPs. After spending a number of years being passed from pillar to post— seeing a psychologist, endocrinologist, haematologist and gastroenterologist, attending a pain clinic and chronic fatigue clinic, and being sent for a brain scan—the woman felt that she had no choice but to resort to sourcing injectable B12 online. Thankfully, she is now fully functioning, but can she be certain of having a trusted source of injections through the internet?
The second story is of a woman who, following four unsuccessful attempts at IVF decided to explore B12 deficiency as a possible cause of her fertility problems, as she also had a myriad of severe neurological symptoms and a known family history of B12 deficiency. More than a year ago, she found out that she was indeed deficient when her serum B12 test result was flagged as abnormal. However, along with the test result was a note stating that no action was to be taken and so, instead of being treated for a clear B12 deficiency, she was advised to take oral supplements and was referred to a chronic fatigue clinic. This woman is only just starting B12 injections with her GP this week, after repeatedly supplying evidence to them of the need for correct treatment. It is understood that oral vitamin B12 cannot be absorbed when the patient is B12 deficient; it requires an injection to be effective. Even when patients are correctly diagnosed, they often face an uphill battle to access the treatment they need when they need it. As the NHS website states:
“The treatment for vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia depends on what's causing the condition. Most people can be easily treated with injections or tablets to replace the missing vitamins.”
It goes on to state that, “At first”, patients will
“have these injections every other day for 2 weeks or until…symptoms have started improving…After this initial period,”
if a patient’s B12 deficiency is not caused by a lack of the vitamin in their diet, they will
“usually need to have an injection of hydroxocobalamin every 2 to 3 months for the rest of”
Sadly, however, for many people that maintenance dose is not enough, leaving them to deal with debilitating symptoms while trying to juggle the stresses of everyday life. That was the case for another woman who has been in contact with Tracey in recent months. During lockdown, that woman who had previously been diagnosed with pernicious anaemia, which is one cause of vitamin B12 deficiency, was exhausted, constantly nauseated, stumbling, struggling with brain fog and unable to function properly. She therefore asked her GP whether she could have her B12 injections more regularly than the eight-weekly regime she was on.
Subsequently, however, that woman had her regime reduced to just four injections per year, after her GP took advice from a professor of haematology who it seems incorrectly stated: “A typical dose survives in the body for up to two years and once the patient has the first few injections, there is no ongoing deficiency. We can be confident that these fluctuating symptoms are not related in any way to B12.” That statement is at odds with NICE guidance, which is clear:
“Treatment of B12 deficiency in people with neurologic involvement should include”
“on alternate days until there is no further improvement”.
A single mother who was trying to cope with the additional stresses of home schooling two autistic children due to covid-19 restrictions was left with no other choice but to purchase B12 online from a pharmacy abroad in order to function properly.
It is because of such cases that I presented a petition in the Chamber calling for the classification of prescription- only medicine to be removed from injectable B12, so that those who have been diagnosed with B12 deficiency may access treatment over the counter at pharmacies when they need it. As the petition mentioned, that would bring the UK’s
“approach in line with that of other countries, affording those with B12 deficiency the same dignity and control over their own health as a diabetic using insulin, and reducing the workload and financial burden on GP practices, District Nurses and other NHS services”.—[Official Report, 23 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 1077.]
The latter point has become increasingly important given that covid-19 has placed significant pressure on NHS services and, in recent months, intensified demand for GP services.
It is also worth noting that, since I presented the petition, Tracey’s Change.org petition on that very subject has garnered more than 96,300 signatures, reflecting the public interest in the matter. I am grateful for the Government’s response to the petition that I presented. However, it raised a number of new issues, which I will put to the Minister now.
The Government’s response stated:
“Clinically urgent treatment must always be provided, with the patient's clinical needs being paramount. Any patient who wishes to discuss their need for vitamin B12 injections can request a review with their GP or other responsible clinician.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 6P.]
In Tracey’s experience, however, and as evidenced by the stories I shared earlier, clinically urgent treatment is frequently denied to those with B12 deficiency. That situation has been worsened by the covid-19 restrictions, when many people with the disorder and pernicious anaemia were told by their GP that they no longer needed B12 injections and could instead take a B12 tablets. Tracey heard how some of the GP practices came to that conclusion after taking blood to check B12 levels. That is despite NICE guidance and The BMJ stating that no testing should be carried out once a patient is on vitamin B12 injections, as there is no indication of what is happening at a cellular level.
The Government’s response also stated:
“Vitamin B12 could not legally be classified as a medicine that can be made available for sale without prescription in pharmacies because it is an injection and because the condition it is licensed to treat, pernicious anaemia, needs a clinician to diagnose it, and monitor its treatment.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 5P.]
It is important to make a distinction here because, as I mentioned, pernicious anaemia is only one cause of vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 injectables are also required by those who are B12 deficient for other reasons. Tracey feels that there is a widespread lack of understanding of this subject among clinicians, which is compounded by the inaccuracy of B12 testing.
As the NHS website acknowledges,
“the current widely used blood test only measures the total amount of vitamin B12”
in a patient’s body, rather than what form the B12 takes. This means that a blood test may show that a patient has normal B12 levels, even though their body cannot use much of it, leaving many patients without access to help or treatment. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on whether the Government will be working with the NHS to further clinicians’ understanding of B12 deficiency, in particular the limitations of testing, to ensure that those who are deficient receive better care.
Finally, I will pick up on the wider point in the Government’s response about the classification of B12 injectables. The response stated:
“Before a medicine can be switched from a prescription only medicine (POM) to a pharmacy (P) medicine, Ministers must be satisfied that it would be safe to allow it to be supplied without a prescription. This means that it is a medicine which no longer meets any of the criteria for a POM.”
The response went on to imply that, as B12 injectables are normally prescribed by a doctor for parenteral administration, they cannot be considered safe to be supplied without a prescription.
That position seems to be at odds with the fact that private clinics are able to provide the very same injectables to clients, provided they advertise them using such terms as wellness, boost or supplement, and do not market them as treatments for B12 deficiency or make any medical claims. That is because the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency does not consider vitamin B12 injectables to be medicines in this instance. Indeed, in a statement to Tracey, the MHRA said:
“Our current advice to private clinics administering vitamin B12 injections which are not licensed medicinal products intravenously for non-medicinal purposes is that we do not regard these to be medicines and that they fall outside of the remit of the MHRA. It must be absolutely clear in the advertising of such products that they do not have a medical purpose.”
Furthermore, staff at private clinics do not need any medical training to administer B12 injectables to clients. The implication of this is that B12 injectables are simultaneously licensed medicinal products, which are not safe to be administered by someone without medical training, and non-medicinal products, which are safe to be administered by someone without medical training. Moreover, unlike with insulin, the risk of toxicity or overdose with injectable B12 is considered to be extremely low, and so would be relatively safe for those with a deficiency to self-administer. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.
That being said, as the Government’s response to the petition rightly highlighted, self-administration would not be suitable for everyone, so it would be only right that patients retain the ability to receive their injection at a GP practice. Tracey has also expressed that pharmacists who are already trained to administer vaccinations should be allowed to administer injections to those with a prescription. That would allow pharmacists to play a greater role in community healthcare, relieving pressures on GP services.
Here is another email I received directly from a constituent: “I suffer from B12 deficiency. At present I require an injection every other day to keep serious neurological decline at bay. I was diagnosed last summer and rapidly declined, to the point of almost being in a wheelchair. I was helped by the GP initially, but would not expect them to continue my intensive treatment owing to resources. However, if they could train us and supply the details, it would be better than as now, when many of us are forced to research this ourselves.
“I currently have to purchase ampules of hydroxocobalamin online from Germany, which I am sure you will agree is an expensive, lengthy and unnecessary process when they could easily be bought over the counter in the UK. The injections have enabled me to regain my peripheral vision, resume driving, function normally in a busy household and even get a new part- time job. I cannot overstate the impact they have had on me, especially since the doctor suggested I might have terminal neurological decline. Please, please state the case for hundreds or possibly thousands of us in the same position, and for those who have not yet been diagnosed and are struggling with poor mental and physical health for the sake of a low-cost vitamin.”
I hope that the overriding message the Minister takes away with her is the desperate situation in which those whose stories I have shared have found themselves—so much so that they have had to source their own injections just to be able to function as she and I can. The debate has been advertised on the “B12 Deficincy.info” Facebook page and, this morning, one lady left the following comment:
“Fingers are crossed. This would be life changing for me and so many others, no more battling with my doctors. I can only dream of what it’s like to feel alive.”
I ask the Government please to reconsider their position urgently.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, for what I think is the first time. I remember chairing a debate when you were an MP speaking, so the tables have turned. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward the debate. She raised many points in her speech, and we have only 15 minutes, so to do them justice in detail I will ask my officials, who are listening in, to provide a detailed answer to each of her questions.
I will speak about something that I have not prepared for, but I will use this time because it is so important and because my hon. Friend said something in her speech that made me think about something else. First, I thank your constituent Tracey Witty, and your constituents and other women who suffer from B12 deficiency. Every time you spoke about an individual case, you mentioned a woman; you did not once mention a man. I furiously fired off a few questions while you were speaking, and it is true that more women suffer from pernicious anaemia and vitamin B12 deficiency than men. That leads me to the women’s health strategy.
On 18 March, we launched a call for evidence for women to tell us about the problems they have in accessing healthcare services. I hope Tracey is listening, but if not, I hope you will get this back to her. Tracey will have a network of contacts of women suffering with this issue and, for it to be addressed, we need to hear those women’s stories. There is a simple link to the women’s health strategy on gov.uk, and it will take three to four minutes to complete a response on a phone or iPad.
It is so much less difficult—rather than easier—to change policy if you have the evidence. The default in health is male and I am afraid that it is very difficult to get change for many conditions that affect women. To cite an example, the response by Dame Sally Davies is from, I think, three or possibly four years ago and there has still been no major change. NICE will come forward with recommendations, but that may not be for another 12 or 18 months. It is not fast enough. My point is that that is because it is women, and women’s voices are just not listened to. I am trying to change that. I am trying to put women at the heart of health strategy and health policy.
I am sorry to use a few minutes of my response to get this point over but, as well as you raising this issue here, which is vital, Tracey could have a massive impact if she and the women she knows use the forums and platforms she is aware of to post the link to ensure that women are aware and can respond to the women’s strategy call for evidence. It is vital that my hon. Friend is here raising this on behalf of Tracey, but if we could have hundreds or possibly thousands of women responding, that would be incredibly powerful, because that would give us evidence—data. It would be not one constituent of yours putting a story forward; it would be lots of them.
Order. Minister, you will remember the thing about saying “you”—you used to say it—and you have done it a few times. Dame Eleanor Laing, who is our boss nowadays, is quite hard on it and said, “Don’t let anyone get away with it.” I let you do it a few times, but if you can use “my hon. Friend”, that is better.
When I was in Chair, I told people off all the time for exactly the same reason. I am absolutely sure that because we had a big gap with no debates over covid, I have slipped back into a habit I had prior to becoming an MP 20, 16 or 15 years ago, or whenever it was. I apologise.
Well, I am, I can assure you.
To finish my point, if my hon. Friend could ensure that her constituent responds to the call for evidence, that would absolutely be more powerful and useful than anything I have to say in my response to her speech. We will respond to her points in detail.
I will address some points made by my hon. Friend. She asked specifically about making B12 injections available to purchase from pharmacies. As she said, the MHRA is the body responsible for medicines licensing in the United Kingdom, and it is committed to making more medicines available over the counter, so I think we would be pushing at an already open door. The MHRA is committed to doing that where it is safe to do so, as an important element of the self-care agenda to empower patients.
My hon. Friend mentioned the role of pharmacists. We have seen them step up during the covid pandemic and the vaccination programme. That was an incredibly important point. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), whose portfolio includes pharmacy, is constantly looking at ways to increase and enhance the role of pharmacists, and this could be a useful way of doing so.
I used to be a nurse and gave vitamin B12 injections years ago. I was trying to rack my brains, but do not remember ever having given one to a man, but I am sure that I did, because men suffer from such symptoms, too. It is a really interesting phenomenon and, with a bit of imagination, working with clinicians and harnessing the expertise and knowledge of pharmacists, we could find a new way of doing this.
The MHRA has an established process and procedure for moving medicines from prescription-only status to over the counter, which I will refer to as OTC, when it safe to do so. An OTC is a medicine that is not likely to present a direct or indirect danger to human health, even when used incorrectly, if used without the supervision of a doctor; or is not frequently and to a very wide extent used incorrectly, and as a result is not likely to present a direct or indirect danger to human health; or does not contain substances or preparations—there is an entire list, which we will include in the letter to my hon. Friend.
To date, the legal classification of all currently authorised medicines for injection, including vitamin B12, is prescription only. Other factors support that position, in addition to the fact that the product is injectable. The main reason why it would not be a suitable candidate for reclassification under existing guidelines is that the product is considered to meet the prescription-only medicines requirements, as set out in legislation.
Pernicious anaemia, or any other cause of vitamin B12 deficiency, cannot be self-diagnosed and requires the expertise of a medical doctor. Contrary to my hon. Friend’s remarks NICE guidance also states that when a patient presents with the signs and symptoms of pernicious anaemia, they should undergo a full blood count as part of the diagnostic process.
We are also aware that there is a high risk of off-label use by patients. She mentioned that private clinics are injecting for wellness. That is currently authorised for use only in maintenance therapy for pernicious anaemia every two to three months, depending on the type of pernicious anaemia. Anecdotally, we hear that patients consider that a more frequent administration of the medicine would be appropriate to their particular clinical symptoms. Any reclassification of the medicine would not change either the dose or the frequency of the treatment set out in the terms of the product’s marketing authorisation.
I am also led to believe that the evidence of lifestyle abuse of unlicensed formulations of B12, which, although not necessarily relevant to the patient group including Tracey and others whom my hon. Friend mentioned, is also taken into account in determining the legal classification of the medicine. That is an issue that has to be considered: there are people who would abuse those formulations.
Just because there is a particular group that would over-use and abuse the availability, we should say that we are not going to look at this. Although that is not in my speech, and it has not been advised to me, I am making that point. We should not use that as a reason to say, “We don’t go there”. This affects more women than men—I do not apologise for banging on about that point—and therefore we should be pushing those barriers back as part of the women’s health strategy and looking at different ways to deal with it.
Taken together, these issues mean that the criteria for prescription-only medicine have been reached, and changing the classification would therefore not be appropriate—but that part of the information that I have been given needs to be challenged. We need to ask, “Why not?” It is vital that we get the evidence back from the network to the forums that Tracey knows. I note that this issue has been before Health Ministers in recent times, and as I mentioned, Dame Sally Davies, our previous chief medical officer, did engage with the medical royal colleges to raise awareness of the condition. However, it has taken too long—I think Dame Sally retired three years ago.
Following on from that interaction, NICE has worked to develop and publish an updated clinical knowledge summary on pernicious anaemia, which sets out clinical guidance on diagnosis, treatment and management of the condition that should be followed by general practice physicians and others responsible for the care of patients who suffer from this condition. The updated guidance was published in July 2020, and it should now be a regular part of clinical interventions in general practice and secondary care.
I would be interested to know what Tracey’s experience of that is, and whether she believes that the guidance has been implemented, particularly based on the experience of other women that she has been speaking to on these forums. Has it been implemented? Are GPs aware of it? If those women could let us know those answers in their responses to the women’s health strategy, that would be incredibly important. It is also important to evaluate the impact that this guidance has had on the clinical management of pernicious anaemia before considering further regulatory options. NICE usually produces guidelines as quickly as possible—it is an amazing organisation that does very good work—but we need to move a little bit faster on this and other women-related issues.
As for my hon. Friend’s question about private injections of B12, as I said, there are two separate types. Licensed products must be administered by prescription and by a suitably qualified healthcare professional, so that is where we are at the moment. It is important to note that private clinics are not providing the same injectables to clients as GPs are; they are providing injectable vitamin B12 products that are not licensed medicines for general health and wellness purposes. Of course, if clinics make medicinal claims for unlicensed vitamin B12 products that they offer, the MHRA would take action. Also, when classifying products, the MHRA are bound by case law to consider products on a case-by-case basis and cannot automatically classify all vitamin B products as medicine, so they do not all meet the criteria to be classified as licensed medicines. That is another important point.
In closing, I thank my hon. Friend for continuing to raise this important issue on behalf of her constituents and everyone affected by the condition. We will continue to work with and support the NHS and NICE—which are actively engaged with this issue— and clinicians to understand the importance of B12 deficiency and guarantee that patients are receiving the best possible care. I think the women’s health strategy will really help with that and will possibly be the boost we need to move this forward through the evidence we can gather.
I will finish on that point, because Tracey and the others who use the same platforms, my hon. Friend, and others who complete the women’s health strategy could give us important evidence that we need to enable us to push forward. I am not saying that means we do not know what policies we are going to develop from the women’s health strategy, but if enough women respond and say that this is an issue, that gives them a voice and it gives us a lever to pull. However, one of the biggest issues here is the time it has taken to bring about change. The guidelines have gone in; I would be interested to know how they have bedded in, and whether people such as those on Tracey’s forums think they are being used and have led to any benefit. We would also be interested to hear what the problems are with prescribing, and the issues that they have with administration.
Question put and agreed to.
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind all Members that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall. I think we do have one person missing, the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). I think that, theoretically, he is not allowed to participate; anyway, we will see what happens if he shows up.
The next item on my list does not apply because no one is participating in this debate virtually. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before leaving the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has deemed that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall until you are speaking. If you can email your speeches to email@example.com, that is very helpful for our colleagues in Hansard. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list—this may not apply—should use the seats in the Public Gallery initially and move forward as seats become available. Members should sit only where there are microphones—I think everyone is doing that.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of driverless cars.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and to have had the privilege of introducing this important debate on the future of driverless cars. In Milton Keynes, we are familiar with the sight of robots roaming our city as they bring food deliveries to almost 200,000 residents, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the e-scooter trials. We are a tech-focused city; we are at the heart of the technical evolution of our country; we are a centre of innovation. We have the UK’s largest self-driving car project, Autodrive, and local manufacturers—Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata—are supporting that. Last year, we also had the HumanDrive project, culminating in the longest autonomous journey in Britain—230 miles, from Milton Keynes to Sunderland.
Now, at Stadium MK, we will be hosting a Government-funded trial to potentially introduce driverless taxis and a self-driving bus. I know that it might come as a surprise to many people watching this debate that we could have self-driving cars on our roads later this year, but this is just part of the exciting work that is under way, and has been for years and years, to develop connected and autonomous road vehicles, or CAV, as I will call them for the rest of this speech. That is in addition to automated lane-keeping systems to keep the cars literally on the straight and narrow.
To date, £400 million has been jointly invested with industry for those technologies developed by UK companies, companies right here in Britain, and more than 80 groundbreaking, Government-funded projects have taken place, including the ones in Milton Keynes that I have mentioned. We get a bit of stick for using the phrase “world leading”, but I will not apologise for it in this instance, because I know that my colleagues at the Department for Transport have established the world-leading, £200-million CAM Testbed UK ecosystem, to test the technology safely and to test the regulatory environment. The landmark consultations in these areas have been published; that work has been led by the Law Commission. In addition, the foundations of the world’s first comprehensive safety and security assurance process are being laid.
Being a keen follower of my hon. Friend, I have seen many of his tweets and followed many of his speeches—we all know too well the fears of judgment day. Seeing the robots on the streets of Milton Keynes actually being fed by children, how do we know that the robots will not bite back and will actually be safe for everyone involved?
I am very grateful to my good and hon. Friend for that intervention. Fears of the robot apocalypse may be a little overblown when it comes to issues of artificial intelligence, driverless cars, automated connected communications and mobility solutions, but there is always the problem that technology goes wrong. We recently saw a case in the United States where a driverless car in driverless mode effectively went rogue. That is why it is so important to test properly, to put a safety regime around the technology and to regulate, and why we have been consulting and working with the industry for years and years.
Safety and security are incredibly important. Over the last seven years, industry leaders, experts and manufacturers have learned an incredible amount about the benefits of self-driving cars and the part they can play in delivering our priorities to boost the economy, to reduce congestion, accidents and carbon emissions, and—the buzz words— to build back better. They will play an important part in our future as a country.
CAV technology has the potential to remove the cause of over 85% of road traffic accidents that are down to driver error. Let us break that down—that is 47,000 serious accidents that happen when we nip to the shops, we go to work or we go out on the school run. If we break that down further, that has the potential to save 3,900 lives over the next decade. I know colleagues here can sympathise with feeling tired, stressed out and distracted at the wheel, especially when there are kids in the back singing and arguing.
My hon. Friend is being very kind in giving way, but I will correct him because in AXA’s figures 90% of road traffic accidents were caused by driver error. When we also factor in figures regarding drug and alcohol impairment, as well as the impact on pedestrians, this could be a huge innovation and be world leading in terms of not only keeping our roads safe but keeping Britain safe.
I am grateful to be corrected on that. I am pleased that the figure has gone up rather than down. My hon. Friend’s point is well made: robots do not get distracted or have a bad day and get grumpy.
As well as reducing accidents, the technology can reduce congestion and create cleaner and more efficient roads across Britain. These vehicles will be able to communicate with traffic lights, to keep traffic flowing. They will reduce the number of idle cars and significantly improve air quality in our towns and cities. As the technology develops and more CAVs are on our roads, we could reduce the average delay by 40%. So, fewer accidents and fewer delays—what’s not to like?
A report, which I am sure we all saw as it was emailed to us this morning by campaign groups, by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed that 50% of those polled who had personal mobility issues feel that their mobility is restricted and 48% said that CAVs could reduce the stress of driving. They can help people with disabilities become more mobile; vitally improve access to employment and healthcare; give 1 million people in the UK better access to higher education; and, potentially, unlock £8 billion of value to our economy. Creating swifter and safer journeys could boost productivity in some regions by up to 14%.
In addition, given the work now happening in Milton Keynes, I have seen first hand how this can generate skilled jobs, technical and professional positions. That is, of course, not just in Milton Keynes. Connected and autonomous technology could create around 320,000 new jobs in the UK by 2030, worth £42 billion by 2035. I am interested to hear more from the Minister about the Government’s plans to build on our proud history of British car manufacturing and how that is going to propel us forward.
I have focused on roads, but this technology has the power not just to revolutionise roads but can be used in sectors from agriculture to nuclear power facilities. The technology can support and transform different labour sectors as the UK captures the global CAV, research and development, and manufacturing markets.
Back in 2015, KPMG estimated that the potential overall economic benefit for Britain could be £51 billion per annum by 2030—a huge prize is there for the taking. However, as we plan the next generation of automated vehicles and deploy them on our roads, we must put safety first. The idea of self-driving vehicles is something that we are more used to seeing in sci-fi and futuristic films than on the M1 in 2021. I am sure I am not the only one present who thinks it seems contradictory that taking one’s hands off the wheel and one’s eyes off the lane could actually make our roads safer.
Later this year, we will not be seeing KITT from “Knight Rider” or Lightning McQueen swooping through our streets, but the first tentative steps will ensure that automated lane-keeping systems are used only in the single slow lane of the motorway. It will be limited to 37 mph. A vehicle must receive a quality approval and have no evidence to challenge its ability to safely self-drive. Realistically, an early form of self-driving technology is unlikely to be commercially available for our constituents before 2025, and I know my colleagues will be monitoring it at every stage.
Although I look forward to seeing the Government’s response to the recently closed consultation that proposes amendments to the highway code in order to ensure that we can work with the automated lane-keeping systems and hopefully give everybody the opportunity to have their say, we are also aware that there are a number of issues with connected and autonomous vehicles. From public perception to cyber-security and the legal and regulatory framework, which is fiendishly complicated, it all needs a serious assessment by the Department. Although it is absolutely key that we secure the UK’s place as a global science superpower, as the Minister has said, we must put road safety first.
I am extremely grateful to see that so many Members are present. Connected and autonomous technology has the potential to bring so many benefits to our constituents by boosting British businesses and transforming our journeys. As we embark on this futuristic venture, it is definitely something that has to be slow and steady to start with. We need to put safety first, but I look forward to hearing more from the Minister on what is under way to build the best regulatory framework to deliver this opportunity for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr Huq, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) for an excellent speech and for securing the debate.
When I was a young man—many, many years ago—Saturday afternoon and early-evening TV was “The Dukes of Hazzard”, “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider”. “Knight Rider” was definitely my favourite. It was a great show, and I thoroughly enjoyed tuning in, as I am sure many other Members present did, too. The star of the show was not David Hasselhoff—the Hoff—who played Michael Knight, or even Patricia McPherson, the glamourous mechanic who never got her hands dirty. No, the star was KITT, a talking driverless car. With its flashing red lights and numerous toys, it really was the star of the show, so Members can imagine my excitement 40 years later when I took delivery of my very own KITT, my new Tesla Model 3, back in 2019—what a wonderful year 2019 was. It is a wondrous machine with many tricks, and although it cannot hold a conversation with me, it can drive itself. The summon feature enables me to park my car with my phone, which is a great party trick when seeing friends.
For those who do not know much about this topic, autopilot on a Tesla pretty much drives the car by itself, but people have to keep their hands on the steering wheel. I have used this many times, and it is a great feature. If I remove my hands from the steering wheel, it informs me to put them back on. However, it has its limitations. Tight country roads are not always a successful experience, and the driver obviously needs to be in control at junctions, roundabouts, traffic lights and so on, but the technology is definitely getting there.
Today, however, we are talking about automated lane-keeping systems and the Government’s plan to allow that to happen. I am afraid I believe that it is a little early. I am sure that many Members have seen the dangers of allowing ALKS to operate without driver assistance when swerving for debris or other immediate obstacles on the road. It just is not safe to do so with the technology that we currently use.
The software is available, although—at least to my knowledge—the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has not allowed it to be used. That means that it cannot be downloaded in European countries. My recommendation is to change the regulations that stop that happening. Let us use the software for a safe period of time, with the driver still fully in charge of the vehicle. It is important to highlight that that is precisely how planes operate. A computer flies the plane, but the pilot is always responsible and can take control at any moment.
To clarify, we need to put the regulations in place that allow the available software to be downloaded to our vehicles, and then use the system with the driver still fully engaged and responsible. The software learns from every mile driven, and if we have to intervene, the disengagement is noted by the system, meaning that the fleet learns—that is, all the cars that are on the road using the system. The number of disengagements will be recorded. The data can be reported back to the Government so that they can make an informed decision on how little or how much driver engagement should be legally required.
By adopting that policy, the UK can remain at the cutting edge of the technology, making the whole experience much safer. I believe that Tesla is doing that now in the USA, capturing billions of miles of data each month, thus continually improving the driving experience. The industry as a whole thinks that driverless cars, once perfected, will be much safer, create less congestion and generally be a better experience for drivers. I tend to agree with that assessment. I also believe that in the not-too-distant future we will debate whether we allow humans to drive cars and not just computers.
On that note, think of every driving job that may well disappear, which is food for thought. I do not think that we can stop the technology, nor do I want to; yet we must be ready for the implications that it will bring. Let me finish by saying that I love “Knight Rider” and the star KITT, so much so that I call my Tesla “KITT”, but as much I love the thought of the technology its implementation into everyday life needs to be done cautiously and using all the available technology, not just some of it.
It is a great pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) for introducing the debate, as I am a keen proponent of advancing new technologies where they are available to us.
We live in an age where there appears to be no bounds to the possibilities offered by technology to virtually every aspect of our lives. That is certainly true of transportation. The ability to take off, fly and land aircraft with several hundred passengers aboard is one example that has been available to us for decades. For that reason, it is at least to some extent surprising that we are only now starting to make meaningful advances in the technology around driverless cars. That probably has something to do with manufacturers understanding their markets better than most and realising that public perception is a significant obstacle to overcome, so the question for me becomes more one of how we address the gap in public acceptance rather than whether there are technological solutions.
Identifying the issues —I was going to say the drivers—behind that gap is key, and understanding how we can bring certainty to ameliorate the fears arising from them is even more important. The UK often leads the way in innovation, but can often fall at the implementation phase, leaving the door open for other countries to, effectively, copy and implement. We have seen that happen many times over the past century. Let us hope that this is not one such case and that we can actually benefit from the technologies that we have in our hands and that we are developing in our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
While we are talking about the names of our cars, let me say that I have not named mine KITT; being a fan of “Star Wars”, I have named it the Falcon. Members have talked about the programmes they watched growing up, and I do not have as many years as my colleagues, but we all remember our first experiences of seeing driverless vehicles, whether it was KITT in “Knight Rider” or the Johnnycabs in “Total Recall”, or in the future scenes in “Demolition Man”. These are not the greatest films in the world—that would have to be “The Empire Strikes Back”—but all are examples of driverless vehicles on our screens, going back decades.
This is, however, not just about bringing the world of science fiction into the modern day through our fantastic research and development and manufacturing. Driverless vehicles are a natural advancement in society, especially when they are linked to the advances that have been made in electric vehicles and battery capacity, making this a natural evolution from the internal combustion engine.
As I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), research shows that roughly 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by driver error, and that is before we factor in other human error, whether from pedestrians, drug or alcohol impairment, or even tiredness. Removing the driver from the equation can potentially lead to much safer roads for us all. Speaking as a Member who has lost family members and seen others severely impacted due to road traffic accidents, that is surely a big positive that means this technology is inevitable. Yes, there may well be problems when we are in a transition period, during which we have a mixture of driverless vehicles and vehicles still operated by drivers, but things will progress.
Linked to this is the problem of insurance: who is responsible in the event of an accident if there is no act of negligence? Is it the owner or the manufacturer? I appreciate that these conversations are all ongoing, but we need answers sooner rather than later, before we start having these vehicles on the road.
Vehicles becoming automated also potentially cuts down on the number of vehicles on the road. That should be applauded, because it leads to not only a cleaner, greener road network, but the ability to remove the scourge of congestion. As a Member with one of the most congested roads in the country in his constituency —Bury New Road in Prestwich—I think that this, too, needs exploring. Congestion drives people away from our town centres—excuse the pun—at a time when we need them back more than ever, so we need to be doing what we can to invest in not only our road network but our towns.
My hon. Friend has mentioned building back better. This entire innovation is about building back greener and fairer to allow more people to get back into employment. He mentioned mobility issues in his opening remark—being able to get people back into adult education, higher education and employment, and helping them to access health opportunities that they have been denied because of mobility—and we need to explore those issues around the table with as much enthusiasm as possible. When we factor in the time lost through accidents and in congestion—I refer to the road I mentioned earlier, and I think we all realise the number of hours it takes us to get out of London as we head back to our constituencies—this innovation will inevitably lead to quicker and more efficient journeys, which is one way to increase the productivity of Great Britain, while improving the ability of many to get back into employment.
This is arguably the best innovation we can make for the economy, because it is not about building back better but about building back stronger. In doing so, we are making sure that we are a mobile, safe and green nation.
Thank you very much, Dr Huq; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair—and I am calling you by your proper name for a change as well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) on securing this important debate and setting out so well not only the challenges that the connected and autonomous vehicle sector faces but, crucially, the huge economic and social opportunities that CAV adoption can bring.
Many Members have made excellent and pertinent points. I am not sure if he looks it, but the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) must be of a similar age to me, with his love of “Knight Rider”. He spoke of a future where we might be debating whether humans should be allowed to drive. Given some of the drivers on the road today, it could probably be argued that that debate should be brought forward. I should declare that I also own an electric car, which was bought recently, but unlike others mine does not have name, so I will need to speak to my children and sort that out forthwith.
The SNP obviously welcomes innovation and understands the potential benefits of driverless cars in terms of ushering in a new era of sustainable and advanced transportation that seeks to reduce traffic accidents and prevent harm. The journeys of the future could ease congestion, cut emissions and reduce human error, but we must ensure that, despite the dizzying pace of technological advancement, safety remains paramount and regulations are of the highest standard. As we have heard, automated driving systems could prevent 47,000 serious accidents and save nearly 4,000 lives over the next decade through their ability to reduce the single largest cause of road accidents—human error.
It has been referenced already, but I am grateful to the organisations that sent briefing material ahead of today’s debate: AXA UK, Cycling UK, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, representatives of the insurance industry, other road users and the car industry itself. That is a pretty good balance or perspectives, and it has to be said that all are positive about the potential for autonomous vehicles, with some caveats. I am also grateful that the SMMT provided a glossary of the various acronyms and abbreviations involved. The main one being discussed today is ALKS—automated lane keeping system—which AXA describes as a form of conditional automation, based on existing driver-assist technology, and can be described as level 3, using the SAE definition. That is a lot of acronyms.
There is concern that these systems may not be capable of undertaking all the functions of a competent, attentive driver—for example, swerving debris; the minimum risk manoeuvre, or MRM; stopping in the lane of travel; and —an issue I have a question for the Minister on—complying with UK road signage. In 2018, there were 70 accidents caused by cars driving in a closed lane on smart motorways in England. The SMMT said that ALKS was designed to read and respond to roads signs and speed limits, and to comply with traffic rules in the country of operation. However, AXA suggests that current ALKS, including radar sensors, could only monitor short distances and would likely be unable to recognise a red x signifying a closed lane. In summing up, can the Minster say what her understanding of the issue is, please?
Another challenge we must overcome if these things are to become a feature on British roads is resolving the issue of how automatic vehicles can be insured. Insurance companies are concerned that the goal of being a leader in autonomous vehicles could backfire unless automators and regulators spell out the current limitations of the technology available today. We would welcome action to ensure that vehicle insurance policies facilitate automated vehicles in the future, but we are concerned about the potential costs to policyholders and contention over liability between manufacturers and insurers.
I only have a short time, so I do not want to dwell on the challenges. As we have heard, this country is a world-leading location for the mass market potential of CAVs, with the Department for Transport estimating that the UK CAV market could be worth nearly £42 billion by 2035, creating 40,000 skilled jobs. But—you know me, Dr Huq; I hate to be negative—we have been here before. This country was a world leader in renewable technologies, and still is when it comes to the form of wave and tidal in Scotland, but the UK Government allowed that leadership to be lost on wind technology. We must learn the lessons and, on this issue, remain a tech maker rather than a tech taker.
We are on the cusp of a driving revolution, but the UK Government must get into gear and put their foot down for sustainable transportation. The technology could not only unlock vast opportunities for the UK economy and jobs market, but significantly improve the safety and efficiency of how we travel in the coming decade. The Scottish Government have already stepped up investment in AV, EV and sustainable future transport infrastructure. The CAV road map is aligned with Scotland’s future intelligent transport systems strategy and our draft national transport strategy, which sets out a compelling vision for the transport system over the next 20 years—one that protects our climate and improves lives.
The strategy highlights the potential for Scotland to become a market leader in the development and early adoption of transport innovations. The Scottish Government are committed to developing an integrated, sustainable, accessible and—importantly—environmentally friendly transport system. That was backed up again today by the First Minister in her statement of Government priorities, which include reducing car kilometres by 20% by the decade’s end; removing half of combustion engine buses from the fleet by the end of 2023; free bus travel for those 21 and under and 60 and over; spending 10% of transport capital on active travel; and encouraging drivers to swap to zero-emission cars through enhanced incentives, including interest-free loan schemes for both new and used electric cars. I should declare that, having just bought an electric car, I made use of one of those interest- free electric car loans from the Scottish Government.
Scotland is getting on with building the sustainable transport network of the future. In supporting and echoing much of what hon. Members have said in the debate, I urge the UK Government to get on and do the same. [Interruption.] That’s timing.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) on securing this debate. He represents an area that I know pretty well, as my sister and her family live there, although they are in the old part—the railway town of Wolverton—but I have seen the robots whizzing around the streets. In fact, the first time I saw them, I thought they were speed cameras and got quite worried at the little things going along the pavement flashing at me as I was driving along the road. It is quite exciting.
It is right that the motion refers to the “potential merits” of driverless cars, and that note of hesitancy is probably about right at the moment. There is potential; driverless cars could mean safer, more efficient travel on the roads through better regulation of speed, less congestion and less risk of human error, which accounts for 90% of road traffic accidents. As has been said, the SMMT says that they could prevent 47,000 serious accidents over the next decade, and save 3,900 lives. It also said that they would open up new mobility opportunities for those with disabilities and the elderly, create 420,000 jobs and contribute £62 billion to the economy by 2030. That is all pretty exciting. I am probably not alone in finding it slightly hard to get my head around the idea of being in one of those cars and not being entirely in control, but I am very keen to test out the technology at some stage to see how it would work.
I want to be clear that Labour is generally supportive of the introduction of autonomous vehicles and of moving things ahead, but I echo what has been said by other hon. Members about ensuring safety. One of the key concerns is that there are different types of autonomous vehicles. As we have heard, the type that has been considered for introduction to UK roads in the immediate future—the automated lane keeping system vehicles—are not fully autonomous. The automation merely regulates the speed and direction of the vehicles, but still requires a driver to be attentive in order to perform emergency manoeuvres and lane switching.
I have spoken to various companies, including in the insurance world about this issue. We have to be clear what the driver’s responsibilities are, and how these things will affect drivers’ behaviour. If a driver feels that they are not responsible, I can imagine that they could take their eye off the ball as far as certain things are concerned. Will they be as vigilant as they should about the things that they should very much keep their eye on? If we do not get this right, the safety gains risk being outweighed by accidents involving drivers who have not operated the vehicle in the correct manner.
I am glad that the Government are considering the issues. One the mechanisms is the consultation on updating the highway code, although I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that; as I understand it, the proposed changes do not distinguish between different types of autonomous vehicles. I wonder whether that is the right approach. I would also welcome clarification on what measures will be taken to ensure that those who purchase or operate an ALKS vehicle are fully aware of driver responsibilities for that vehicle type. Indeed, what steps will be taken to make sure that any driver of any category of autonomous vehicle realises the extent of their responsibilities? That may be accidents and the insurance side of things, or just what is expected of them behaviour-wise. Would they, for example, have to take an additional driving course on top of the standard test? Will there come a point when the standard test is amended to take these things into account? Could there be a situation where somebody has not got the standard driving licence but is able to drive an autonomous vehicle because less responsibility is required from them?
It is disappointing that the Government have chosen not to wait until the findings of the Law Commission’s regulatory review into autonomous vehicles are released later this year. That will be crucial in determining responsibility when accidents occur, which we have discussed, and in advising on that regulatory framework. I understand the desire to open up this new market, but as the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) said, it is perhaps a bit early to race ahead. Forgive me—it is impossible to avoid puns about driving, in the same way that we suddenly start talking about being “on track” and “on board” and so on when we talk about rail.
Finally, I want to express my concern about how this fits in with the decarbonisation agenda. Obviously, we need to do much more to green our transport system. The switch to electric vehicles, and the ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles from 2030 and of hybrids from 2035, are really important. As I understand it, autonomous vehicles could lead to emissions reductions by reducing congestion or because people go for an electric model, but they would not necessarily all be electric. Researchers at Imperial College London have highlighted concerns that automated vehicles could actually lead to an increase in global transport emissions if they are mostly fuelled by petrol and diesel, and if more people feel able to use them on the roads.
Although driverless cars are an exciting prospect and something to encourage, they are not the answer to the immediate need for better public transport, for investment in a comprehensive electric vehicle charging network, for making electric vehicles affordable for more people, and for encouraging people to use private vehicles less and to walk and cycle more. I know that the Government are considering all those issues. I would welcome clarification from the Minister on how those problems will be addressed, and reassurance that the Government are not speeding ahead without the necessary regulation and consensus on the policy area.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) on securing this important debate, which has achieved a hugely welcome degree of cross-party consensus —that is very positive. I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss with hon. Members the numerous potential benefits of self-driving cars. In his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on connected and automated mobility, my hon. Friend has done an extremely good job of setting out the policy landscape.
I assure all hon. Members, because everyone has raised this point, that the Government are absolutely committed to realising those benefits for the UK, but for that to happen, the public must have confidence that safety and security are at the heart of how the technology is deployed and developed. Our code of practice for trialling automated vehicles on public roads states that there must be a safety driver who is ready to take control if needed. That means that the technology can be tested in a way that ensures safety and responsibility.
When highly automated driving technology is ready for public use, we must have a way to check that the vehicles are safe and secure by design, not only for passengers, but for all road users. That is why my Department is progressing, alongside some of the investments that my hon. Friend rightly mentioned, a programme of work that will adapt our assurance processes for self-driving vehicles.
A number of Members referred to the fact that it is a complex landscape of regulation and legislation, and of manufacturers and Government working together, but I assure everyone listening that as manufacturers bring new self-driving vehicles to the market, they will have been extensively tested by the regulator.
That is an extremely fair point, and one that a number of people have raised with me. In fact, in my experience and from my discussions with manufacturers, industry experts, academics and other researchers, all the indications are that the technology and the industry have the potential to create jobs. Of course, those jobs will change because we will shift some of them from one particular skillset to another, but as Members have set out, we see this as a boost to the economy, and that means the creation of new high-skilled jobs. This is a massively exciting opportunity to level up the UK, including my hon. Friend’s Bury South constituency, which I am sure will be eager to take part.
The regulation programme that we have created is called CAV PASS. It is one of the most comprehensive programmes of its kind in the world. More widely, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned, we have asked the Law Commission to undertake an extensive review of transport legislation to support the safe deployment of automated vehicles. We expect recommendations by the end of the year, which will inform future regulatory reform.
The work we have undertaken so far has earned us a reputation as a world leader in policy and regulation. It ensures that we are ready for this step change in transport. We are acting to seize the opportunities for the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North will be aware, the Government are supporting a portfolio of exciting self-driving vehicle technology projects, including investing nearly £20 million into autonomous vehicle projects within Milton Keynes alone. Last autumn, I had the great privilege of a comfortable and enjoyable ride through the Milton Keynes countryside in one of the Government-supported self-driving Nissan HumanDrive vehicles.
On that point, the hon. Member for Bristol East talked about being in such a car. I would encourage her to do so. I am sure that Nissan would be happy to give her a ride. It is not only incredible and amazing, but very underwhelming at the same time, because it feels incredibly safe. It feels like going in a normal car. As soon as people experience it, they can definitely see the potential to transform the way we move around.
Government investment in self-driving vehicles spans the country from Cambridge and Milton Keynes to the west midlands, up to Scotland and across to the west of England. We have enabled joint public and private investment of £400 million in vehicle innovation since 2014. A vast number of potential benefits for the UK could help our world-leading automotive industry develop in the future, including safety on our roads—as everybody highlighted—reducing congestion and improving productivity through more efficient use of road space. There is the potential to improve access to transport for everyone, including people with disabilities, as the hon. Lady rightly said.
As we focus on building back better following the pandemic, the potential economic benefits of self-driving vehicles in the UK are vast. It is predicted that, by 2035, 40% of new UK car sales could have self-driving capabilities, with a total self-driving market value of £42 billion and the potential to create 38,000 new highly skilled and well-paid jobs. We have already seen millions of pounds of private investment coming into British small and medium-sized enterprises, which are leading the way on automated vehicles.
On supporting existing jobs, I know how important the automotive industry is to the west midlands and to my constituency of Redditch. Just as we support the UK’s automotive logistics and mobility service companies in their transition to zero emissions, we help those sectors to get ahead in the global race to harness self-driving technology and to ensure that the new jobs of the future come to the UK, rather than go elsewhere. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) mentioned that point, and I hope to reassure him that that is absolutely the UK Government’s objective. In short, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North that this technology can help to make our journeys safer, greener and more reliable.
To talk a bit about the technology, this futuristic technology is already here. That is why we recently announced that the automated lane keeping system—the ALKS—could be the first legally defined self-driving technology to be allowed on the road.
I thank the Minister for kindly giving way a second time. On the ALKS—apologies for the abbreviations, I think we are all tired of them in this conversation—what assurances will she give that, given the motorway improvements we have seen throughout the country over the past few years, such as smart motorways and concrete central barriers, in trying to address a problem, we are not creating another one and giving more heartache to drivers?
That is a totally accurate and important question. We will not allow any self-driving vehicles on to the roads unless they comply fully with the regulatory regime set out by the UNECE organisation—the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. That includes being able to recognise and respond to any signs, whether smart motorway signs or any other signs that would appear in the domain in which they are legally licensed to operate. To be clear, we will not let anything on the roads that cannot operate safely under any condition that it might find itself in.
The ALKS system is designed to be used in slow-moving motorway traffic, such as a traffic jam. When the traffic speeds up, the vehicle will require the driver to take control again. Crucially, that is a step beyond what is already available, because it will allow the driver legally to disengage while the autonomous system is driving the vehicle. We will list models with ALKS technology as automated on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that they are safe and meet the legal requirements. The vehicle is only half of the story, because all of this means changes for drivers as well, and they must know their role. That is why we are consulting on amendments to the highway code to clarify the responsibilities of drivers of automated vehicles.
Before I conclude, I will refer to the comments that Members have made. I thank everybody for their extremely well-informed contributions and for their interest in the debate. They have all displayed encyclopaedic knowledge of cultural history and vehicles of the past, but I must confess that I am a bit more of a fan of David Hasselhoff than the cars. He was definitely a teenage heart-throb of mine.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who pointed out the benefits of reducing congestion. We in the Government absolutely agree that it would be a benefit of the technology. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley highlighted some safety concerns. He is right to do so, but I reassure him that we are a full member of UNECE, the international organisation that sets the overarching rules and frameworks, and we contribute to those. We work closely with the organisation, so we are fully aligned with all its safety requirements, which are stringent and rigorous. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) also mentioned safety, and I agree that the perception of safety is equally important as safety itself.
I reassure the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North that we will absolutely not be listing any vehicles that cannot respond to the red X signs on smart motorways or anywhere else. He is right to highlight the opportunities that the technology offers the whole of the United Kingdom, and the investment that we in the Government are putting into Scotland and the rest of the country is a huge benefit of our Union.
The hon. Member for Bristol East obviously has great knowledge of this area, and I thank her for her interest and support. She made some very good points, and I hope to continue constructive discussions with her. She made a good point about the importance of driver education, and we are working closely with the industry on that. At the point of purchase, drivers and purchasers need to be fully informed about the vehicles and their capabilities. She also mentioned the vital role that such vehicles have to play in our decarbonisation agenda. She is right to say that not all of them will be green vehicles, but there is huge potential for vehicles to share data and travel in a way that has much less impact on the planet.
That is one of those questions that I am not qualified to answer, but I assure the hon. Lady that we are committed to publishing the plan shortly.
I hope that I have set out the wide range of Government efforts to make the UK the best place in the world to develop and deploy self-driving vehicles safely. The coming years will prove crucial in securing the many benefits of self-driving vehicles for the UK—for our economy, for the environment and for safe and accessible travel for all citizens. I thank everybody for taking part in the debate.
Thank you, Dr Huq. Unfortunately, I came back under my own steam and not by any self-driving car. I thank the Minister for her comments, and I am very grateful for the contributions from everybody who has taken part in the debate.
I think I may have heard something like an invitation to have a ride in a driverless car in the Minister’s speech —yes please, I will bite off both of her arms.
I will talk very briefly about some of the comments that have been made. It has been an incredibly constructive debate. I am grateful to everybody, and to the Chair for allowing such a positive atmosphere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) made an interesting suggestion relating to using machine learning for AI fleets, in relation to driver engagement, which I think is something that we should be taking on board. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), in his typically colourful way, alluded to a robot apocalypse. There is definitely some public perception around allowing AI to make decisions in relation to cars that conjures up those images. He then alluded to the battery technology that we will need to run these cars and the jobs and the boost for industry we will get as a result.
Referencing a future where we debate whether humans should be allowed to drive cars is probably the nub of this argument. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), mentioned that caution should be the watchword in this debate, but we should be cautiously optimistic and cautiously ambitious in the way we approach this.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) mentioned that the UK leads in innovation, but often falls at the final hurdle of implementation. This is an opportunity for us to do the whole lifecycle—the thinking, the regulation and the insurance, and to build these units and get them on our roads, in a safe and cautious manner.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) gave a very thoughtful and constructive contribution—I am very pleased—especially in highlighting the alphabet spaghetti of acronyms involved in this debate, and specifically the acronyms in the definition of an acronym. That was wonderful and I thank him.
We have covered all the ground that was not covered before. The debate has shown that, although there are ongoing concerns about driverless cars, connected to autonomous vehicle technology—I know we are looking at addressing those—we have a huge opportunity to do something quite special. We have already seen this in Milton Keynes, as the Minister referenced. It is an exciting field. It has the power to decongest our roads—to get people into new jobs, to get people out and about, to reduce air pollution, to boost jobs and our economy. I thank everybody for their time this afternoon, for indulging my voting habit, and thank you, Dr Huq, for your chairmanship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of driverless cars.