Tuesday 8 June 2021
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
World Oceans Day 2021
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Oceans Day 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The Earth is a blue marble. Over 70% of its surface is covered by water, and the algae that live on the surface account for more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. So far, the ocean has absorbed one third of all human-created emissions, and regulates our climate. Our oceans are too big and too important just to be the domain of MPs such as me, who are blessed with a constituency with a sea shore. The oceans are home to over a quarter of a million known species and another 2 million as yet unknown, and they are the main source of protein for more than 1 billion people.
United Nations World Oceans Day is a celebration of the potential of our sea, and this year’s theme is life and livelihood. Globally, fishing supported some 39 million jobs in 2018, and the UK’s fishing industry alone is worth almost £1 billion to our economy. In my North Devon constituency, many local businesses and families rely on the maritime economy, and we need to revert to sustainable fishing practices to ensure that we use those precious resources in the best way possible. Additional jobs, fish and associated economic benefit could be derived if our fish stocks were restored to their maximum sustainable yield.
Conservative Governments have led the way for the UK to become a global ocean champion, with our extensive network of marine protected areas. However, we could make use of our post-Brexit freedoms to ban bottom trawling. Research suggests that emissions from bottom trawling alone could be as high as those from all UK agriculture.
Why does that matter? Our seabeds are significant carbon stores, or sinks. When they are disturbed by bottom trawling or dredging, or even by anchors being thrown overboard, the stored carbon becomes resuspended in the water, and potentially escapes back to the atmosphere as CO2. Over 200 million tonnes of this blue carbon are stored on the UK’s ocean floor—a third more than is held in our stock of standing forests.
The role of coastal and marine habitats in drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in seabed, sediment, seaweeds, salt marshes and seagrass beds has been somewhat neglected. Increasing blue carbon habitats could result in a reduction of carbon in our atmosphere, while reducing the disturbance of the seabed ensures that it remains stored. As a Marine Conservation Society blue carbon champion, I believe that if we are to meet net zero by 2050, we must consider blue carbon part of the solution, not to mention integrating it in our carbon accounts. Along with other hon. Members, I recently wrote to Lord Deben, the chair of the Climate Change Committee, to ask him to look into the feasibility of making that happen.
My North Devon constituency is home to the first UNESCO biosphere, and today is the 50th anniversary of the Man and the Biosphere programme. Our world-leading biosphere conducts a wide range of ongoing projects, including those investing in seaweeds, seagrass and salt marshes. I am truly fortunate that I spend my weekends in and on the sea, surfing and gig rowing. I live and breathe the ocean. Sir David Attenborough’s legendary “Blue Planet” brought the ocean to all our living rooms, and we now need to link that passion to action to ensure that it is there for future generations.
No wonder 85% of people in England and Wales consider marine protection important to them. Take whales, for example: not only are they delightful to watch when we are lucky enough to see them, but they are brilliant tacklers of climate change. Each great whale sequesters around 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide on average in their lifetime, which is equivalent to the carbon sequestration of almost 1,400 trees.
We need to ensure that we are all aware of the value of our oceans and what lives within them, and be aware that, while the benefits of rain forests are so widely taught, our oceans and blue carbon are absent from far too many curriculums.
I am proud that the UK, through leading the Global Ocean Alliance and co-chairing the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, is pushing to protect at least 30% of the global ocean in marine protected areas and through other effective area-based conservation measures by 2030—the 30by30 target.
It is great news that this morning the Government have announced plans to pilot highly protected marine areas in English waters, creating sites where all activities that could have a damaging effect on wildlife or marine habitats would be banned. The independent Benyon review concluded that such HPMAs would have an important role to play in helping the marine ecosystem to recover. The Government have my full support in taking those steps.
Biodiversity is also crucial. With 90% of big fish populations depleted, and 50% of coral reefs destroyed, we are taking more from the ocean than can be replenished. As the UN states when referencing World Oceans Day:
“To protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it. We must build a connection to the ocean that is inclusive, innovative, and informed by lessons from the past”.
Connect to the ocean we must. I frequently collect litter on our beaches and am horrified by the volume of plastics, microplastics and nurdles on North Devon’s beautiful beaches. The tragic situation with the container ship in Sri Lanka last week—it caught fire and spilled its cargo into the ocean—has brought nurdles something of an unwanted fame, but it highlights the fact that we are indeed shipping those pellets around the world in containers that end up in our seas. Is that what we want? If not, what are we going to do to change it?
Plastic pollution is visible and tangible, and we feel we can do something about it by picking it up, but so much of what is going on in our oceans is not visible. Sewage pollution is another challenge along my constituency coastline. I was one of the MPs to support the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and I am delighted to see so much of it incorporated in our landmark Environment Bill, which yesterday received its Second Reading in the House of Lords.
I also hope that introducing the debate will reduce the pressure on my inbox, as I receive an abundance of emails from constituents linked to the Surfers Against Sewage campaign each time the water quality is reduced in North Devon. I very much hope further steps will rapidly be taken to reduce the discharge into our rivers, which ultimately reaches our oceans.
Blue carbon is part of the solution, not part of the problem, when it comes to achieving net zero. I hope that today’s debate offers a chance to focus not just on what we have achieved, but on how much more there is still to do to restore our oceans and to optimise their link to our lives and livelihoods.
Before I call Kerry McCarthy, I should say that colleagues will be aware that there are around 10 Back Benchers who want to speak. If Members take five minutes each, we will all get on great.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I do not think there was anything in it with which I could disagree.
Sadly, World Oceans Day has increased in importance each year as our seas fall victim to the impact of climate change and our abuse of our planet’s precious resources. Like the hon. Lady, I have signed up to be a blue carbon champion in this Parliament as part of the project run by the Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain. I also support the WWF Ocean Hero campaign. I pay tribute to all those groups for their campaigning, along with the likes of Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, Surfers Against Sewage, and Pew, to name but a few.
The challenges facing our oceans are huge and numerous. Rising temperatures, over-fishing, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, bottom trawling, bycatch and extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on our ocean environments, threatening the rich biodiversity within them and the livelihoods of those who depend on the blue economy. The prospect of deep-sea mining is also deeply alarming. Our oceans’ resources should be protected, not plundered, and I am pleased that we are proceeding with caution on that front, but I would be very concerned if, on the basis of the current evidence, any licences for exploitation were granted. I know that they are up for review soon, so I hope the Minister can offer us reassurance on that point.
As an island nation and with so much of the world’s seas and oceans falling within our territorial waters, the UK should lead the way on the issue. We hear talk of ambition with the 30by30 target, but what we have in reality is marine protected areas that are little more than paper parks, as the review by the Environmental Audit Committee found in the previous Parliament. As with the Fisheries Act 2020, the Government have been actively stripping marine protections out of legislation. I welcome the Benyon review and the announcement on highly protected marine areas, but I am slightly cynical about what that will mean in practice. I hope it represents an improvement on the marine protected areas.
As the hon. Member for North Devon said, we need a proper commitment to outlawing destructive practices such as over-fishing and bottom trawling, and we need sustainability to be put at the heart of our fisheries strategy, with the ramping up of monitoring and enforcement. The Government must also press forward with a ban on the detonation of munitions, as those detonations harm marine life, and the adoption of less damaging deflagration techniques. We need to think long term about ocean protection, setting out how we can reach net zero emissions in our marine activity and developing a blue carbon strategy to rewild our oceans, protect blue carbon stores and develop low carbon fisheries and aquaculture. I am glad that the Marine Conservation Society has called for exactly that today.
As chair of the recently formed all-party parliamentary group on small island developing states, I have been speaking regularly to nations that have contributed least to the changing of our climate, but which suffer the worst effects of that. Rising sea levels are an existential threat to many small island developing states, as are climate-related extreme weather events. Those nations rely heavily on the blue economy for food, resources and tourism, and they have been badly hit by covid and the closure of countries to tourism in the past year.
Small island states desperately need support for ocean conservation measures and climate change adaptation, including natural climate solutions such as restoring mangroves and coral reefs. During sessions of the group, it has been really interesting to hear that instead of giving money for the building of concrete sea barriers, it would be far better to rely on natural carbon solutions. Reforming access to climate finance and investing in the blue economy—for example, through debt-for-climate swaps and blue bonds—will be central to that.
This is a pivotal year for ocean protection with the convention on biological diversity, COP26, and the global ocean treaty being negotiated internationally. We know that our oceans have an immense capacity to heal themselves if they are given the space to breathe, but that requires us to be much bolder at home and abroad to ensure that those precious resources are protected and restored. When we talk about ocean protection, it is obligatory to talk about “Blue Planet”, which, as I never hesitate to point out, was made by the BBC’s natural history unit, based in Bristol. As Sir David Attenborough said last year:
“We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely we all have a responsibility to care for our Blue Planet. The future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on having the foresight to secure this important debate on World Oceans Day. Although the world’s oceans are an enormous stage, they are all interconnected. Whatever happens in one place can have global implications. If someone somewhere gets it wrong and manages a particular fishery or coastline irresponsibly and recklessly, everyone can suffer, but if we get it right somewhere, in however small a way, there is the potential to spread benefits, opportunities and good practice around the world.
My apologies, Mr Hosie, but I am going to be parochial, in that the focus of much of what I will say is on, in or off my own backyard—the UK waters of the East Anglian coast. In October 2019, the East Anglian fishing industry came together with local councils, Seafish and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership to produce the Renaissance of the East Anglian Fisheries report. With Brexit about to happen, the report made recommendations as to how to revitalise the local fishing industry.
Some of those proposals have had to be revised as a result of the outcome of Brexit negotiations, which were a disappointment to so many. However, Brexit provides the opportunity to manage our own waters in a better, more responsible way, and I will briefly highlight five areas where we can do that for the benefit of the marine environment and local people in coastal communities.
First, we need to review our marine governance arrangements. The UK has a complicated, multi-layered and multi-bodied system of marine management. That often leaves fishermen annoyed, frustrated and irritated as they find themselves being inspected by different officials from different bodies carrying out the same checks for the same reasons within days of each other.
Secondly, we need to put in place a comprehensive marine planning system that enables us better to manage the many activities that take place in UK waters. Those waters are becoming crowded places with many competing and conflicting uses—for example, wind farms, cables, marine protected areas, extraction of aggregates, capital dredging, the disposal of sediments, and a wide variety of fishing activities. The UK was one of the first countries in the world to legislate for a comprehensive marine planning system that would enable us better to manage those often conflicting uses. However, there is much work to be done and our exit from the EU gives us the opportunity to get on and do it.
Thirdly, fisheries management and marine conservation must be properly integrated in the marine planning system. Until now, that has not been possible as both were part of the EU legislative framework. Thus, we have a disjointed management system that is out of step with the UK’s ambition to be a global leader in marine conservation and marine management.
Fourthly, we need a system that better understands and better manages the impact of displacement, which can have devastating consequences for the marine environment, small-scale fishermen and coastal communities.
My final point is that we should do something different. We should involve the fishing industry—fishermen—in decision making. The sustainable future of the fishing industry depends entirely on healthy fish stocks. Fishermen have unparalleled local knowledge, and it makes sense to work with people with knowledge. To involve them in decision making would be in keeping with the spirit of World Oceans Day.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie, and I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing and leading this important debate to consider World Oceans Day.
I am the Member of Parliament for Gower, and I am very proud of the Gower peninsula and all it has to offer. A precious and diverse seabed surrounds the peninsula—we must consider that on World Oceans Day, and work with our fishing industry—and the Gower constituency is renowned for its salt marshes, its cockle beds and its environment.
When we talk about plastics pollution, it is important to consider the many organisations that help to keep our beaches and our seabeds clean, as well individuals, such as young Sonny in my constituency, and community groups such as Pennard Community Council, which go out and keep their precious areas clean. They are to be commended for their hard work, but the Welsh Labour Government are also to be commended, because it is so important that we work together across the four nations to protect our seabeds. The UK marine strategy is already backed up by secondary legislation and works across all four nations; however, in its current state, it is no longer fit for purpose. There is a focus on indicators rather than action, and insufficient accounting for the increase in the effects of climate change on our seas. This year, the United Kingdom has a prime opportunity to set a new mandate for our marine strategy: to restore and safeguard declining coastal ecosystems and to demonstrate global leadership in ocean recovery.
I, along with many other politicians, support the OceanHero programme: it was really important that we were there to speak to the World Wild Fund for Nature about the problems that we have on our seabeds. We have to take control now, and understand that we have to change to move forward. “The Blue Planet”, as many have mentioned, was an eye-opener for so many people, sitting in their armchairs and watching the world around us. We have to look after our seabeds, and I totally support what the hon. Member for North Devon has said in today’s debate. I will draw to a close and say thank you very much, Chair.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on having secured this important debate on World Oceans Day. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have been able to see the sea from every house I have lived in, over my whole life—occasionally I had to stand on tiptoe from an upstairs window to be able to see it, but I have always lived in sight of the sea. Some of my happiest memories, both of my childhood and of raising my own family, are of days spent on or beside the water. I grew up with an amazing awareness of what an incredible place the sea and our oceans are, but also with a deep respect for them: not only are they a great place for fun, enjoyment and leisure but they contain incredible power and can, at times, do incredible damage. It is therefore absolutely right that we have this day once a year to remember our oceans and focus on them, and to remind ourselves what a major role they play in our lives and our natural environment.
The UK, as a proud island maritime nation, has always played an important role in global affairs relating to the sea, and it is right that we continue to play a global leadership role now. As others have already said, the UK cannot deal with all of the issues that affect our oceans on its own: it is going to take global co-operation, and it is good and right that the UK plays a leadership role in bringing that together. For far too many years, we tended to see the ocean as this great big dumping ground that we could pour raw sewage into and let our waste end up in, because it was big enough to cope; it would manage; the waste would not have much effect.
However, thankfully, in more recent times we have changed that view, and have come to realise the incredible damage that we were doing to our oceans. As others have mentioned, the BBC’s “Blue Planet” programmes with David Attenborough really brought home to the British public the damage we were doing, and how we needed to change our ways. I am glad that that is happening. Since I was first elected to this place in 2015, I have had the honour of chairing the ocean conservation all-party parliamentary group—which was previously called Protect Our Waves—and working particularly closely with Surfers Against Sewage and other organisations, such as the Marine Conservation Society, to continue to press in Parliament for more action.
In the time I have left, I would like to mention a couple of areas in which I believe we are making progress, but we need to go further; the first is with regard to plastics. We have all been shocked to learn just how much plastic there is in our seas and oceans. The stat that really brought that home to me, which I read some time ago, was that if we did not change our ways by the year 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in our seas. It is good to see the action that is being taken, both by Governments and by other organisations, such as the million mile beach clean that recently took place, through which thousands of tonnes of waste were removed from our beaches. However, we cannot go on relying on beach cleans for ever. We have to address the source, and stop putting as much plastic waste into the seas. That is where a deposit return scheme will play an important part in increasing recycling rates. I am delighted that the Government are committed to that, though we are all a bit disappointed that it is going to take a year longer than we hoped. Let us take that year and ensure that we get a world-beating deposit return scheme; that it is the best we can do to increase recycling rates and reduce the amount of plastic thrown away to end up in our oceans.
The other issue I want to touch on is that of sewage discharged into our seas. It is the reason Surfers Against Sewage began their campaign 30 years ago. We have made great progress, but we still need to go much further. Raw sewage is still far too often discharged into our waterways, ending up in the sea, or is discharged directly into our seas.
I welcome the Government’s agreement to adopt new measures in the Environment Bill that will better enable us to hold water companies to account, but we need to ensure that the legislation has real teeth to hold them to account and take the necessary action to stop discharging raw sewage into our seas. I plead with the Minister to ensure that the Environment Bill enables us to do that in an effective way. I am delighted to have made this short contribution to today’s debate. Let us all continue to work together and provide global leadership, particularly in this year when the G7 summit and COP26 are being held in the UK, to ensure that we work together around the world to nurture and protect our oceans.
We have had a couple of late withdrawals so colleagues can now take up to six minutes.
I am very pleased to participate in this debate. I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for her excellent exposition of the challenges before us. World Oceans Day supports the implementation of worldwide sustainable goals and fosters public interest in the protection of the ocean and the sustainable management of its resources.
The Scottish Government are committed to conserving our marine environments and protecting natural biodiversity. Evidence of that is that the first no-take zone—the first marine protected area—in the United Kingdom was established in Scotland, in Lamlash bay on the beautiful Isle of Arran, in my constituency. It was established in 2008, one short year after the Scottish Government first took office, after previous successive Governments had failed to offer the necessary support for that to happen.
Thanks to work of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust—or COAST, as it is known—supported by local MSP Kenneth Gibson, no shellfish or fish can be taken from Lamlash bay’s waters or seabed, including the shore area. The University of York found last year that, far from being a paper park, the action of creating this marine protected area had transformed the ecosystem. This no-take zone has been lauded as a great success. What has happened in Lamlash should serve as a template for other marine protected areas.
There is no doubt that human activity has had a significant impact on our seas and oceans. I refer hon. Members to the rapid decline in shark populations on a global scale, because humans have replaced them as the oceans’ top predators. There was an interesting debate here on that issue yesterday. The shark population is being severely impacted by the horrific practice of shark finning, the process of slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the still-living animal into the ocean. Unable to swim, it sinks to the bottom and dies a slow and painful death. So much for shark fin soup and other shark fin products. Sharks are essential to healthy oceans for a number of reasons, which I do not have time to go into.
The ocean is home to most of the earth’s biodiversity, but human activity is threatening its ecosystem. We all know of the great damage being caused in the seas by sea blasts, a dreadful legacy of war. The way we dispose of munitions is hugely detrimental to our seas and the sea creatures that live in them. It does not have to be that way. We know that low order deflagration is an effective and much less environmentally damaging alternative.
On World Oceans Day, let us all give more thought to the good we can do as a species by reducing our extractive and destructive activity in the seas and oceans, and how we can perhaps repair some of the damage we have done by letting the ecosystems of our oceans recover, repair and regenerate, free from our interference or with much less interference from us. The oceans and seas, like the world, do not belong to us. We have inherited them, just as future generations will go on to do. Sometimes, I think we can forget that.
COP26 provides us with an opportunity for fresh impetus on that and so many other environmental issues globally. We need to ensure that we are sharing expertise to promote and protect natural habitats, clean up our oceans and work with international partners for better commitments to climate action to make sure our oceans and seas are sustainably managed and biodiversity is conserved. Let us try and leave our seas and the natural world in better shape for future generations. What has happened in Lamlash bay is a tiny snapshot of what we can do as a species if we have the political will. That, surely, is our duty.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing the debate as we celebrate World Oceans Day. The topic is extremely important to my constituents in Truro and Falmouth, as well as to wider Cornwall. It is also one of the reasons I came into politics. My constituency has a north and a south coast. We have the gentle, rolling and calm inlets of the south coast, including the port of Falmouth, Portloe and Portscatho, and the dramatic wind-whipped surf beaches of the north coast, including St Agnes, Perranporth and Holywell Bay. St Agnes is home to Surfers Against Sewage, and I want to thank them for their tireless campaigning.
If you speak to anyone who swam or surfed in the sea in the 1980s and early 1990s, we all have stories of looking down and seeing—how shall I describe it?—objects and matter that had gone straight down the loo and into the sea. Things are generally better nowadays, thank goodness. According to the Marine Conservation Society, 77% of people who visited the sea in the last 12 months said they felt happier and 81% of people who visited the sea in the last 12 months said they felt healthier.
Healthy oceans are vital to life and to the livelihoods of our planet. Ocean protection and the conservation of marine biodiversity are essential for building resilience and adapting to the impact of climate change, as well as supporting its mitigation. Falmouth Harbour Commissioners are actively regenerating the seagrass beds off Flushing, and I went to visit them recently. They are also developing an advanced mooring system to ensure yachts and boats continue to moor there, but that the lines and anchor chains no longer decimate the seagrass beds.
Marine protected areas need to be effectively managed and well resourced, and regulations need to be put in place to reduce overfishing, marine pollution and ocean acidification. Effective management of the oceans, both locally and globally, is fundamental to the future of Cornwall’s fragile but sustainable inshore fishing industry, and I want to echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) about the need to simplify and overhaul our current complicated management system.
I am extremely pleased that the UK has led the way in efforts to secure an international agreement to protect at least 30% of global oceans by 2030. I also welcome the fact that the Government are playing a leading role in negotiations for a new agreement on conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction through the BBNJ agreement. Further commitments are also welcome, including the new £500 million blue planet fund to support developing countries to protect the marine environment and reduce poverty as part of the UK’s commitment to spend at least £3 billion on international climate finance and to protect and restore biodiversity over the next five years. There will always be more that we can do, but we should not underestimate the achievements so far.
Turning to the wider point of water quality, we know that it is essential for life on planet Earth. The pollution of our rivers and oceans has had a huge detrimental effect on us and our wildlife. Thankfully, because of the extensive lobbying by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the Government have committed to publishing a plan by 2022 to reduce sewage discharges, to report to Parliament on progress and to place a legal duty on water companies to publish data on storm overflow operations on an annual basis. The legislation will also require the Government to set legally binding targets for water quality.
The earth is warming at a very worrying rate. Increasing ocean temperatures affect all marine life, causing coral bleaching and the loss of breeding grounds for fish and mammals. They affect the things that we rely on from the ocean, threatening our fish stocks, as I mentioned earlier, causing more extreme weather and accelerating coastal erosion.
I am delighted that the Government are accepting the recommendations of the Benyon review and intend to designate highly protected marine areas as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will assure us that, as we host the G7 in Cornwall this week and COP26 in Glasgow later this year, there is a real push for ambitious and accelerated action to improve the quality and biodiversity of our oceans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I must apologise to you and to the Minister that I will miss the end of the debate because I have a Committee clash.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing a debate on our oceans. We are an island nation; the seas surrounding us have shaped our history and helped to make us who we are, so it is appropriate that we gather here today on World Oceans Day. Our mariners sailed the wide oceans for centuries, bringing back wealth and knowledge and building an empire that once covered a quarter of the surface of the planet. The islands and territories that remain of that once powerful empire mean we have a responsibility for a massive ocean estate, much of it far from our own shores.
Of all nations, we island dwellers have a responsibility to safeguard the marine environment. Our hearts should bleed at the thought of dolphins drowning after becoming entangled in discarded packaging, turtles choking on plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish, or birds trying to feed plastic to their hungry chicks. The facts are disputed, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that around 12 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans each year. We have a moral duty in this House to take action.
This Conservative Government are doing more than any Government ever before to address the pollution tragedy. We were one of the first countries in the world to introduce a wide-ranging ban on microbeads in personal care products. Our bag charges have caused the use of plastic bags to plummet. Our deposit return scheme should mean that millions of bottles are returned for recycling, not casually cast away. Our plan for extended producer responsibility will mean that companies that benefit from plastic packaging should pay the cost of its disposal. If correctly constructed, that should provide a strong incentive to cut down on unnecessary use of plastic, ensure more packaging is reusable or recyclable and create a new income stream to help clean up our streets and oceans. Our manifesto commitment to bring an end to waste exports outside the OECD will mean taking greater responsibility for our own waste, dealing with it back here at home.
There is so much more to do, so I appeal to the Minister to try to make progress as soon as possible on the deposit return and the EPR schemes. It is three years since they were first announced, and we need to get them into operation. We have led the debate at a global level on marine conservation, as other hon. Members pointed out, through initiatives such as the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance. Now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use our presidencies of the G7 and COP26 to push for urgent global action to protect the rich biodiversity of our seas. The COP21 conference in China on biodiversity must also have a strong emphasis on ocean recovery. Future generations will judge us on whether we succeed or fail in meeting the great environmental challenge that we are considering. We must strive to pass the test.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship Mr Hosie. It is a pleasure to speak in this important Westminster Hall debate on World Oceans Day. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. As we are an island constituency, we on Ynys Môn understand more than most the importance of our healthy oceans. Healthy sea waters are critical to fishing and agriculture businesses such as Holyhead Shellfish, and vital to our tourist trade, with operators such as Seacoast Safaris taking visitors to see the dolphin, porpoise and seal populations that flourish locally. Our island waters are clean enough to support breeding seahorses at Anglesey sea zoo.
When we are considering how our oceans can help us achieve our net zero targets, there is a focus on renewable marine energy production, such as that being developed by businesses like Minesto and Morlais based on Anglesey, but in this year of COP26, we should also be focusing on the contribution that blue carbon can make to achieving those targets.
Blue carbon is the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by our ocean ecosystems. Anglesey is rich in a range of marine environments, including salt marshes, sand dunes, mudflats and areas of seagrass. All are significant sequesters of carbon. Large stretches of coastline in areas such as Cymyran, Newborough and Aberffraw are prime examples of these diverse landscapes. We host two marine protected areas in the Menai strait and the Anglesey coast salt marsh. Groups such as the Friends of the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path actively clean, monitor and protect our coastline and it is extensively used by the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University for study and research. Using their knowledge and experience, we can preserve and rebuild these critical resources so that they can contribute to our 2050 targets.
At least 113 million tonnes of carbon are already stored in the top 10 cm of the Welsh marine environment, which equates to almost 10 years’ worth of Welsh carbon emissions. It represents more than 170% of the carbon held in Welsh forests. It is even estimated that the amount of carbon sequestered by the Welsh marine environment every year is equivalent to the average annual fuel consumption of 64,000 cars. That carbon is held in a number of different ways, but it has been shown that salt marshes have the highest carbon burial rate per unit area compared with other blue carbon habitats. Studies also show that intertidal mudflats and seagrass foliage account for much higher rates of carbon sequestering than previously thought. For example, seagrass covers only 0.1% to 0.2% of the global ocean floor, but is responsible for between 10% and 18% of the total carbon storage in the ocean.
However, the Blue Carbon Initiative, which includes representation from Bangor University, estimates that, worldwide, between 340,000 and 980,000 hectares of coastal blue carbon ecosystems are being destroyed annually. It is vital that that trend is reversed. Natural Resources Wales has recently carried out extensive restoration of sand dunes in Newborough and it actively monitors areas such as the Cefni salt marshes. Such projects, which restore intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats and protect the features that allow them to flourish, would yield the greatest per unit area benefit in terms of increased carbon sequestration.
I urge the UK and Welsh Governments to take account of the contribution that can be made by our marine environment towards neutralising our carbon emissions, and encourage them to invest in extending, enhancing and improving these critical but fragile environments.
I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for setting the scene so well, and for requesting the debate, the granting of which gives us all the opportunity to contribute. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie)—I am not sure of my pronunciation, but that is how we say it in my neck of the woods. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady; I would probably book a holiday in her constituency, as every time I hear her talk of it, it sounds such a wonderful place.
As a keen conservationist and a lover of nature, I am happy to celebrate this day with other UN nations and members. I have lived all but four years of my life close to the water. My parents came from the west of the Province; my father was from Donegal and my mother was from Strabane, in County Tyrone. We moved east to a village called Ballywalter, in the very east of Northern Ireland. So all my life—bar four years—has been spent living alongside the beach and the sea. My mum and dad always had a fascination and love for the sea, which is why they went there. That was where they were able to relax and it is where we played and had fun as children, many years ago. That was not yesterday, by any means; it is a long time ago. However, that was our introduction to the beach and the sea.
I therefore know and care about the imperative nature of the ocean; it is imperative even to those of us who are probably really landlubbers but live close by the sea. I live between Greyabbey and Kircubbin on the Ards peninsula; the sea is as close to me as Westminster bridge out there is to Parliament. The Irish sea, on the other side of the peninsula, is only five minutes away. I believe that I have a wonderful appreciation and understanding of the part played in our daily lives by the raging seas. I see them as being fascinating and reassuring, and—believe it or not—I also find them quite calming.
I was not surprised to learn that the ocean produces at least 50% of the planet’s oxygen. It is home to most of Earth’s biodiversity, and seafood is the main source of protein for more than a billion people around the world. Nor did it come as a shock to me to read in the wonderful briefing paper produced by the Library—it does some incredible research for us—that it is estimated that by 2030, there will be 40 million people employed in ocean-based industries.
Nevertheless, I believe that we are yet to understand the depth of the majesty of the ocean and the potential that lies within that depth. The writer of Psalm 104 put it beautifully:
“O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.”
How well that is put in the Bible, in Psalm 104.
The potential of the ocean is both untapped and unfathomable. However, what is clear is that we must make a better job of harnessing the seas and, first, of protecting them. I have seen images of the destruction of our seas by our carelessness, which have caused me great distress and have distressed other Members too. As other Members have said, it is past time that we channelled our inventiveness and energy into seeking to repair that which we have so thoughtlessly damaged in the past. I say “we” because it is the people of this Earth who have done it.
I was delighted when my own local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, invested in the first sea bin in Northern Ireland, as an innovative way of hoovering the surrounding seas for our rubbish. A sea bin is a floating rubbish bin made of natural fibre that moves up and down with the tide, collecting floating rubbish. Water is sucked in from the surface and passes through a catch-bag outside the sea bin, with a submersible water pump. Water is then pumped back into the sea, leaving litter and debris trapped in a special catch-bag, so that it can be disposed of property, as it should be.
Sea bins can collect up to half a tonne of debris each year and have the potential to collect a percentage of the oils and other pollutants floating on the water surface. A sea bin is a small but an effective thing, and it shows that if there is a mind to do something, we can do it. My council has purchased three sea bins, but how sobering it is to think of the vast number of sea bins that would be needed to put even a small dent into the waste that lines our oceans. Nevertheless, if we all play a small part, then collectively all our small parts become a great part and we can make a difference.
It is for this reason that I absolutely support the Government commitment to establish a new £500 million blue planet fund, using overseas development assistance to support developing countries, protect the marine environment and reduce poverty. It will also contribute to the UK’s commitment to spend at least £3 billion of international climate finance to protect and restore nature and biodiversity over the next five years. Unfortunately, that is a drop in the ocean—to use a pun—compared with what needs to be done, but it is a start.
I am always reminded of the story of the starfish. I will conclude by telling it:
“One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’
The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’
‘Son,’ the man said, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.
Then, smiling at the man, he said… ‘I made a difference for that one.’”
That is what we can all do—each one of us can make a difference individually, and by working collectively, in our own way. If we all took that attitude and did what we could, this debate would be a very different one in 10 years’ time. Then we could all be very thankful, because we are doing this not for ourselves but for our children, our grandchildren and for the world as a whole. We can note the difference that is made, if each of us would reach down and give it our best throw.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate.
I will touch briefly on some of the excellent contributions so far in the debate, starting with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who made a characteristically thoughtful contribution. An interesting point for me was her comment that the UK should be leading the way on the issue, given its history and its maritime experiences over the years. She highlighted the danger of marine protected areas being only paper parks. That is a concern I share. She also noted the stripping out of marine protections from legislation by the UK Government, and she expressed a certain amount of cynicism about what that all means in practice. I am afraid that I share that cynicism. She said that this is a pivotal year for ocean protection, but ended by pointing out that the capacity for oceans to heal themselves is known, and will hopefully be sought and achieved.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke of our oceans as increasingly crowded places, with many often competing activities. He made an excellent point about the importance of involving and consulting fisherfolk in decisions about marine planning. I absolutely agree with that.
The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) mentioned the power of the documentary series “Blue Planet” and the effect it has had of raising consciousness about the importance of the protection of our blue environment.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned that the first marine protected area to be established in the UK was in Scotland, in her constituency of course, and she highlighted the dreadful plight of sharks mutilated for food, and in particular the plight of cetaceans affected by sea blasts.
I read many years ago, as a child, a kind of science fiction book about a time traveller who came back from the future to warn our world about the polluting materials we were dumping in our seas, which were poisoning all forms of sea life in his time. It was a long time ago, and I was only nine or 10 years old, but it had a really powerful effect on me. I look back on it, and it started a life-long awareness of what the long-term impact could be of the decisions we take now on the environment of the future. I recall that there was a happy ending to the story, in which an intrepid youngster took on the authorities—along with the time traveller—and saved the day. Unfortunately, that is only the stuff of storytelling. We will get no such second chance, unless time transportation novels like that reveal themselves one day to be predictions and not simply fantasy.
This is the predicament we face on World Oceans Day: a legacy of centuries of abuse of our precious blue environment. I welcome the opportunity to raise awareness of it. For too long, we have treated our oceans with an almost casual disregard, too often thinking, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I have done quite a bit of research into the subject, and have looked into the impact of millions of tons of munitions dumped into our seas since at least the end of world war one, with their long lists of dangerous gases, chemicals and radioactive materials. Too many parts of ours seas are off limits to fishers, following the haul-up from the sea floor of a lethal weapon. The offshore wind industry is now being presented with problems around the safe removal of those munitions, including—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend for North Ayshire and Arran—decommissioning blasts and their effects on cetaceans, as was highlighted by Joanna Lumley in the campaign on that issue. That is not to mention the Boris bridges to Northern Ireland across Beaufort’s Dyke, with its discarded cocktail of who knows what. Dumps like these are properly the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence, which deposited the vast bulk of them over the years, and I will certainly continue to press the issue until some resolution is found, hopefully well before it contaminates our oceans any further.
The issue is not, of course, just about what has been put into our oceans over the years; it is also about the impact of the great increase we have seen in recent years of activity on our waters, and what that is putting into our air. The disaster of Brexit will see increased UK reliance on foodstuffs shipped from many thousands of miles away, resulting in increased food miles and emissions. Perhaps the Brexiters thought the collapse of the fresh seafood produce market that exported daily to Europe would compensate for that in some way; perhaps they did not take any of it into consideration at all, which, frankly, seems more likely.
There are increasing concerns being raised by Governments and residents about the impact of shipping emissions on the populations of coastal areas, in ports such as the Port of Leith in my constituency. Shipping accounts for 3% of global emissions and emits around 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. I recognise that this is not a simple issue to resolve, but solve it we must.
I am pleased to see the UK Government finally following Scotland’s lead and the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations by incorporating its share of shipping emissions into its new carbon budget, but they need to go further and faster if the UK is to reach at least its net zero commitments by 2050. This year, as they host COP26, I hope the Government are looking to other countries as well as Scotland for inspiration for the sort of bold steps they could consider in the fight against global warming.
In California, decisions taken on the reduction of shipping pollution require ships to use low-sulphur fuels and to cease dumping acidic water and heavy metals into the sea. Last year, it also introduced rules that mean stringent emission standards for diesel trucks servicing dock areas, which will require more ships to plug into electric power when docked.
The EU is considering legislation that mandates the use of sustainable fuels on ships calling into European ports. I believe that this is the first transport mandate of its kind, as it targets users rather than fuel suppliers and manufacturers, therefore preventing ships from simply refuelling outside the EU’s boundaries.
The US is considering introducing a programme that will monitor, report and verify emissions for ships coming into US ports. China has established a domestic emission control area, with all ships docking at ports within the area switching to low-sulphur fuel. Some local governments there are offering shipowners incentives to retrofit ships with electric or liquefied natural gas propulsion, and they have invested in power infrastructure at seaports.
It seems to me that there is an unstoppable momentum building behind such proposals. The UK really should step up and show that it is at least giving serious consideration to bold steps, or it risks further compromising its international standing and reputation. There are reasons to be optimistic in some areas as technology improves—for instance, the testing of the world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry in Orkney. Such pioneering efforts show that successful alternatives to dirtier fuel are possible.
With regard to the enormous problem of ocean pollution already touched on by several Members, there is still much to be done. However, the Scottish Government have shown what can be achieved with the necessary political willpower and guts, by leading the way on a deposit return scheme that is soon to be implemented and on plastic issues such as microbeads and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Our national marine plan and the 36 new marine protected areas created, including the largest MPA in Europe, are further welcome developments.
However, there is much more to be done if we are to meet our ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reductions, which are some of the toughest in the world. I welcome the news that the Scottish Government will be appointing environmental champions—world experts to keep Scotland at the forefront of tackling the ecological emergency and ecological decline.
I am a big fan of nature-based solutions, and I am concerned that they are too often overlooked in favour of new technologies. These might appeal to the techie types among us, but they are currently so expensive, and so far off being able to play a significant role in carbon reduction at this stage of development, that their promise appears remote and almost impractical. Therefore, practical and relatively inexpensive solutions such as improving salt marshes, seagrass beds and mangrove areas could play an important role in carbon dioxide mitigation. The Marine Conservation Society suggests that these potentially amount to 5% of the emission savings needed globally, even before taking into account the carbon stored in marine life and the enormous stores of carbon contained in seabed sediments.
Unless we see genuinely co-operative efforts from Governments across the world to address and solve the problems we face, those who come after us will curse us for timorously tinkering around the edges and leaving them with a toxic legacy. Scotland is ambitious for its seas, its coast and its communities, and it recognises the vital importance of reaching out to and working with other countries.
Climate change is a global issue, and we all have to work together on it. Where Scotland misses out most is by not having its own voice in the discussions about what needs to be done; we do not have the same opportunities to try to persuade the international community of the need for proper action. A case in point is COP26 in November: although it is on our turf, we cannot take part in it properly; we cannot engage in the diplomatic efforts which really make these conferences tick.
We urgently need action now. We cannot wait for a time traveller to come back in time to rub our noses in the disastrous long-term effects of decisions caused by our ignorance and negligence. We want a Glasgow agreement at COP26 in which all countries commit to taking the action needed to tackle the climate emergency. I urge the UK Government to take their responsibilities seriously and work with others, including the Scottish Government, to achieve that.
It is really good to see World Oceans Day being celebrated in this way, to reflect on the impact of humankind on our oceans, and to recognise that the time to take action is now. There is no time to waste.
In is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate on World Oceans Day. As she, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) highlighted, the world’s oceans cover 70% of the planet and could be one of the most effective carbon sinks if they are looked after properly. Oceans not only host an abundance of biodiversity, known and unknown, but they absorb 25% of all CO2 emissions—50% more than the atmosphere—and store more carbon than all the rainforests combined. Closer to our shores, coastal waters in the UK store an estimated 205 million tonnes of carbon, as several hon. Members highlighted.
Protecting our oceans is fundamental to our fight against the climate emergency. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) about the action by local volunteers to keep beaches clean, and from the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) about the greater efforts needed to tackle plastic waste to protect marine mammals, birds and fish. The hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about our fantastic coastal communities and the horrific threat of damage from sewage and waste. Will the Minister set out what actions and plans there are to address and end the pollution of our seas by plastic and sewage waste?
Protecting our oceans is fundamental to our fight against climate change, and it is really important to look at this globally. Salt marshes and seagrasses are a huge carbon store, holding almost 450 million tonnes of CO2 per year—half the emissions of the entire global transport system. Experts believe that rewilding key marine ecosystems is absolutely necessary and that around the world they could lock away 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon each year—5% of the savings needed globally to avert climate catastrophe. However, in the UK we have lost 90% of our seagrass meadows to pollution, dredging, bottom trawling and coastal development. If we continue business as usual, our sea shelf sediments could release 13 million tonnes of stored carbon over the next decade.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East about current protections being paper parks—a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. We should be protecting and restoring seagrass, salt marshes, oyster reefs and kelp forests at the same urgency with which we are calling for the protection of rainforests and our own woodlands and peatlands. Ministers recently—perhaps belatedly—published their trees and peatlands strategies, but we have heard little about specifically restoring our marine environments, despite campaigners at the Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain calling for the Government to kick-start a programme of ocean rewilding. So far, their calls seem to have been ignored.
We urgently need an ocean rewilding strategy that, unlike the recent peatlands and trees strategies, is ambitious and detailed enough to meet the scale of the crisis we are facing. When will we see a plan for the restoration of our marine environments? That must also include a sustainable plan for fishing. Evidence shows that over-fishing and practices such as bottom trawling can have disastrous effects on ocean habitats. It is good that the Government have signed up to the UN pledge to protect 30% of our waters, but full protection means implementing no-take zones, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned. If the Government are serious about this pledge, for the sake of our own coastal communities and fishing industry they should outline where these no-fish zones will be, explain the plan, and set out what consultation there has been with the fishing and maritime communities up and down the country and the fishing industry.
I would be interested to know what lessons the Minister has learned from the designation of Plymouth Sound as a national marine park—a designation that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) campaigned hard for. We need to learn from the experience of Plymouth, where the UK’s first national marine park has just been established, so that we can further protect our oceans. This sort of designation builds on the success of the post-war Labour Government’s creation of national parks, and sends a clear message that these waters are important, valued and should be protected for future generations and for our own.
Finally, the Government have made it clear that they intend to amend the Environment Bill to set out targets on species abundance, which will be announced after COP15. I am afraid the pun is too hard to resist: this sounds a little like a cop out. The UK Government should not just reflect the consensus, they should lead the charge against the nature and biodiversity crisis. I am keen to hear the Minister set out what proposals they intend to take to COP15 to protect marine habitats and biodiversity. The Government Front-Bench team has given us a lot of exaggerated rhetoric about the nature and environmental credentials that they hold, but so far the rhetoric has not yet met the reality. Without a clear strategy and with matching clear targets going into the UN conference on biodiversity, I am concerned that we will see more of the same and the UK falling behind on the protections that we need.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, especially on this auspicious World Oceans Day. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this debate on this day. She expresses so much passion for the sea and the ocean, which is quite understandable given her constituency, which I have had the pleasure of visiting. She is a great champion for the seas, but she is not alone in caring for them. An ocean literacy survey released today highlighted that 85% of people said that marine protection was personally important to them. Even in this Room, no matter what party Members represent, there is so much synergy in what we are talking about today and in our endeavour to do something about ocean recovery. So I thank my hon. Friend again, and welcome the new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake); it is good to hear her speak on this subject.
As many others have done, I will highlight that our ocean plays a vital role in contributing to biodiversity. It provides 80% of life on Earth and regulates the planet’s climate. It absorbs over 90% of all excess heat in the Earth’s system. We rely on the oceans for our survival, livelihoods and wellbeing. Despite all these things, the ocean is under huge threat from multiple natural and anthropogenic pressures, including climate change, over-fishing and pollution of many types, but plastics in particular. This needs to change.
This is the pivotal year that could really help us to trigger the change needed to raise ambition on the ocean and stimulate the recovery we need. It marks an unprecedented alignment of domestic and international marine agendas, which is why we are calling 2021 a marine super-year. Through our COP26 and G7 presidencies, the UK can influence to build momentum and advocate for greater ocean action, championing global collaboration and towards ocean health and resilience. I know that is something that all hon. Members support, as indicated through the all-party parliamentary group on ocean conservation, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double).
Our G7 presidency is already significantly raising the profile of our ambitions and actions concerning the ocean. The G7 Climate and Environment Ministers’ meeting in May delivered a strong suite of ocean commitments, including the G7 ocean decade navigation plan. That plan established a framework for the G7 to collaborate and advance our collective work on transformational ocean science for ocean action, through- out the UN decade of ocean science for sustainable development.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon spoke about the 30by30 target, as did many other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who is a great champion for the ocean—I can see her surf board behind her. The 30by30 initiative is championed by the UK through the Global Ocean Alliance and the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, of which the UK is ocean co-chair. I am delighted that between those two alliances 80 countries now support the 30by30 target. That is a vital and positive step towards our collective endeavour to deliver ocean recovery.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon highlighted marine litter, which I know she does a lot about locally, and plastic pollution. Rightly, that is a key priority of the super-year agenda. I echo concerns about the ship off the coast of Sri Lanka. We are holding discussions with the Sri Lankan Government on minimising environmental damage following the fire on the X-Press Pearl, and we stand ready to support them at this challenging time.
Scientists predict a threefold increase in the amount of plastics in the ocean between 2015 and 2025 alone, which is alarming. The issue crosses country boundaries and requires international action. Last November, Lord Goldsmith expressed UK support for starting negotiations on a new global agreement to tackle marine plastic litter and microplastics. The agreement will build on the important work we are already doing to tackle marine litter domestically and internationally. For example, together with Vanuatu, the UK leads the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans in support of meeting sustainable development goal 14, “life below water.”
In parallel, we are taking steps here in the UK and focusing our efforts on attacking plastic pollution at its source. The 25-year environment plan sets out how we will improve the environment over a generation and includes a commitment to eliminate “all avoidable plastic waste.” It includes developing extended producer responsibility, consistent collection and deposit-return schemes, which we are consulting on now. That was referred to by a number of hon. Members, including eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, who talked particularly about the deposit-return scheme, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who urged speed on these initiatives. To clarify, the extended producer scheme for plastic packaging is due to come into force in 2023-24 and the deposit-return scheme in 2024, so we are moving on this.
In addition, we are consulting on an EPR scheme for fishing gear by the end of 2022. Abandoned and discarded fishing gear is having a devastating effect on the marine environment. It is classed as marine litter and has been highlighted as having the most dramatic and terrible effect. It is pleasing that we are consulting on that. We are taking a whole-lifecycle approach to the way we are dealing with plastic.
My hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay and for Truro and Falmouth touched on the issue of sewage. I think they will agree that big progress is being made, thanks to great work by many organisations, particularly Surfers Against Sewage. I hope they are supportive of the fact that through the Environment Bill we are now bringing in measures to make it a statutory requirement to produce a plan on storm overflows. Also, water companies will now report data all year round on the state of the water on the coast. The storm overflows taskforce is working at pace on tackling the sewage issue as well. We are moving as fast as we can on that.
Alongside the crucial steps to tackle marine plastic litter, we are undertaking a wealth of actions to protect our marine wildlife and nature and to support a sustainable and thriving fishing industry, referred to by many hon. Members. We have a big opportunity now that we are an independent coastal state. The UK marine strategy provides the framework for us to achieve good environmental status in our UK seas. We have published an updated part 2 of the strategy, and will consult on updating part 3 in the summer. The strategy, together with the climate change objectives of the Fisheries Act 2020 and the marine policy statement, will form the major pillars of our protection of the marine environment.
The UK is a global leader in marine protection across the entire UK marine estate, including UK waters and our overseas territories. At least 60% has been designated marine protection areas. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who painted a charming picture of his childhood by the sea, mentioned “Blue Planet”. The blue planet fund has been critical in our endeavours and has exceeded its target of protecting and enhancing over 4 million square kilometres of marine environments around five UK overseas territories. That is largely thanks to Tristan da Cunha’s designation as a new protection zone in November 2020.
We have an extensive network of 372 marine protected areas, which protect 38% of UK waters, including the majority of the salt marsh and seagrass habitats referred to by many hon. Members. We are now focusing on making sure those areas are properly protected. That is crucial. Of the MPAs, 98 have management measures in place to protect sensitive features from bottom trawling—using bottom-towed fishing gear—which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon and the hon. Member for Bristol East.
We have been able to put those measures in place through concerted endeavours with the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority and the Marine Management Organisation. While we were in the EU, bringing forward management measures for our offshore MPAs proved very difficult. Our leaving the common fisheries policy and the introduction of the Fisheries Act 2020 changed all that. Within days of the Act being passed, powers become available. The MMO launched a consultation on draft byelaws for the four highest priority sites: the Canyons, Dogger Bank, Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge, and South Dorset. We can use the new measures to really protect the seas in a much more meaningful way than was ever possible before. The MMO is reviewing a response to that consultation. We have an ambitious three-year programme for assessing sites and implementing byelaws to manage fishing activity in all the offshore MPAs by 2024. I hope the shadow Minister sees that we are acting on the whole area of marine recovery, especially around our own shores.
I am delighted to announce that the Government response to Lord Benyon’s review into highly protected marine areas is published today. The Government welcome the report and accept the central recommendation that we take forward some pilot sites in English waters. We will identify the locations, and the first will be designated by the end of 2022. I hope that reassures the hon. Member for Bristol East, who asked about that. By setting aside some areas of sea with high levels of protection, MPAs will allow nature to recover to a much more natural state, allowing the ecosystem to thrive in the absence of damaging activities. It will be about a balance—supporting sustainable industries in the marine environment while increasing marine protection.
I was very interested to hear about the no-take area around the Isle of Arran mentioned by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I have to take slight issue, though, in that the very first no take zone designated was actually Lundy, an island not far off the Bristol coast. When I was an environment correspondent for ITV and HTV, a couple of my greatest memories were of going to Lundy to report on the nature and the wildlife there, but also on the terrible disaster—hon. Members might remember it—when the Sea Empress crashed off the coast of Wales and the oil went towards Lundy, which is a world heritage island. However, it is great that we have these areas, and that they serve as models.
There was a reference to the potential value of highly protected marine areas for blue carbon, and a really strong message was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). She paints such a great picture of her constituency, and I would love to come and see those seahorses breeding—how absolutely wonderful. Yes, there is potential in all of those things, and they are all areas that are coming under our microscope.
A number of hon. Friends and other hon. Members mentioned marine planning, and we heard very clear, eloquent points about its complexities from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). This year, we will publish the final four marine plans, building on those already in place in the south and east of England, Scotland and Wales. That will mean that, for the first time, we will have a complete set of plans covering English waters, and those marine plans will provide a transparent framework that will enable us to manage competing demands in an evidence-based way. As was highlighted by a number of colleagues, evidence and science are crucial, and we have to use them in a way that protects the marine environment while supporting sustainable development, such as offshore wind.
I must point out for clarity that the definition of “natural environment” in the Environment Bill does include the marine environment, so everything in there also relates to this area. I also wanted to assure the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, that we will be setting the species abundance targets by 2022, in line with the dates set for all of the other targets that we have a legal duty to set.
Penultimately, I am going to touch on sustainable fishing, because that issue is so important. As has been said, fishing is part and parcel of our lives around this coast. The Fisheries Act sets out a legally binding framework to protect and recover stocks, support a thriving, sustainable fishing industry, and safeguard the marine environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, it is so important to engage the fishing industry about this new world for ocean recovery. As set out in the recently published action plan for animal welfare, we will also bring in legislation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins. The UK is also already using its status as a newly independent member of several regional fisheries management organisations to press for sustainable management of international fisheries. That includes supporting robust action to protect vulnerable marine species such as the northern Atlantic shortfin mako shark through the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and yellowfin tuna through the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. I think I have demonstrated that we are seizing all opportunities to get involved in this space, both domestically and internationally.
I have a second to touch on the subject of deep-sea mining, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East. We have agreed not to sponsor or support the issuing of any exploitation licences for deep-sea mining projects until there is sufficient scientific evidence regarding the impacts on ecosystems and until strong, enforceable standards are developed by the International Seabed Authority. I think that gives reassurance on the important points she raised.
To conclude, we have heard some tremendous speeches, showing that we have so much in common on this issue. Our attention is rightly focused on ocean recovery on World Oceans Day. We have the power to do something about our oceans, as David Attenborough has been quoted as saying. I hope I have demonstrated that the Government are using their powers. I also hope I have given assurances, especially to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who was somewhat negative on that point. I have laid out a raft of measures to show that we are taking urgent action. Everyone will agree that this is a crucial time to act—in this, the super-year for the ocean.
I am glad to see that there is such wide support for protecting and restoring our oceans on this World Oceans Day, in what I hope will be a marine super-year. Colleagues are right that we can do more to reach 30by30, to recognise the contribution that blue carbon can make to achieving net zero, and to highlight the importance of our oceans to lives and livelihoods.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Oceans Day 2021.
Social Distancing Restrictions: Support for the Night-Time Economy
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
I remind Members that we have made some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall, except when you are speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social distancing restrictions and support for the night-time economy.
I asked for today’s debate because I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the night time economy. As the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, I also represent a large and diverse number of venues, bars and clubs. Not only am I the MP but, like many Members, I am a patron of many of the venues in my constituency, such as Revenge and Legends, and I miss my nights out with my friends as much as I know the venues miss having us. When I talk to bar and club owners, they tell me the same thing: the uncertainty is killing them.
On 16 December, when covid cases were spiralling out of control, the Prime Minister insisted it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas, and he gave every assurance that it would go ahead. Pubs and restaurants had their staff hired, and the stockrooms were full and ready for a shortened Christmas season. On 19 December, just three days later, and after saying it would be inhuman, the Prime Minister cancelled Christmas. I do not say that he made the wrong call in locking us down. History will show that he was right to do so or, if not, that he should have done it earlier.
I raise what happened in December because I worry that we are repeating ourselves. The Prime Minister bumbles away through his interviews, assuring the nation that everything will be just fine with the road map on 21 June. Meanwhile, we have Whitehall officials briefing today’s papers that the date will be pushed back. What is it? My fear is that the harsh reality will catch up with the Prime Minister yet again and he will have to acknowledge what we already know: the 21 June deadline might have to be pushed back a few weeks to get everyone vaccinated. Those who will suffer are the workers and businesses who have trusted in good faith that they should work towards that date, although—granted—no cast-iron guarantee has ever been given.
The Night Time Industries Association conducted a survey of its members. Nine in 10 businesses fear that a delay in the full reopening of nightlife would threaten their survival; 85% require at least two weeks’ notice to open up, and over a third said they need four; 95% have already made financial commitments; on the logistics of opening up on the 21st, 54% have already ordered stock—as a real ale man, I know that that stock goes off incredibly quickly, so it has to be used in time; 73% of businesses have called in staff; 60% have sold tickets; 64% have booked entertainment; and 80% have already spent finances on marketing and promotional materials.
Louise from the Camel Club, a family nightclub in Huddersfield, told our APPG that she does not know under what conditions the nightclub will be able to open. She does not even have a rough idea of the direction that it will be going in. For example, when it opens, is social distancing likely to be required? What other rough ideas will be given? This has made it extremely difficult to even prepare. She is plucking things out of thin air rather than at least following guidelines that could change. That makes things difficult operationally and financially, so what guidelines can be issued so that clubs can at least work towards a general direction? Will they be able to open on the 21st? If not, can there be reassurances that financial support will be offered?
The pandemic has presented a real jobs crisis too. According to Unite, 48% of hospitality workers say that they will look for work in a different sector post pandemic. The industry is heading towards a skills employment crisis. The problem is that the so-called barista’s visa—the roll-out of potentially low-paid, exploitative apprenticeships on a visa—is not the way forward. There have been 650,000 job losses across this sector alone.
This is not just a problem for those in hospitality. There is a knock-on effect—for example, in the security business. The UK Door Security Association warns that six out of 10 supervisor posts are now unfilled in nightclubs, music venues, pubs, bars and festivals. The posts being unfilled risks the venues being unopened. That was one of the reasons we had to cancel Pride in Brighton: we just could not secure the security staff, as well as not having the underwritten insurance, because the Government did not underwrite that either.
So many door staff have been forced to find other forms of income. They have opted to use their security licences in more stable environments, such as retail or covid testing centres. There is an increase in resource demand, as venues have to adhere to covid requirements. If they are able to go ahead, many festivals will now be squeezed into a tight summer season. We also see increased demand in certain pinch points.
The Government must work with the associations, and with organisations such as Unite and other unions, in their proposed hospitality commission, to establish a plan for the sector, to retrain workers who lose their jobs and to ensure that those people do not face long-term unemployment. In my view, the kickstart scheme is not fit for purpose on hospitality. It has offered only 60 of the 1,260 placements to hospitality workers. Hospitality training programmes should be focused on upskilling the industry and creating new, quality jobs with guaranteed hours.
Business owners in the night-time economy now have debts equal to three years of trading profit. That is £2.5 billion just in debts that they did not have before the pandemic and that they will have on opening day. They are also having to potentially invest in social distancing measures that they do not know will even be implemented. That is why the Government need to give more guidelines on what might happen.
The moratorium on forfeiture is to be lifted at the end of this month, and no solution has been offered to address the legacy of rental debt wrought by the pandemic. Some 75% of night-time businesses say they fear bankruptcy or insolvency when the moratorium ends, if there is no solution to commercial debts. Some 80% of commercial tenants in the sector still face unproductive discussions with landlords. The situation requires the Government not just to issue guidelines or suggestions to landlords, but to require landlords to get around the table and negotiate with businesses. The Government should come forward with a package to ensure that businesses take no more than a third of the burden—effectively, one year’s operating profits—and that the rest is shared with landlords, other suppliers and maybe even the Government in long-term solutions that would mean these businesses do not go bust, which many are doing.
Regardless of what decision is made next week on social distancing, this issue is not going to go away. We need to hear some concrete proposals from the Minister on what long-term help the Government plan to provide to solve the crisis. Will he commit to matching the Welsh and Scottish Governments in their commitment to 100% business relief for qualifying night-time economy businesses in the 2021-22 financial year? Will he commit to delaying the rise in VAT for cultural, ticketing and other night-time economy venues in the 2021-22 financial year? Will he pledge that the Government will follow the science, allowing events with the mitigations that have been shown to be effective in trials, such as testing, vaccines or other measures, and allowing venues to open in certain situations?
I end with the words from Matthew from Chalk, a nightclub next to my constituency—100 yards across the border. He said to the APPG that he has invested his life savings in the venue—his blood, sweat and tears. Nightclubs are responsible for life-forming experiences for young people—and those who are less young—and are an integral part of our society. They must be protected. They are an integral part of the economies of many cities and towns across our country, and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. I hope the Minister can give Matthew and many others some reassurances about going forward in the next few weeks, so that we can start to get our businesses opened and our economy supported.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing today’s important debate. I thank him for his work and all those colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for the night time economy, which is a hugely important sector, culturally, economically and for people’s wellbeing.
This area of the economy is being hard-pressed because it is not a binary situation like retail, which is either open or not—obviously there are measures within, but on the whole it is either open or not open. Clearly, restrictions are being put on the hospitality sector, the night-time economy and the wider hospitality sector, such as weddings, and that is happening at a cost, with extra staffing and reduced capacity for those venues. They have been incredibly hard-pressed.
The sector also creates millions of local jobs. Many sectors and industries within hospitality—events and entertainment, healthcare, security, cleaning, transport, logistics, retail, health and fitness centres—are all part of the hospitality ecosystem. The sector is also key in driving other vital sectors of the economy, including tourism, entertainment, the arts and cultural activities, such as theatres and comedy clubs. We recognise the huge disruptions that the covid-19 pandemic has caused to people’s lives. It has presented unprecedented challenges to those sectors.
The Prime Minister’s road map is an important step towards reopening the night-time economy, but we need to be driven by the data and proceed cautiously towards step four. That is why we have opened the economy in gradual steps, as it is vital that we do not jeopardise the success of the vaccination programme. I hope this debate will go some way to restoring public confidence and kick-starting recovery for the industry to make sure that people in the sector know that everybody in this place, from either side of the House, is fully committed to making sure that we can restore our night-time industry.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown talked about December and what happened at Christmas. For that reason we are going through the gears gradually, carefully and slowly. We have been at pains to talk about the fact that it is “data not dates”. Everyone will obviously put their hook on 21 June, but although—to provide enough certainty—we have said that that is what we are aiming for, we have been really careful to say that the decision needs to be based on data. Caseload, case rates, the effect of the vaccination on variants, the roll-out of the vaccination programme, and obviously hospitalisations and the pressure on the NHS, are among the things that we are testing and gathering evidence for. Every day that we continue with that process, we are getting richer data.
The promise has been clear that the decision will be made and announced on 14 June. I appreciate that, for some businesses—especially those producing real ale, as it takes a couple of weeks to brew and, as the hon. Gentleman says, it has a short shelf life—that will not be enough time. However, the key thing is that the full opening up would not be before 21 June. Media speculation does not help and I have been at pains, when speaking to newspapers and TV, to ask them not to speculate for speculation’s sake. That causes cancellations, especially for events that require planning, such as certain nightclubs, weddings or ticketed events. That speculation is harming business.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on bringing the matter forward. He is right; it is the uncertainty. We understand the issues to do with the timescale and then it falls back, but I want to make a plea, to back up the hon. Gentleman, for those workers. In my constituency, I know that some have had real uncertainty over the future of their jobs. First, they are on furlough. Then, they are off furlough. Then, something else happens and they find themselves off furlough and they cannot get back on again. Can the Minister say what consideration the Government have given for businesses that have furloughed some of their staff, have taken them off with an option of opening and then find themselves in the predicament where they wish they had not taken them off furlough to start with? Also, what discussion has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations?
That is an interesting point. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is a really important point. I will come back to staffing overall in a second. He is right. I have had some interesting discussions with the hospitality sector over the past week or two, since the last reopening, when they have been looking at staffing issues. A number of people have come up with different ways of covering the staff shortages they have outlined. First, it is difficult to get some people back from furlough, because they are happy and prefer to be on furlough. They may be cautious about coming back to the workplace and have not the confidence to do so.
There are clearly some people who have left the country, especially in London and the likes of Brighton, where we rely on a significant number of workers from Europe and around the world. There are rural and coastal areas where businesses struggle to find people in general. There are also people on furlough who may have been running two jobs and have made a choice. For whatever reason, possibly because of the speculation that I was discussing about the uncertainty of hospitality and the night-time economy reopening, they have chosen to go to their other job—the non-hospitality job. That clearly provides a challenge and is something that we have to work through and be alive to.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown talked specifically about security staff and the need to maintain safe venues. Clearly that is something that we are aware of and we are working through the Home Office to see what more we can do to support them.
I shall return briefly to the road map. The Prime Minister has the step-by-step plan to be led by the data as we ease restrictions. We have progressed through that road map, on the basis of the latest data, easing restrictions further when it has been safe to do so. We want to make sure that as the night-time economy and hospitality reopen, we remind people that the hospitality sector has done so much to put mitigations in place—the time, the money, the effort, the staff, the one-way systems, the screens and what-have-you. We want to reassure people that they are safe by following the guidance and putting those measures in place, but providing a really warm welcome as well. We want people to go out and enjoy themselves. We want to give them the confidence to come out on the first day and make sure that they have enjoyed a fun time and want to come back time and again. As we break the cycle of people being locked away at home, we do not want them to necessarily just sit there and contain themselves with their bottle of wine and ready meal in their garden, because there is so much that Brighton, London and Northern Ireland have to offer in the night-time economy.
Could the Minister address one request that I get a lot from the night-time economy, by giving some pre-guidelines of what the opening up might look like, even if that were to change? Looking at another sector, I went to visit my local caravan club site recently. They were given three days, from the announcement to open up the site, to implement the measures that the Government required. If they had been given just a week, they told me, even if it was to say, “This is what we are currently thinking; it might change, but this is where you can start planning,” it would have really helped.
Could we learn that lesson with the night-time economy and give them a heads-up? Could we say, “This is where the current thinking is. We don’t know the date when it will happen—it might be this week, next week or the week after—but this is roughly what it will look like when you are opening up”? Could we make it clear whether it will be a free-for-all when we do, or whether it will be a case of, “You can open up, but here are the requirements that you will have to meet”? That would make a big difference for a lot of these venues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and totally accept that. We are in a frustrating period; it is frustrating for all of us. None of us wants this to go on for a day longer than possible, but as he knows, a number of reviews are under way—the certification review, the social distancing review and the events pilot—all of which are due to be completed this week. They will not only inform the Prime Minister in making his decision ahead of 21 June, but inform us of what works, what might not work and so on for larger events and for social distancing.
In all this, we have worked with organisations such as UKHospitality, Hospitality Ulster, the British Beer and Pub Association and the Night Time Industries Association to try to get a view about what the effects of any residual social distancing and mitigations will be on their economy. We can therefore get the balance right in giving them a chance to make a profit. Let us bear in mind that every time we walk down a street at the moment and see a busy, bustling pub, it is still losing money; it is just minimising cash burn and minimising its losses. It is not making money. It has not got a chance of making money until it can open fully, because of the capacity issues. As I say, it might look busy, but it is still constrained.
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact answer that he wants and that the sector needs, but we are trying our best to ensure that we can work with the sector and have a dialogue rather than just say, “Okay, this is the kind of stuff we are going to do. What do you think about it?” At every stage it has been difficult to work through those dates as we have come through them, but I believe that we will get there.
I know that not every venue will open fully on 21 June, because that is what happened on the other two dates as well. That is the date, and different people will work through their venues to best suit their staff rotas, their suppliers and perhaps just ensure that they can give that safe and warm welcome. We want to ensure that the Government’s programme is one-directional; and clearly, businesses do not want to be stop-starting because of economic constraints of a more local making, shall we say.
There were a number of issues on financial support. Let me first cover the rents moratorium. Throughout the process we have had a number of cliff-edge scenarios that we have tried to avoid, whether the end of the business rates holiday or the VAT relief. Those are big-ticket items. If I remember rightly—I might get these the wrong way round—business rates was about £11 billion of taxpayers’ money and VAT was something like £27 billion. It was of that order. Those are big amounts of money, so we clearly need to work that through in a holistic fashion for the Chancellor, but we have always tried to flex to view the situation as is, rather than try to predict too far into the future. Clearly, I do not think any of us expected us to be in this situation in March or April last year, when the pandemic Budget was announced.
The moratorium is the one complicated issue. Business rates relief is the Chancellor saying, “Okay, fine, we can extend this. The Treasury will take the hit.” I understand that ultimately it is taxpayers’ money, but the Treasury will take that view and it is the Treasury’s decision. On rent moratoriums, there is clearly a commercial rent, and landlords are businesses as well. We sometimes look at rogue landlords, but there are many mom-and-pop owners who own a property or two. There are also pension funds that own property, and that has ramifications on pensioners and investors in those pensions. Obviously, some landlords also have shareholders.
We must therefore look carefully at getting the right balance, but we are working through that as quickly as possible because we know that the most immediate effect will be on tenants. It will be on those hospitality venues who, for the reasons we have said, cannot operate to capacity very quickly. We are hoping to come up with something that works for both tenants and landlords and furthers those discussions. We want to have constructive discussions, as the hon. Gentleman said, because it is in the landlords’ long-term interests to ensure that they can do so. Beyond that, we will make sure that we can get to more of a fundamental review of the landlord-tenant relationship, because the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about how we go beyond reopening.
I have been working with the hospitality sector on the strategy—what we do next. Bear in mind that our Department did not have a hospitality team before all this, but we now have a permanent hospitality team within the Department, and I now include Hospitality Recovery Minister in my vast array of titles and responsibilities. It is important that the hospitality industry has the seat at the table that it worked so hard for.
There are three Rs: reopening—we have to get back to full capacity to start making money again and start paying back the three years of debt that the hon. Gentleman talked about. Then, recovery—going through that process, starting to have more easements from local authorities to help support that. It is also about resilience, which brings us back to the long-term issue of staffing. What makes hospitality so flexible is that it has a low bar for entry. A student can go in and do a few shifts at a pub without any qualifications. But we want to make sure that people can see a career path in hospitality, so that although there is a degree of flexibility, that is not the same as instability. We want to give that stability through a greater skills offering for the hospitality sector. As we build back better and fairer for the workers in that sector, we will also build back greener, seeing what more we can do to further the Government priority of driving towards net zero, by means of practices in the hospitality sector. There is a lot to be working on.
We are gradually removing restrictions and reopening the economy via the road map. It is a frustrating time, waiting for Monday to see what the decision is, but we have to remain cautious and continue to follow advice on safe behaviours. It is key that we remind people that this is not like a thriller movie, when someone shoots the baddie at the end and the credits roll. We will be living with this for some time. In the meantime, hon. Members are sitting with their masks on because we need to remember social distancing, “hands, face, space and fresh air” and get the vaccine when it is offered.
We will continue to work closely with businesses, local authorities and other stakeholders to support those industries and ensure that the UK night-time economy can recover and return stronger. As we continue those reviews in tandem with the vaccine programme, we are hopeful that further venues will be able to reopen as we approach step four of the road map. That will be no earlier than 21 June, following a review of data. Protecting the health and safety of the British public is our top priority, but we will not keep the restrictions in place any longer than necessary. Until then, everyone must continue to play their part.
Question put and agreed to.
Community Renewal Fund and Levelling Up Fund in Wales
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes in practice 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 each debate. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive at the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and they 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 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 they use them and when they leave the room. Mr Speaker has stated that Members must wear masks in Westminster Hall unless they are speaking. I also remind Members that those who are sitting in the Public Gallery should move to the horseshoe just before they are called to speak. If Members sitting around the horseshoe could kindly facilitate that, that would be fine.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Community Renewal Fund and Levelling Up Fund in Wales.
I am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for helping to secure this important debate, and Mr Speaker for the opportunity to lead it. The debate gives the House the opportunity to address the broken promises made by Tory Ministers and the empty words of the Prime Minister, who has done nothing but let Wales down. Most important of all, it gives us all a chance to give voice to the thoughts, concerns, needs and wants of the people of Wales. I know my colleagues on this side of the House agree with me, and I suspect that many on the other side do, too, because funding for our communities is vital and much needed, but it is crucial that the funding is transparent, fair and balanced. Its distribution must not be another example of doing to people; we must focus on doing with people. As things stand, the levelling up fund and the community renewal fund fail on both those counts.
The levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund pit nations such as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland against the many regions up and down England. That simply is not good enough. Is it any surprise that the constituencies represented by Cabinet Ministers have received funds ahead of other parts of the United Kingdom? That is what happens when control is left in the hands of Ministers in Whitehall rather than in the hands of local communities up and down the country.
The so-called levelling-up fund will see decisions made in Whitehall rather than Wales, and will be driven by Departments with no history of delivering projects in and across Wales, no record of working with communities in Wales—north, south or mid—and no understanding of the priorities of those communities now or in future. That is why the First Minister of Wales, my right hon. friend Mark Drakeford MS, was correct to say that the Tory attempt to level up the economy in Wales is, simply put,
“a plan made for Wales – without Wales”.
That simply will not do.
I am a very proud member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, where we heard evidence on this subject just a few weeks ago. We heard from four council leaders across Wales, the Minister for Economy in the Welsh Government, the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and the director of policy, cities and local growth unit—quite a mouthful. Some key themes emerged from that important evidence session: there is not enough money in the pot to replace what Wales currently receives from the EU; there has been insufficient communication; the bidding criteria are not clear, and the mechanisms to decide on successful bids are submerged in confusion and chaos; the element of competitiveness is unwelcome, and Welsh areas are pitted against not just other Welsh areas but England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Those of us living and working in Wales prefer to work collaboratively to get the best for our communities, rather than compete aggressively to win small amounts of funding. Another key theme we found in our evidence session is that the timeline is too short; the deadline for bid submissions is impossibly short. Next week is the deadline for the very first round of bids; that means that councils have to submit shovel-ready projects rather than the most important and useful projects. That is not the best way of working.
When speaking to our Committee, Vaughan Gething made it abundantly clear that the Welsh Government had effectively been cut out of the bidding process completely, and that relationships with the Westminster Government were in a very cool phase at present. But the final part of our evidence session was perhaps the most concerning, as we heard two Government Ministers give different accounts of the bidding process and how the successful bids would be judged. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales was clear that he expected the Wales Office to be involved in the scrutiny of bids, but the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government was adamant that the Wales Office would not be involved, but that his Department would be setting up additional teams of people in Wales to get involved in the process. I am still not clear why this additional layer of bureaucracy is necessary.
The levelling-up fund money is not new money. If it was not being funnelled through this fund, it would have been allocated to Wales through the Senedd, the democratically elected Parliament of the people of Wales, and it would have been allocated in accordance with the priorities of the Senedd, decided by the people of Wales. However, rather than respecting democracy and looking to work with the Welsh Government, Tories in Westminster have decided to trample over our democracy and have by-passed the Senedd completely. That is probably why, at the most recent opportunity the people of Wales had to express their view, they re-elected their Welsh Labour Government for a record sixth term of uninterrupted government. This is true to form for the Tory Ministers on the other side of the House, because they ride roughshod over democracy by taking decisions on devolved matters in Wales and remove most means of being held accountable by creating a system in which the people of Wales will have no say. It is unacceptable.
It is clear to me, and I know to many on this side of the House, that the way this whole sorry affair has been handled shows that the Tories know they have lost the trust and support of the people of Wales. On taking office, the Prime Minister made himself the Minister for the Union. Far from unity, every decision he has made and every step he has taken has sown discord and disunity across our country. As each day passes, the situation and future of the Union grow ever graver. I say this with no relish, but with increasing fear and concern for our Union.
The strong ties of family, faith, support, solidarity and togetherness that bind this Union are continuing to fray because of the failure of Tory Ministers to recognise that unions are formed of voluntary, consenting parties that need and deserve respect. Importantly, as I have already indicated, this Union is made up of four equal and proud partners. Nobody disagrees with the creation of the means to support and empower our communities, by using these funds, but as is so often the case with this Government, it is how it is done—or not done.
These funds could have been a step towards greater, more equal co-operation between Whitehall and the devolved Governments in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, but it has not happened. That is why I call on the Minister today to give us a reasoned explanation of what is actually going to happen, because we need to know and we need to know now.
The Secretary of State for Wales is a decent man, but it is a matter of regret that his decency has not stopped him from going along with the Prime Minister’s dismissive approach to the Welsh Government, the Senedd, devolution and the devolution settlement. This sits at the door of the Prime Minister, and it is time that he steps up or stops letting Wales down.
If Back-Bench speakers could confine themselves to five minutes, we should get everyone in. The Opposition spokesperson can speak for 10 minutes, the Minister can speak for 10, and Ruth Jones will have time at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship for the first time and to follow my colleague on the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I start by saying clearly that I welcome these funds. I welcome these new pots of money that have been created to achieve, we hope, good and lasting things in Wales and in our constituencies. I welcome the design of the funds, the commitment on the part of the UK Government and the vision that lies behind the funds—what they actually speak to and represent. It is a vision of a fairer, more balanced economy right across the whole United Kingdom.
The theme of an unbalanced, lopsided economy is one that we have talked about a lot over the years as Welsh Members of Parliament, recognising that Wales remains one of the poorest parts of the whole United Kingdom, recognising that other nations and regions of the United Kingdom seem to have been able to power ahead much more effectively with economic growth and prosperity creation. Too often in Wales, it feels that we are stuck and have been left behind. Certainly, the statistics seem to demonstrate that. I welcome the vision that the Government have announced and outlined, and the way that the funds give meaning to that.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West about the devolution settlement, I do not believe it was ever part of the devolution vision originally sold to the Welsh people 20 years ago that a sort of Berlin wall would be created to stop the UK Government spending money for the benefit of its citizens in the devolved nations. I do not believe that was ever part of the original devolution vision.
When I was Secretary of State for Wales, there was never a shortage of Opposition MPs knocking on the door of the Wales Office asking, “Are there any pots of money available from UK Government to help schemes and projects in individual constituencies?” That was even when those projects and schemes touched on devolved areas. For the first time, we have funding streams available that complement, but do not compete with, what the Welsh Government are trying to do. As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I see that as a healthy thing.
I believe leaders of local authorities such as mine, and others from which we heard evidence at the Welsh Affairs Committee two weeks ago, welcome the opportunity for engagement with UK Government and what these funds bring for our communities. More direct contact between Welsh local authorities and UK Government is healthy. Again, it was never part of the devolution settlement sold originally to the Welsh people that local government in Wales should become a no-go area for UK Government. It is surely healthy for UK Government to have direct and meaningful relationships with local government. That is not to compete with the Welsh Government or ride roughshod over the devolution settlement but to create that healthy connection.
The Minister and I have talked before about post-Brexit funding, the successor to EU funds, and the need for better-quality projects and investment in Wales. We have had 20 years of EU funding, and it is not always obvious what that funding has delivered for our communities. I am not saying that very worthwhile projects have not been supported—of course they have been—but it is difficult to point to clear-cut examples of EU funding for projects and investment that has moved the dial, helped create better, more balanced growth and better-quality, higher-paid jobs in Wales, and made that kind of step change. I would emphasise to the Minister that this new generation of funding needs to support those better-quality projects and investments. The greater involvement of local authorities can help foster that, because local authorities on the ground often have the best knowledge of what is going on in their communities.
My final point is about my community in Pembrokeshire. I have been working with the local authority on a bid for this funding, focusing on town centre regeneration in Haverfordwest, which I hope is successful. Town centres need to do different things in future and not rely as heavily on retail as they did in the past. Covid has provided a catalyst for change in our communities. The bid we are working on could represent a new future for Haverfordwest town centre. It could benefit from tourism and our cultural heritage.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing the debate and covering in such detail some of the challenges of the levelling-up fund. In similar fashion to the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), I say to the Minister and all Conservative Members present that I welcome any funding that brings investment into my Ogmore constituency. I am not against funding coming into any of my communities.
I happen to represent some of the most economically deprived parts, not just of Wales but of the UK. I am well aware that investment is needed in my constituency. That investment could be in jobs, growth and physical regeneration, including around the town centre. In my constituency there are smaller towns in many of the valleys. Historically, they were full of hustle and bustle because of industry that has now left those communities, so they need the investment that the Welsh Government have provided until now, with European Union funding, but which has also come directly from the two local authorities that my constituency sits in.
I am not happy with the process. I think that it should be decided within the Welsh Government, because that is the system that has been in place for EU structural funding since 1999, and we should respect the devolution settlement. However, I am realist. I am not in government in Westminster, so I genuinely want to work with the Wales office and Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers to ensure that investment comes to my constituency.
The first bidding round is on 18 June. Two local authorities, as I have set out, cover my constituency, and a third borders my constituency—I can see the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) looking straight at me on a screen. I have been lobbied by officials in Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan authorities about a possible bid in my constituency covering all three county areas. This is a very exciting and positive bid that could bring about meaningful change and regeneration to the second largest—I represent several towns; my constituents would argue which is the second largest—town in my constituency, to bring about meaningful investment that could be of real benefit to the constituencies of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) and of the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan.
However, there is confusion. It is not clear which bid I would support, because my authorities wish to put in other bids. Officers have no relationship with HCLG officials, because there has been 20 years of separation following devolution. They are therefore starting from scratch on relationships and conversations. When, as MPs we ask Ministers, either in HCLG or in the Wales Office, who is leading on what, there is confusion. There is not a straightforward answer.
At the last Welsh questions, I asked the Secretary of State for Wales whether he could try to explain the process, and I then wrote to him. Despite various HCLG Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, telling me that there would be two further rounds of bidding, no dates are available for those rounds. The Secretary of State told me that there would possibly be only one additional round of funding in the comprehensive spending review for the next round, so what happens to the third round? What are the dates towards which local authorities should work to ensure that they can put in those bids?
Alongside that, we have the community renewal fund. As I mentioned, Ms Rees—you know my constituency very well indeed—my seat sits in the RCT and Bridgend County Borough Council area. RCT is part of the community renewal fund priority bidding area, but Bridgend County Borough Council is not. Despite the deprivation—the Minister and I have corresponded about this—and the challenges facing those communities, it is not seen as a priority area for the UK Government, and I have still not got to the bottom of why neighbouring authorities, including seats with fewer areas of deprivation and fewer challenges in skills and growth, have been prioritised, but mine has not. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) will make similar points about his county area—as, indeed, will my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones).
In closing, I have a series of questions. We rarely have an opportunity to question the Minister in such a direct way. Could I have the dates for rounds 2 and 3 of the funding bids for my local authority? In written answers I was told that they were not available. What happens to priority bidding if there are multiple authority bids from two or three authorities? Will there be second and third funding rounds? After priority bids, of which there is one, the Welsh Secretary says that other bids can be supported in the usual way. Will the Minister set out what the usual way is? I have yet to find an answer.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Rees, like many other Members present. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this important and timely debate before 18 June, the deadline for the first round.
I say warmly and enthusiastically that the levelling-up fund is welcome. It is something that I have sought to work with and work on for many years, from the time of the referendum on leaving the European Union, and I am excited and I congratulate not only MHCLG but also the current Secretary of State for Wales and the Wales Office for securing this and seeing it through right to the very end. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) highlighted, there are many MPs from across the House who would come to see the Secretary of State at various stages, seeking support for a range of projects but maybe not fully understanding that the lack of capacity to spend and the lack of a budget—both resulting from the legal constraints at the time—meant that the Wales Office could not help. Now it can help, working with colleagues at MHCLG.
We should also remember that levelling up was the key theme, along with getting Brexit done, during campaigning for the last general election. I therefore reject the complaints from some Opposition Members. It is clear that the Government secured a majority on their levelling-up agenda —this is a key part of it—together with getting Brexit done, given that the then-European aid programmes obviously have come to an end and this naturally and logically follows from that.
It is telling that the communities that often received the largest amounts of European aid were some of the communities that voted in the strongest numbers to leave the European Union. That tells us something—that the programme, as it was, was not working. We know that more than £4 billion has been spent over almost 20 years of European-aided programmes in Wales, but clearly, sadly and unfortunately, Wales remains the poorest part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, a fresh approach is welcome.
I am disappointed that many colleagues on the Opposition Benches seem to welcome funds when they come from Europe but do not necessarily welcome them as much when they come from Whitehall. This is an opportunity to bind the Union together, and to recognise that UK taxpayers support UK residents wherever in the United Kingdom they live. My constituency received very little, if anything, in European aid because it did not fall into west Wales and the valleys. Some smaller sums were available, but certainly not transformational funds that would make a world of difference, like the opportunity offered by the levelling-up fund. I welcome it, I believe my constituents strongly welcome it and I congratulate the Vale of Glamorgan local authority on its engagement with the process in seeking to meet the 18 June deadline.
Barry, the largest town in my constituency, has some of the most deprived communities in Wales but, because of the structures that the Welsh Government and the European Union previously introduced, Barry and those communities were not able to benefit from additional aid outside the Welsh block grant. Now, under the levelling-up fund, they can. Barry has turned a corner in the last decade and exciting developments are taking place. However, the levelling-up fund offers us the opportunity to take it to the next level.
The proposal that we are looking to bring forward is a marina, which will complement so many other exciting projects that are taking shape. That exciting project had to be brought together within quite a short time. I hope the Minister will recognise that authorities in Wales tend to be smaller, and therefore their capacity to develop bids within a relatively short period is not as great as that of some authorities elsewhere in the UK. Similarly, some authorities, particularly those in south-east or eastern parts of Wales, are not used to bidding for such large infrastructure projects or schemes. They lack experience and therefore will need extra support.
Finally, it would help if the Minister would underline when the next round will open and whether, if a bid is unsuccessful on this occasion, positive feedback may be given to make it appropriate for the next round of funding.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees, and I warmly welcome this afternoon’s debate. Like Bridgend county borough, Caerphilly county borough contains some of the poorest communities in the whole of the United Kingdom. Lansbury Park in Caerphilly, and the town of Bargoed—also in my constituency—are not included on the Government’s priority list of communities that should receive funding from the community renewal fund. That is because Caerphilly borough is not on the Government’s priority list. Equally, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), Deri, Fochriw, Rhymney, New Tredegar and many other poor communities are to be excluded because Caerphilly county borough is not on the priority list.
However, the Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire is included on the list. Many other areas that are obviously doing relatively well, thank you very much, are also included on that list. The reasons for that list being selective may be political, but I will leave that to one side—Members may come to their own judgment on that. The technical reason for Caerphilly county borough not being included is the relatively high travel-to-work rates from that borough: for example, people are travelling to Cardiff for work in significant numbers. However, that gives the incorrect impression that the borough as a whole is faring quite well. The reality is that there are parts of the Caerphilly borough that are far from prosperous, and those areas clearly need continuing support.
These exclusions are worrying as regards the fund, but to be frank, the community renewal fund is small beer. The shared prosperity fund is more important, because that is the fund that will effectively replace the European Union’s structural funds. However, we are told that the community renewal fund is the precursor to the shared prosperity fund, so I should like to ask the Minister three questions today.
First, the Minister has said very clearly that the Welsh Government and central Government should work together. Can the Minister commit himself to work with the Welsh Government so that in Wales, the criteria for the allocation of resources under the shared prosperity fund are drawn up jointly by both Governments?
Secondly, is it the Minister’s aim for areas such as Caerphilly, which benefited substantially from the EU’s structural funds, to also benefit from the shared prosperity fund? If the Government believe—as they say they do—that resources should be allocated on the basis of need, surely there should be a continuity of funding, and comprehensive criteria should be used to determine the actual need in those areas.
My third question is whether the Minister will commit to visiting my constituency, and the town of Bargoed in particular, to see for himself and to talk to local people about what the needs of the community are. That would be extremely important, so that an accurate assessment can be made and so that funds can genuinely be allocated on the basis of where they are needed the most. I very much hope that the Minister takes up my kind invitation: he can be assured of a warm welcome in the valleys.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and to speak in this debate on the levelling up and community renewal funds in Wales. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on having secured this debate.
My constituency of Ynys Môn is a priority area for the community renewal fund and a category 2 area for the levelling up fund, and I welcome the opportunity given by the UK Government to bid for these two funding proposals. The funds echo the assessment that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) made in his report, “Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant”, that such funds should be
“more local, more human, less bureaucratic”.
These funds seek to establish a relationship between the UK Government and local communities. They hand the responsibility for selecting and championing local projects to those who can best represent the needs of a local community—the local authorities and Members of Parliament who represent them.
Ynys Môn has been battered by years of underinvestment from the Welsh Labour Government and has one of the lowest gross value added figures in the country, so when the funds were announced I was inundated with requests, applications and ideas from my constituents. The ideas came from local enterprises, small local charities and individuals, as well as from well-established, wider local community groups. I was already well aware of some of the ideas, but others came out of left field and left me excited about the level of local engagement suddenly activated by these new funding pots.
They offered a range of exciting solutions to local concerns: arts and amenity centres, such as the Ucheldre Centre; local and cultural establishments, such as the Holyhead Maritime Museum; enterprises specialising in bringing employment and regeneration, such as Môn Communities Forward; groups such as PIWS, which wants to facilitate visitor access for the disabled; and many more. There are opportunities that clearly define themselves as falling into the community renewal fund because they are primarily revenue funding; others are candidates for levelling up because they desperately need capital spend and many fall into both camps.
I was delighted to speak to staff at the Isle Of Anglesey County Council about how best to work with them on developing the bids, when to put forward a levelling-up fund proposal and how best to assess which ideas should go forward. It was a great opportunity to engage with Annwen Morgan, the chief executive, and Llinos Medi, the leader of the council, about how the UK Government could support them in an arena that had previously been the remit of EU funding criteria.
I know that rural communities can find it difficult to find the resources to put together bids for funding, so I was particularly pleased that that has been taken into account. The UK Government will provide the Isle Of Anglesey County Council with £145,000 in capacity funding to help it to deliver excellent bids. I, too, offered my own resource to assist in any way that I could. My council is now at the stage of assessing bids for the community renewal fund and I am meeting council officers on Friday to carry out the assessment of which bids will go forward for the 18 June deadline.
Looking to the future, the community renewal fund is the predecessor to the shared prosperity fund, so I expect that feedback from it will inform the future structure of the shared prosperity fund. Similarly, the levelling-up fund criteria are not set in stone and will develop over time. I welcome these funds for all Welsh authorities, including my own. They strip away the old criteria imposed by the EU and apply a more localised approach. They provide funding to help under-resourced authorities develop bids that will stand out and achieve funding, and they encourage local engagement.
This country has had an exceptionally challenging 18 months and we have seen the very best of our communities going above and beyond to support each other. The community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund give the UK Government, local councils and Members of Parliament the opportunity to work together, to invest in and support the very heart of our communities in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this vital debate.
In 2018, the all-party parliamentary group on the UK shared prosperity fund, which I am honoured to chair, set out our expectations of the SPF. One point that we wanted to make very clearly was that we fully accept, and indeed welcome, the transition from the EU role in the structural funds to the shared prosperity fund. We are completely agnostic on the source of the funding and the management of it. We are interested in outcomes and results, and that is what today’s debate is about. I ask colleagues on the Tory Benches, please stop propagating the myth that this is about sour grapes on our part. It is not. We all want the best for our communities. It would be helpful if Members stopped using that damaging rhetoric.
Then and now, our clear message was that it is not a penny less and not a power lost. We have urged Ministers to ensure not only that the EU development funding be replaced pound for pound, but that decisions be taken by those who know our communities best, rather than by remote control from Whitehall and Westminster. Fast-forward three years to this debate on what is effectively the pilot for the SPF—the community renewal fund—and unfortunately it is becoming increasingly clear that the APPG’s recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Our disappointment in the Government’s response is based on five central concerns. First, the Government’s use of spin, smoke and mirrors means that the announcements are not what they seem. Money is moved and funds are rebadged to give the impression of extra resources, but the reality is that there is no new money.
Secondly, it is clear that the programmes are being used for nakedly political purposes and not directed to communities with the greatest need. Perhaps the most egregious example of this pork barrel politics came when a chunk of the towns fund was siphoned off to the Chancellor’s wealthy constituency. Now we see the same shenanigans with the UK community renewal fund, which includes so-called priority areas such as Derbyshire Dales, Herefordshire and Richmondshire, yet excludes the likes of Caerphilly and Bridgend. It is precisely the same story with the levelling-up fund and there could be more trouble ahead. If the community renewal fund is anything to go by, the £1 billion shared prosperity fund will be a veritable bonanza of pork barrel politics for Conservative MPs.
Thirdly, the bidding process seems to have been designed to hinder effective delivery. Its competitive nature is not only inconsistent with the stated purpose of targeting on the basis of greatest need, but wastes precious local authority time and resources and is too short term. The community renewal fund is allocated money for only a one-year cycle, whereas the EU funding stream was allocated on the basis of seven years of funds to communities that fell below a certain level of deprivation. Will the Minister therefore please commit today to scrapping the inefficient competitive bidding process for the shared prosperity fund and replacing it with a system based on the strategic allocation of resources over a multi-annual period?
Fourthly, the Conservative Government’s centralised approach betrays the basic principle of devolution. Until recently, spending on regional and local economic development was a devolved matter, or, in the context of EU funding, undertaken by the devolved nations within a framework agreed between the UK and the EU. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are major players, with responsibility for agencies that play a big part in local and regional development. The UK Government must therefore bring the devolved Administrations into the heart of the decision-making process. The Welsh Labour Government know Wales, its economy, its needs and its people far better than a civil servant in Whitehall can ever do.
Finally, the delivery timescale of the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund is frankly shambolic. Already overstretched council teams, who are dealing with the demands of a pandemic, are being asked to meet unrealistic deadlines with incomplete information on the funds. Neath Port Talbot Council has done a fantastic job in putting proposals together at the last minute, but it could better serve residents if it were given more time and information.
The terms “levelling up” and “community renewal” should have real meaning—to the constituents we represent, to the areas that have been hit hardest by 11 years of austerity, and to the industries and sectors that have been hardest-hit by the pandemic. Unfortunately it appears that, for the UK Government, they are little more than slogans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing the debate. I agree with the comments that it is very timely, ahead of the 18 June bidding deadline.
It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who made some great points, particularly on assessing the impact and delivery of the funds, as opposed to getting bogged down in where the money came from, who managed it and exactly what happened along the way. That is what my constituents care about. They want to see the regeneration of Porthcawl and of Bridgend town centre. They want this investment in their community for themselves and their families, and they are not interested in politics.
I draw the attention of Labour Members who said that they feel a greater role for the Welsh Government is needed to what is happening in Wales about freeports. It is a classic example of where the two Governments are supposed to be working together to deliver that fantastic initiative in Wales, yet we are well behind our counterparts in England because the Welsh Government cannot seem to come to the table to talk about basics. They say they want a greater role in the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund, but how can they ask for that when they have so badly let down the communities across Wales when it comes to implementing the UK Government’s freeports policy?
I welcome these funds—both the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund. They are opportunities for direct investment in communities across Wales and as the Member of Parliament for Bridgend, I am very grateful for them. That is because one thing that we need to remember is that Wales has two Governments—not one, or one in one place and one in another. It has two Governments that should work in parallel, delivering on their respective briefs.
The levelling-up fund was a key manifesto pledge that we made, and our levelling-up agenda is key and has been for some time. It is not a secret; it is not out of the blue. We have been talking about it for a long time and now we are finally going to deliver on it.
I will also talk about the involvement of MPs. Lots of comments have been made about who is best placed to make these decisions, support these bids and direct this funding. Actually, it is really great news that these funds will place some emphasis on what MPs have to say, and will encourage a greater working relationship and facilitate dialogue between MPs and their local authority. That surely counts for a lot when it comes to ensuring that the people and communities get what they are asking for.
The point made by my right hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) is that some of the areas in Wales that are currently in receipt, or that were in receipt, of the highest amounts of EU funding were the ones that voted for Brexit. That should not be lost on us, because when I was knocking on doors, speaking to constituents or receiving emails from them, it became clear to me that there was a huge disconnect, despite what people say, regarding the way those funds were managed. There was a huge disconnect between what people felt they needed in their village, town or community and what actually got delivered. Having a fund designed by the UK Government for the people of Wales, in which the local Members of Parliament are very active, is a very viable and good way of doing things.
As far as the community renewal fund is concerned, which, as we have heard, is the precursor to the shared prosperity fund, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) said that we want to see this system evolve, which is a fair comment, and that we want the Government to learn the lessons from that fund before the SPF is implemented. We also need to ensure that the formulas used to determine the priority groups are a little bit more transparent, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) highlighted; we perhaps need some more information from the Government on that. There were also comments that getting some clarity on the dates and details of the second and third rounds of bidding would be appreciated. I am grateful that the Minister is here today, hopefully to provide us with that clarity.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees for the first time, I believe.
Like others, I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing it. However, I think that there is some important context to it. I was won over by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—although I think we are all hon. Friends today in talking up Wales—on the importance of outcomes rather than governance.
The hon. Gentleman convinced me not to talk at length about this issue, but I will touch lightly on the setting up of Welsh European Funding Office, or WEFO. If we look at the comments from decades ago when that was funded, we see similar points to those being made in this debate today. There were similar criticisms of how WEFO was set up and how EU structural funds were being spent.
There are teething issues with new funds. I hope that the Minister will touch on them, go further with the dates and will explain exactly how the new arrangements will work. But there are some cheap political points being thrown around here, which do not do justice to what the hon. Member for Aberavon was talking about, namely focusing on the outcomes that this money is meant to achieve.
I will make one last point about WEFO. It is the fact that Wales qualified three times for the highest EU structural funds. Areas of eastern Europe that were just recovering from serious Communist rule recovered at a quicker pace than the Welsh Government and WEFO enabled many areas of Wales to do.
So the hon. Gentleman will forgive me and my constituents if we want to try something different this time; I hope that he will forgive me and my constituents if we look to the UK Government to get money directly into projects in our constituencies. We will be judged on the outcomes: I very much welcome that and I will give the Minister a hard time on outcomes and any commitments made about funding. If this was Barnettised, we would be getting less money now. That minimum 5% promise—I hope it is much more than that—is more than the Barnett consequential, so there are some cheap political shots.
I have been working and talking with my local authority, which has hugely welcomed the fund, the fact that it can engage directly with the UK Government and the breadth of funding that that will release over the longer term. It hugely welcomes the new funding pots to which it can go directly. Of course, it wants collaboration with the Welsh Government, and so do I, but that works both ways.
When the Welsh Government put money into broadband, I welcomed that. It is a reserved area, but we need to work together. When the Welsh Government opened foreign embassies and employed people around the world working on trade and investment—a reserved area—I welcomed that; we need to work together. However, the second the UK Government dare to send a Minister over the border or dare to create new funding pots for our constituents and businesses, there are outcries. That is not collaboration. The Welsh Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot invest in any area of policy they want and then cry the second the UK Government do so.
While my hon. Friend the Minister may be an English MP, I implore him to reflect on the invite from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) to go and visit his constituency: he can also visit my constituency, because he is a UK Government Minister. That involves Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England—I would prefer to see investment given in that order—and he is really a Minister who represents all four corners.
I will finish with just a hint of what this means to Montgomeryshire and the excitement felt on the high streets of Welshpool, Machynlleth, Newtown and especially any community that looks at the Montgomery canal. The Minister will be getting a bid—a fabulous, spectacular bid; one that stacks up, I am sure, and one that I hope he okays—to open the Montgomery canal back to the UK network. It is a great Union story, but it is also a huge opportunity for mid-Wales and for Montgomeryshire tourism, but one that I fear would not ever have happened if we did not have these funding pots and these new UK Government initiatives.
We will be judged on outcomes, and I have no doubt that at the next general election the outcomes of these pots will be absolutely central to votes in Wales. So, no pressure, Minister, but we will be watching. I seriously ask Opposition Members to examine their rhetoric and think about what they are asking for. They are not English MPs. We are all Members of the United Kingdom Parliament and they should expect both Governments —UK and Welsh—to invest in their constituencies.
It is lovely to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for securing this important debate.
Wales was the UK nation that benefited from EU funding most, including in my constituency of Cynon Valley, which is extremely deprived and has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. It is extremely concerning, as others already illustrated, that these schemes will not provide a fraction of the funding and fall short of what is needed to replace what we had under EU funding in Wales. Yes, we all welcome the funding, but let us not pretend: it is a fraction of the funding that we had previously under the EU. “Not a penny less” is being translated to millions of pounds less by the UK Government, and that is after 10 years of brutal austerity that has had a devastating impact on communities in Wales. The funds are forcing us into a competitive bidding process, pitting local authorities against one another. That is not consistent with my understanding of “levelling up”, which, by its very definition, should target less prosperous areas. A far more effective way of boosting local economies would be through cross-border collaborative working, and that is not happening.
The methodology used to prioritise constituencies is seriously flawed. I cannot understand why deprivation has not been used as a measure for the levelling-up fund, and we have yet to see the methodology used to select the community renewal fund’s priority areas. As priority has not been assessed on a needs basis, prosperous areas have received extra funding—including the constituencies of both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government—while deprived areas in Wales such as Bridgend and Caerphilly have been excluded, as colleagues have already said.
The timescale, as has also already been said, does not allow for strategic, creative or transformative projects to help local communities. The Tory Government have a proven record of supporting their pals and cronies, and I have serious concerns that the money will be used to bolster Conservative incumbents. The experience of the towns fund in England does not instil confidence in me. The fund, totalling £3.6 billion, went overwhelmingly to Conservative target seats, and when scrutinising the spending, the Public Accounts Committee said that the distribution had
“every appearance of having been politically motivated.”
I fear that the Government are more interested in electioneering than in making lasting improvements to our communities.
The shortcomings, confusion, lack of clarity, mis- information and—quite frankly—shambles of the entire process were highlighted at the recent Welsh Affairs Committee attended by me and other Members here today. We heard evidence from local authority leaders, the Welsh Government, and the UK Government. There was a clear discrepancy between the evidence and experience of those in Wales and what was being said by the UK Government. Yes, Welsh Government and local authority leaders want a collaborative and inclusive approach, but they clearly said that that has not been happening—I have a transcript. They want to work with UK Government, but they are being excluded from the process.
Another concerning issue that came out in the evidence was the lack of clarity over the roles and responsibilities of different UK Departments, especially in relation to decision making: what roles the Wales Office and the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government would play. I would appreciate clarity on that issue from the Minister. That session really did raise more questions than answers. As a Committee, we will collectively pursue some of the issues that arose further.
The whole approach is, without a doubt, another example of UK Government riding roughshod over the devolution settlement. Decisions about Wales should not be made by Departments in Whitehall, which have no experience of delivering projects in Wales. We have a democratically elected Government in Wales, and they are best-placed to make decisions for Wales. I and many others in Wales do not trust the Tory Government to deliver change. We do trust our Welsh Government, as evidenced by the Senedd election results last month. I strongly urge the UK Government to take a collaborative, inclusive approach, working with the Welsh Government and local authorities to control the Wales levelling-up allocation, and it must be based on a principle of “Not a penny less, not a power lost”.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Rees, in my first Westminster Hall debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing it.
I start by saying that I welcome the UK Government’s vision for investment in Wales, their involvement in all parts of the UK, and their encouragement of a strong working relationship with the devolved Administration in Wales. I also welcome the timing of this debate as we transition out of Europe and out of a pandemic. Like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), I could list the many local projects and groups that have been eager for funding and that have contacted me for information about the lifeline given to them. I am reminded, however, of the tourist lost in the countryside who stops to ask a local person for directions. The local pauses and says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” The sentiment is legitimate but the advice is unhelpful, and that is the case too—I am afraid—for much of what we have heard from Opposition Members in this debate. To make progress ourselves across this landscape, it is essential that we establish what is fact, and build our arguments from that ground. I hope to do just that with my contribution today.
First, we must acknowledge that sovereignty lies with the UK Government, here in Westminster. In recent weeks, we have heard other ideas and aspirations: that sovereignty is pooled, that it is between equal constituent parts of the UK, or that it would be even better if federated. The kindest word for these ideas is “aspirational”. It is not how things are.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the mechanisms of financial transfer created within it, which will deliver the funds that we are discussing today, were established here in Westminster. When the Welsh Government sought to challenge the UK Government, Lord Justice Lewis, sitting with Mrs Justice Steyn, refused the application stating
“the claim for judicial review is premature”
and noting that it was “unnecessary” and “unwise” for them to give a view on the Welsh Government’s arguments. So the first fixed point for our journey is that these funds are properly and legitimately conceived by the UK Government for the benefit of UK residents in part of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, I am sure we can all agree that decisions should be taken and functions delivered closest to where they will have their effect. That principle of subsidiarity balanced by pragmatism underpins localism and devolution. However, devolution of powers from Westminster to Cardiff Bay has not carried on beyond Cardiff to local authorities in Wales. What the Senedd has seen as good for itself has not extended to what it thinks is good for local authorities in Wales, including the administration of funds.
In 2020, the Welsh Government was the lead organisation for about 53% of the total EU funds awarded to Wales; Welsh local authorities were entrusted with less than 10% of project funding. By contrast, in England, just 7.4% of funds were handled by the UK Government, whereas local authorities were responsible for almost 37% of funds. That is not just my observation—the Welsh Local Government Association also knows it. Its “Manifesto for Localism” puts greater fiscal autonomy and flexibility for councils at the heart of plans for recovery from the pandemic. The second fixed point, then, is that the funds are consistent with the principles of subsidiarity, real devolution and trust in local decision-making.
My third and final point is representation. The cry goes up that money spent in Wales should be decided in Wales—that the true representation of Wales is in Cardiff. The fact is we are all here in a UK Parliament by the votes of UK residents. Anyone who suggests that we are not representative of Wales should think very carefully about what they are implying about their own legitimacy and the judgment of the residents who put us here. After all, turnout in the general election 2019 was 67%, but it was just 47% in the recent local elections in Wales.
At its heart, this debate is about trust, and not funding. I am here as a resident and representative of Aberconwy, trusted by its residents to influence the decisions made on their behalf in this place. I welcome the dialogue I am having with Conwy County Borough Council and I am excited by its vision. I cannot think of a single neighbour, resident or community in Aberconwy who will be upset by the offer of these funds, and I am confident of the positive impact the funds will have on the lives of those who live, work and play in Aberconwy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), a fellow member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, on securing this debate.
I strongly support the key principle that lies behind these two funds—namely, the UK Government’s commitment to levelling up the whole of the United Kingdom, all parts of the Union, to ensure that no community is left behind. A very important feature of the funds is that they involve decentralising power and working more directly with local partners and communities across Wales and the UK, who are best placed to understand the needs of their local areas and are more closely aligned to the local economic geographies to be able to deliver quickly on the ground. I am an MP for North Wales, which often feels forgotten by the Labour Welsh Government in Cardiff so, for me, this decentralised approach is particularly welcome.
I welcome the UK Government’s provision of an additional £220 million funding through the UK community renewal fund to help local areas prepare for the launch of the UK shared prosperity fund in 2022. I welcome the fact that the community renewal fund, which is largely revenue based, aims to support people and communities most in need across the UK to pilot programmes and new approaches, and that it will invest in skills, community and place, local businesses and supporting people in employment.
I have seen the benefits the levelling-up fund could bring to my own constituency of Clwyd South through the bid currently being prepared jointly by Wrexham County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council, which focuses on projects along the Dee Valley, including the regeneration of the Trevor Basin, as well as improved travel connectivity and investment in Chirk, Llangollen and Corwen. It provides a unique opportunity for the councils to access funding from the UK Government to bring forward significant development and regeneration opportunities, which both councils have been developing since the inception of the 11-mile world heritage site in 2009, making the most of the Llangollen canal and steam railway.
The levelling-up fund is a game changer and will help to deliver a fundamental shift in aspiration, confidence and opportunity. That is all the more important to an area with a desire to emerge from the worst recession in living memory and a worldwide pandemic with a renewed vigour and determination to put the world heritage site where it belongs: at the heart of the visitor economy in the region and at the centre of the drive for prosperity in north Wales.
I am very pleased that at least £800 million of the total £4.8-billion levelling-up fund will be invested in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that, for the first round of funding, at least 5% of the total UK allocation will go to Wales. That is as much as, if not more than, what would have been received through the Barnett consequentials. Further to this, of course, each of the 22 local authorities in Wales will receive £125,000 in capacity funding to help build their relationship with the UK Government and draw up top-quality proposals. Wales has proved to be at the leading edge of those councils putting forward proposals, with 13 out of the 22 local authorities in Wales having applied in the first round of funding—the highest percentage of any part of the Union.
The UK Government intend to create careers, not just jobs. Their objective is to make sure that wherever you are born and grow up, you will have a fair opportunity to succeed in life and do not have to leave your home town to find a good career.
In conclusion, levelling up is about not just the physical infrastructure of communities, but the social infrastructure, supporting local transport, high streets—[Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman seems to be frozen and I do not think we will get him back.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I apologise for my delay in making it to the Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this debate.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said that we should be outcome focused, and I absolutely agree, but I also argue that good processes help to deliver good outcomes. The initial deadline of 18 June means there were 74 working days, in the context of responding to the pandemic, for local authorities to process what was needed and to make applications. That is clearly insufficient time. For the community renewal fund, the spending must be completed by 31 March 2022. Therefore, applications are limited to projects that are ready to go, rather than those that would take a longer time and arguably deliver better outcomes. I reiterate the point made by the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns): this disadvantages smaller local authorities that do not have the same capacity and will not have an ongoing programme of funding bids.
Previously, 40% of Welsh apprenticeships were funded by EU structural funds. The current funding will provide £220 million to the whole UK. Wales, as many Members have said, is guaranteed at least 5% of that, which is £11 million. I struggle to see how else that can be explained other than as a loss of over £300 million of funding to Wales. The prospectuses of both funds stress that they are competitive and point to the need to get value for money. That intrinsically suggests that the process is driven by cost savings and not communities.
Other Members have mentioned the process of how the two funds have been created and that their formation has not been transparent. The Welsh Government do not appear to have had any meaningful engagement. This lack of transparency makes it appear, at the very least, as if that information has been given strategically to Conservative Members of Parliament. Both funds state that the only role of the Welsh Government in the decision-making process is to consult as appropriate. Ultimately, this is the centralisation of a decision-making process and it omits the devolved Administration.
I conclude with two questions that I would like the Minister to address today. Given the importance of maintaining strong UK relationships—as a Scottish MP, I take an interest from that perspective, too—will the Secretary of State and the Minister commit to a meaningful relationship with the Welsh Government in the formation and administration of the UK shared prosperity fund? Was it discussed at last week’s four nations meeting? When will Parliament receive a full read-out of that meeting from the Government?
Secondly, can we get a clear outcome on how the Government plan to meet their pledge that Wales will not lose out on funding that it previously received from the EU, including whether certain areas and priorities will lose funding?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing today’s important and timely debate.
We have heard about the additional funding to Wales, and let us be in no doubt: there is nobody who will not welcome funding to Wales, wherever it comes from. However, the Welsh budget is still lower per person in real terms than it was in 2010, so that additional funding is all the more important. The important issue today, as we have heard from a number of Members, is the lack of clarity, which is causing concern. There are questions about why some areas have been identified for funding and others have seemingly been overlooked, as well as over the incredibly short timescale for submitting bids.
Then there is the top-down, Whitehall-led approach that the Government have insisted on using for both funds. Welsh local authorities, like my own in Merthyr Tydfil, and Caerphilly County Borough which covers the upper Rhymney valley part of my constituency, have had 20 years’ experience of working together through the Welsh Local Government Association and alongside the Welsh Government to deliver successful regeneration projects. It is deeply concerning that instead of a strategic, joined-up approach to investment in tackling the urgent issues affecting our communities, we now see a centralised Whitehall-led approach being administered by Departments with no real understanding of the needs of Welsh communities. They have limited experience of working with communities in Wales and little understanding of the priorities of those communities, and there is a complete bypassing of devolution, as we have heard numerous times this afternoon. That is not the partnership approach that we could have all supported; it is a real step backwards.
I want to give the Minister one example. Some years ago, prior to entering this place, I was a local councillor and was heavily involved in a regeneration strategy in my own local community in New Tredegar. A hugely successful regeneration project had £6 million of EU funding, but that was only a catalyst and we also had funding through the Welsh Government, the private sector, the lottery and other charitable partners—and not least the local community. Fifteen years later, those projects are still going from strength to strength. I illustrate that example because of the nature of the partnership between a number of agencies, not least the Welsh Government.
During this afternoon’s debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West talked about the vital need for transparency, fairness and balance. She talked about not doing “to” communities but doing “with” communities, and I think that is a hugely crucial point. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) talked about the need for greater involvement of local authorities, because it is local authorities, after all, who know their communities best.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) talked about the need for funding across all of Wales, as well as the question raised by various Members on the future rounds of funding and the role of MPs in the process. I declare an interest in that, because I am in the same situation as my hon. Friend as we cover a number of areas. There are important questions within that.
The right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) said that some parts of the House seemed to welcome EU funding but not UK Government funding. I do not think anybody is suggesting that in the slightest. The important point is that all funding needs to be co-ordinated better with all partners, not least the Welsh Government and local authorities, as I have said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about the poorest communities in some of our constituencies, my own included. The Caerphilly borough, as he mentioned, covers two and a half constituencies, and contains some of the most deprived communities in Wales, if not in Europe. Some of those communities have been on the Welsh index of multiple deprivation over a number of years, so for them to be excluded from the community renewal fund’s priority list is just mind-boggling. My hon. Friend also cited examples of other areas across the country that are not deprived, or do not appear to be. There are real questions about the criteria used for this fund, and as we move forward with the shared prosperity fund, those questions will become even more important.
The hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) talked about the abundance of local projects in their areas. Those have been worked up, and I think we all share that experience right across the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked about the all-party parliamentary group on the UK shared prosperity fund, and the disappointment that there is no new money and that the funding is not diverted to those communities in the greatest need. That issue of tackling need and deprivation in communities is something that has come up throughout today’s debate, as well as in the Welsh Affairs Committee recently and in a number of other conversations, so it really does need to be addressed.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) talked about freeports and projects that we would like to see go forward. However, I gently ask him to compare the level of money provided in England—the £25 million or thereabouts—with the £8 million that is offered for the same projects in Wales, and then question why there are barriers to those projects going forward in Wales.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) talked about an issue that a number of Members raised, and which the Minister will hopefully address in his summing up: clarity about the dates of future rounds. He asked us to think about trying something different. We are all up for trying something different, but it does need to be inclusive of all partners, so I ask him to make that request of his own side to ensure that all partners, including the Welsh Government, are included in the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon also talked about the need to target deprivation and about the lack of clarity that emerged in the recent session of the Welsh Affairs Committee. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about the focus on outcomes and about the hugely challenging timescale and deadline for these funds. I hope I have not left anybody out.
I want to ask the Minister a number of specific questions, some of which have been addressed during the debate. Areas such as those covered by Caerphilly and Bridgend County Borough Councils have been excluded from the priority lists for the community renewal fund. As I mentioned, and as we have heard during the debate, those areas contain a number of the poorest and most isolated communities in Wales, and the fact that they have not been included is mind-boggling.
I and many other colleagues have called for clarity about the shared prosperity fund for a number of years, and we are told that it will possibly be launched next year. Will the criteria set out for the community renewal fund, which has been badged as a precursor to the SPF, be binding on the roll-out of the SPF, or will there be greater flexibility? Will the Minister commit to having another look at the deprivation issues, and at deprivation being a factor in those criteria? That is something that has been puzzling a lot of us.
MPs such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, who talked about straddling two county boroughs, are in an impossible situation. Surely it would make more sense for funding to be allocated on a local authority basis, rather than a constituency basis, and for those local authorities to devise projects and take them forward. Can bids be submitted by two local authorities in two separate rounds with the MP’s support, or is it the case that once a bid has been approved—possibly in the first round—that is it for that constituency? If we could get that clarity soon, before the first round, that would be helpful.
Finally, what measures will the Minister take to ensure that we can move forward in a spirit of collaboration involving all partners? As I said at the start, any investment is welcome, but it should be done in partnership with regional and local government, and the Welsh Government, who all have significant experience in these areas. Speaking as somebody who is very much pro-Union, we achieve much more when we all work together in partnership for the good of all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, for the first time I believe. I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for securing this hugely important and timely debate. It has been a constructive and informed debate about the issues that we face in delivering these funds. The one thing that has definitely united every contribution today is that everybody in the Chamber wants to secure the best possible future for their constituencies and their communities. Despite differences of opinion, we all agree about the importance of delivering for Wales.
As a Government, we are absolutely committed to unlocking economic prosperity across all regions of the United Kingdom. That is why we believe in levelling up as a central part of our economic agenda. As part of that, we want to address long-standing economic inequalities and deliver opportunity for people, regardless of where they are born or grow up. We want everyone to have the same access to life chances.
A number of both thematic and technical questions have been raised in the debate, and I will try my best to answer as many of them as possible. I want to touch on a large number of them. For the first time in years—decades, maybe—we can provide direct financial support to regenerate towns, high streets and communities right across the country through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. I think people want to see that type of investment in cultural and heritage assets and high street regeneration, which are so critical to levelling up. Those powers are in addition to the existing powers of the devolved Administrations, and we want to work very closely with them to make sure that they are used to the best effect. We are very conscious that effective relationships in the UK Government—between my Department and Ministers in MHCLG and other Departments—will be critical to making sure that we level up in the way that we intend. That has been a big theme of this debate.
I do not agree with the assertions that we have not engaged with the Welsh Government or local authorities during the course of the development of the funds; we have been engaging with the devolved Administrations and local authorities since 2016, when we started holding engagement events to look at the design of the successor to the EU structural funds. We have held a number of those events right around the United Kingdom, with more than 500 stakeholders attending, including a number of them in Wales.
We held four events in Cardiff and one in St Asaph in January 2019, which Welsh Government officials attended. A key theme that came through in those sessions, including in points made by the Welsh officials, was the need to reduce the bureaucracy of EU funding; another was to make sure that we have the opportunity for collaborative projects across boundaries in Wales. The sessions in Cardiff looked at similar themes, including how to administer the UK SPF and the investment priorities for Cardiff. We held those events with Welsh external experts from a number of different sectors: rural development, business, higher education, the voluntary sector, the community sector and, of course, local authorities.
We also looked at the findings of the Welsh Government’s consultation on replacing EU structural funds. We were very supportive of their recommendation for local authorities in Wales to have a greater role than was available under the delivery of EU structural funds. That is at the heart of the approach we are trying to take here. It is not just about the involvement of the Welsh Government—that is hugely important—but about local authorities, communities and others. That is a key part of this work. We think local authorities can come up with creative local solutions to local issues. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve with this fund.
Hon. Members were right to highlight the fact that we need a constructive relationship with the Welsh Government moving forward. We absolutely want that, which is why we are setting up an inter-ministerial group with the Welsh Government, to have a regular forum to discuss these matters and make sure that there is open dialogue about the importance of these funds. We are also engaging with the Welsh Local Government Association, which I am meeting next week.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) asked, importantly, whether we will prove that we will engage by visiting constituencies. I would be absolutely delighted to cross the bridge, which is in my constituency, and meet him to discuss that further. The same offer, of course, goes to those on the Opposition Front Bench—I am always very happy to discuss these matters on a collaborative basis.
A number of questions about the levelling-up fund were raised in the course of the debate. It is a £4.8 billion fund that is a hugely important opportunity for our whole country to invest in infrastructure that matters. Those are exactly the things we have heard about during the debate. At least £800 million of the levelling-up fund will be invested in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over 2021-22 through to 2024-25.
I would reinforce the points we heard about the first round of funding, in which at least 5% of that allocation went to Wales. That means Wales will receive more under this design than if the money were Barnettised, because that money is a floor, not a ceiling. That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). This is categorically a better deal for Wales, offering a larger share of funding than would have been delivered otherwise. That is underpinned by the certainty of Wales being no worse off than under this approach.
There are other advantages, as this allows us to maximise the strategic benefits of the UK Government. We have seen how that has worked effectively over the past year or so in delivering covid support. As we heard today, we have also allowed, under the design of this funding, cross-border bids to come in. We heard about some exciting opportunities for cross-border bids. The levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund have been specifically designed to allow cross-border bids, which will be another tool to bind our Union even closer.
This process also allows more direct and greater local authority and community involvement. Hon. Members rightly talked about the index we published, which categorises different parts of Wales, and 17 of the 22 local authorities in Wales are priority places for the levelling-up fund. That will help all those local authorities in the bidding process.
I will try to answer a number of the technical questions that were asked. There was a recurring question about deadlines put in place for the first round of levelling-up funding. We have tried to put in place a system that allows local authorities to get moving on projects that they want to deliver in a timeframe. We heard from a number of Members about the need to demonstrate real delivery in the years ahead. That is what we are trying to achieve. We do not want to hold back local authorities that have projects that are ready.
From the engagement we have had with local authorities in Wales, it is appears that they are well prepared for the process: 13 of the 22 local authorities in Wales have told us that they are submitting bids to the levelling-up fund by the deadline later this month. Every single local authority in Wales has opened calls for projects for the community renewal fund. That is a higher percentage for both funds than any other nation in the UK. Local authorities in Wales are well prepared to get their bids in.
I would highlight the importance of the £125,000 capacity funding that we are providing to councils. That helps them to build a new relationship with the UK Government and to start gearing up to deliver the funding. We are excited about the opportunities that that brings. There were also questions about dates around funding, and we will be setting out details later this year. We do not have a specific date that I can give today.
Another question was about how MPs support bids in the usual way. It is important that MPs write to their local authorities, making clear which is their preferred supported bid under the levelling-up fund. If MPs want to support other bids that do not count as part of that weighting process, they can do so by writing to me or to the Secretary of State, or by supporting a bid through their local authorities, making clear which is their approved bid.
The question was asked whether once a bid is approved, that is it. It is a case of one successful bid per constituency in this Parliament. If that bid is successful and a project is being delivered in a constituency, it will not be eligible for a later round of funding. There was a technical question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) about feedback on the bids that do not pass the process. Places will receive feedback. We want to ensure that, if people do not pass the first stage, they are in a good situation to submit a second bid.
There was a question about the role of the Wales Office. On the funds we have already launched—the levelling-up fund and the CRF—where appropriate, we will seek advice from the territorial offices and the devolved Administrations at the shortlisting stage. We had questions about the IMD and why deprivation is not included. It is not included because it is not a catch-all that reflects the outcomes from the funds that we are trying to deliver, but I have heard that representation loud and clear. We heard a number of points about the UK community renewal fund and the need to improve on the delivery of EU structural funds. We absolutely take that point; a large number of Welsh local authorities are identified as priority places.
We heard from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) about the importance of focusing on delivery. There are a number of lessons that we want to learn from the UK CRF, informing delivery of the UK SPF. I am afraid that I do not have time to go into them now, but I am happy to speak in more detail another time if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to do so. We are absolutely conscious of the need to make sure that this is positive investment delivered into Wales. We think that there is a big opportunity for the UK SPF to do that.
I have two last quick points. The first is on the MP’s role in delivering the funding, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). We think MPs have an important role to play in bringing together local stakeholder opinion, in helping to make the decision and in helping stakeholders to submit bids and work with Government.
There are so many more questions that we could have answered, and I am happy to meet any colleague here today who wants to talk about the matter in more detail. We believe that these are important funds, critical to the levelling-up agenda, that we are investing in exciting opportunities across Wales. I look forward to working with colleagues in delivering them.
I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. It was relatively harmonious, because—let’s be honest—we are all here today to fight for the best for our communities. Let me be clear that no one here is dismissing the moneys on offer in these funding streams, and we are grateful, but we need assurances from the Minister that Wales will receive its fair share of replacement moneys now we have left the EU.
Speakers today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), and the shadow Minister, have highlighted the confusion that still exists around the bidding process, and around the number of rounds and the criteria that successful bids will be judged by. We need clarity, and we need it now. I am grateful for some of the Minister’s answers, but I urge him to go further and make the process clearer for us all—as quickly as possible please.
It has been good to be able to discuss the new funding streams in a relatively collegiate manner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said, outcomes and results, not party-politics, are what we need here. It is not about where the money comes from; it is about making sure that the people of Wales get what they deserve. The funds are much needed, because after 11 years of Tory austerity, Wales has been hit hard. It is time that those wrongs were righted—and quickly. As the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) said, last year Wales received £375 million from the EU, whereas this year there is just £220 million for the whole UK. We are going to be missing out on funding here.
The Minister spoke about the Barnett formula. We were not talking about Barnett, however, because the money was not Barnettised, and we do not want it Barnettised now either. We just want Wales to have the fair share that it deserves. The overarching concern remains the same: why does the Minister not want to empower the democratically elected representatives of the people of Wales to direct what is spent, and where?
In drawing the debate to a close, I thank you, Ms Rees, for your excellent chairmanship. I also thank those who have taken part, and the Minister for his response and his time. I am sure that this will not be the last debate on the vital topic of funding for Welsh communities, and that there will be many more questions, and hopefully clear, concise answers, in the weeks and months to come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Community Renewal Fund and Levelling Up Fund in Wales.
Delivery Charges in Highlands and Islands
We do not have anyone participating under the hybrid arrangements today, so Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered delivery charges in Highlands and Islands.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Like many before me, I represent a part of the world that suffers from delivery charges and surcharges, misleading delivery ads, and a general feeling that we are always being forgotten about and simply punished for our post code.
In my short time in this place, I have discovered that it is customary to show off some statistical knowledge, so please bear with me and allow me to put this on the record. People living in the Highland Council area pay the highest average price for large parcel deliveries. Compared with other general regions of Scotland, the highlands and islands pay the highest average price at every parcel size and have the lowest delivery availability probability—that is, parcels that they will not get. To be precise, my constituents pay, on average, £14.67 more than people in the south of Scotland for a large parcel. For a small parcel, they pay about £5 more. The delivery prices we pay in the highlands and islands are 20% higher than those paid by my friends in Glasgow.
That is enough of statistics. The other day, my constituent Graham, a brave man who served Queen and country for long enough, came to see me about a teensy little parcel containing two tiny batteries that he had nearly ordered online. When he saw that it was going to cost him £10.95 for them to be delivered to the highlands, as opposed to £4.95 for the rest of the UK, he quite understandably decided not to place the order.
The Minister will be familiar with an organisation called Resolver, which looks at the problems uppermost in people’s minds. It has confirmed to me that in the UK, delivery charge rip offs—I call them that—are the second biggest irritation people complain about, behind online shopping. While the debate is primarily about the particular challenge we face in the highlands and islands, I put it to the Minister that the standards and regulations surrounding the delivery service in the UK are not doing anyone a huge amount of justice and I suggest that people across our four nations are pretty cross about their experiences. I do not believe that any of us can ignore that.
To set an historical context, I can say that it was not always like that. On 9 January 1840, the penny post was introduced. That world-beating innovation meant that a letter that arrived anywhere in the UK—from the Shetland Islands to Cornwall via Kinlochbervie or Durness or Inverness to London—did so for precisely one penny. Back then, no one was disadvantaged because of where they lived, and it is wonderful that the same was true of a parcel. Okay, a heavier parcel cost more than a lighter, but it did not matter where it was coming from or going to. There was a flat and fair rate, regardless of where people lived.
The batteries of my constituent, the brave soldier Graham, are the perfect example of an unfair extra charge being levied on people simply because of where they live. I use it because that sort of example strikes a chord in people’s mind. How very different is today’s ethos from the higher-minded ethos that led our Victorian forebears to introduce the penny post. Quite simply, the present situation stinks, and I must admit—forgive my language—I am sick and tired of going on about it.
There seems to be far too much buck passing and slopey shoulders, to use a good Scottish expression. The Scottish Government always say that delivery charges are reserved to Westminster and that while, yes, it is regrettable—and they wave a finger or two about it—it is up to Westminster to sort it out. Then, at the drop of a postman’s hat, Westminster is only too keen to burble on about market forces and say that it is up to the Scottish Government to improve transport links and reduce the price of getting stuff from A to B. There is some truth in that, but it makes me wonder how on earth people ever got the Penny Post going in 1840, long before the transport infrastructure we have today, but do it they did. That is a matter of fact and historical importance.
Amid the buck passing, we are where we are today, with whopping great charges that people cannot afford, particularly during the covid pandemic, when we are relying heavily on online orders. What is to be done? Let me make some suggestions. I believe that both Governments must, to coin a phrase, extract digits, as the late Duke of Edinburgh might have said. They must work together, stop bickering about the Union and who does what, and just sort the problem out.
Secondly, between us, we must fix our roads and properly invest in our transport infrastructure. Dodging potholes often doubles journey times and therefore costs where I live. I therefore gently say to the Minister that if, out of the goodness of his heart, he took a peek at my letter about the levelling-up fund, which has just been debated and has the Highland Council in the bottom tier for investment in Scotland, I would be awfully grateful.
That leads me to another, positive suggestion. Local delivery firms—we have several good examples in the highlands of Scotland—go up and down our roads all the time. They know where the bad potholes are and exactly where a certain Mrs McKay lives in a remote part of Sutherland. That local knowledge is crucial. Legislation should be put in place to oblige companies that do not use Royal Mail for delivery to use local firms. The national firms have a worryingly high level of lost deliveries, and I believe that going local will help solve the problem.
What are we going to do to punish repeat offenders who do not comply with the standards laid out by the Advertising Standards Authority? In all truth, a strongly worded letter will not hack it. Businesses, whether big online retailers or local couriers, should be keen to be transparent with customers about delivery charges and, where possible, enforce a flat-rate fee that does not discriminate by postcode.
There are innovative ideas that could be made to work. For some time, I have gone on about the campaign for community banking hubs, where different banks come together and offer customers their services out of the same room. A shared distribution centre of some sort in the highlands could be a possible solution, which the Minister might care to look at and discuss with businesses in my patch, in his constituency and in other parts of the UK.
Royal Mail rightly has a public service obligation by law. I believe that the law of the land should be changed so that the same standard of service is forced on all other delivery companies and the firms that seek to use them. Next year, Ofcom will review the regulatory framework for Royal Mail. I sincerely hope that the Minister and his colleagues in Government will consider extending Royal Mail’s “one price goes anywhere” rule to other companies.
As I discussed with the Minister before the debate, we last debated delivery charges in December 2020, thanks to the excellent initiative of the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). He and I and many others have followed the issue on the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has had much to say about it. We have all engaged with Citizens Advice Scotland’s campaign on delivery charges over the past year. Yet, despite political support from all sides, we are still in the same boat. Right now, that boat does not seem to be going anywhere.
In a spirit of co-operation and helpfulness, I implore the Minister to discuss some of the proposals that I have outlined today with industry and perhaps come up with a plan of action. Deeply unfair delivery surcharges must be consigned to the dustbin of history. Nobody should be victimised simply because of where they live—not just in the highlands of Scotland, but in remote parts of England or Wales. It is simply wrong. In January 1840, the Penny Post set the gold standard and we should look to the high ethical standards of our forefathers. All our constituents will be greatly relieved if we can do something about this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing today’s important debate. Its subject continues to be important for his constituents and, similarly, for other Members across the House, including, as he mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who raised this last, in December 2020. The hon. Gentleman was there, and he and my hon. Friend came together in a cross-party spirit, because this is very much a geographical issue rather than a political issue, although there are often political levers we can look to to see what we can work on together.
It is not unreasonable for business to seek to cover the legitimate costs of delivery, but it feels to some customers outside the major conurbations that charges are going beyond that, so I have a lot of sympathy for the case that the hon. Member has made—that consumers in some parts of Scotland continue to be treated differently from those in other parts of the UK. I also recognise that similar issues exist for consumers in, for example, Northern Ireland and, latterly, the Isle of Wight. I am pleased to take part in this debate and to update Members on developments since the previous debate in December 202, but let me first remind colleagues of the Government’s general approach.
The Government recognise that delivery costs can be higher when reaching some parts of the UK, but delivery surcharges should be based on real costs of transportation. Businesses are strongly encouraged, as far as possible, to provide consumers with a range of affordable delivery options. Moreover, the Government have ensured that there is access for everyone, including small retailers, to an affordable, consistently priced postal service for deliveries across the UK under the universal postal service. Royal Mail, through the universal service obligation, must deliver parcels up to 20 kg five days a week at uniform rates throughout the UK.
The Government believe that businesses should be free to choose partners and make the contractual arrangements that best fit their commercial needs. At the same time, consumers need transparency of information so that they can choose the supplier who best meets their requirements. The resulting competition should lead to a more efficient allocation of resource.
Consumer protection laws require transparency of costs, including delivery charges. Retailers are therefore required to be up front about their charges, including where they deliver to, what they charge and when any premiums apply. In that regard, at least, the law was working well for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Graham, in terms of his batteries, because at least he could make an informed decision, as unfair as he felt that extra transaction cost was. With that transparency, consumers know exactly where they stand and can therefore decide accordingly. If retailers are to take advantage of the considerable opportunity for online sales, they need to take heed of the needs of consumers in all parts of the country, developing delivery solutions to realise sales potential in every single area.
Our legislation is robust. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 set out that the information given by traders to consumers regarding those delivery costs, including any premiums, must be up front and transparent, as I have said.
In response to concerns raised previously by hon. Members about understanding the rules, highland trading standards established a website to provide advice and delivery charges for consumers and businesses. Any consumer who believes that the rules have been breached should report it through the deliverylaw.uk website so that incidences are recorded and appropriate enforcement can be taken.
Furthermore, as I reported to the House last year, a significant volume of enforcement work has been undertaken by the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA has issued enforcement notices to online retailers where parcel surcharging practices have been raised and has achieved a compliance rate of over 95%. The CMA has continued to issue advisory notices to the major retail platforms and has published guidance to retailers who sell via those platforms. It continues to work through primary authorities to ensure improvement in this area. On the legal compliance side, our enforcement partners are continuing to monitor the situation and to take action where necessary.
In November last year, the postal sector regulator, Ofcom, published updated information on how this part of the market is operating, as part of its annual postal service monitoring update. I set out Ofcom’s findings in the December 2020 debate in the House. Ofcom found that operators take different approaches to the pricing of parcel delivery services. Some vary their prices by location, but others do not. Businesses have options. For the subset of suppliers who vary delivery charges by location, some use a binary standard charge and an out-of-area charge and some set different prices for different areas. In other cases, the actual prices charged for business-to-consumer parcel deliveries are bespoke. Although operators may start with a standard rate, they often negotiate charges on a bespoke basis with individual retailers. As I outlined in the previous debate on this issue, some major retailers, such as Argos and Wayfair, have taken positive steps, vastly improving the delivery service by removing surcharges for most customers in the Scottish highlands and islands.
The Government have no role in interfering with business decisions. Businesses can adopt a range of options on delivery charges and may apply none at all, and the parcel delivery market is competitive. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked of the Penny Post, which was, in its time, an important standard to reach, but the post service has moved on in the past few years. Parcels, rather than letters, are more predominant in people’s lives than ever before, and the market is hugely competitive. Steps taken by suppliers to apply no delivery surcharge will put downward pressure on charges from other suppliers. Royal Mail clearly needs to be in that space, looking at that downward charge, to be able to modernise and compete with other suppliers.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government continue to look at this issue. The Consumer Protection Partnership brings together consumer protection organisations from across the UK. It runs a dedicated working group, including consumer advocates, trading standards and Government representatives, to focus on this issue. The working group also includes the Scottish Government.
Ofcom will be undertaking a review of its future regulatory framework for post over the next year. In the call for input between March and May this year, Ofcom invited views and comments from stakeholders. It intends to publish a full consultation on the future regulation of postal services later this year, before concluding its review in 2022. The review will consider issues affecting the broader postal sector, as people’s reliance on parcels continues to grow.
Other ongoing work to enhance compliance with the legislation includes updating the best practice guidance available from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. The updated guidance has been informed by CPP members, as well as other organisations, and aims to drive the messaging out to online retailer platforms and delivery services.
I continue to believe that the legislative framework is robust and provides appropriate protections for consumers. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the universal service obligation, including the delivery of parcels at a set charge throughout the UK, remains affordable and accessible to all users. My priority is continued enforcement of the law to ensure that customers are not surprised by delivery charges and are able to make choices based on clear information. In that way, consumer decisions will apply competitive pressures that can drive down delivery charges to the benefit of all.
On behalf of the Government, I express my gratitude to postal and parcel workers across the UK, who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep us all connected. I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross once again for bringing this important debate to the House, and you, Ms Rees, for chairing it. I look forward to continuing to work on this issue. I know we will be back here again to speak on behalf of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others in the affected areas.
Question put and agreed to.
Learned Societies at Burlington House
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive for the start of the debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to stay for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave 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 the future of the learned societies at Burlington House.
First, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, which is one of the learned societies. I am grateful for the huge interest in the debate, but I will not take interventions so that we can get more people in. If necessary, I am happy to give up my right to reply at the end. I just want to get on with it.
I particularly welcome the Minister who has taken a real personal interest in the problem since he was put into his current role. I want to thank all colleagues who responded to the quite intensive lobbying by the Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Royal Astronomical Society who, together with the Royal Society of Chemistry, form the learned societies who have called Burlington House in Piccadilly their home since the 1850s. Those learned societies, also known as the courtyard societies, are under-appreciated gems in UK research and academia, but they have global standing across a number of scientific and historical fields. I have had loads of emails. Just this morning I had a letter from various professors in Denmark and museums and learned societies in support of the case that I am making this afternoon. As the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, the learned societies’ next-door neighbour, recently put it,
“These charities have stood sentinel on this site since the 19th century, preserving our histories, furthering our understanding of the world and promoting its study to bring about discoveries and advances in the field of science, history, astronomy, natural history and earth sciences.”
The societies, together with the Royal Academy, were originally housed in Somerset House, but were turfed out by the Government of the day and relocated to Burlington House in Piccadilly, which, from 1855, gradually became their home and effectively a cultural hub for the arts and sciences. It was here that Darwin explained the theory of evolution and Schliemann showed off his discoveries from Troy. Important scientific works have been deposited and priceless artefacts safeguarded, including some of the oldest existing copies of the Magna Carta and iconic items entrusted to the societies to keep safe for the British public, and to foster both academic and public understanding of our heritage. There are works by Galileo, Copernicus and Newton.
The Society of Antiquaries, the Geological Society and the Linneans are the oldest of their kind in the whole world. The Society of Antiquaries has been an educational charity of global historical and cultural significance since 1707. The Geological Society, founded in 1807, is the UK’s national society for earth sciences, whose charitable work focuses on improving our knowledge and understanding of the earth. These are not dusty museums set up to indulge crusty old anoraks like me. They are very much living, breathing and highly relevant institutions that provide guidance to the Government on matters such as climate change and greenhouse gases, the safe disposal of radioactive waste, and the impact of immigration planning on the future of UK science. Those are just a few of the roles of the Geological Society, for example. It also gives strategic advice on HS2.
The 4,000 members of the Royal Astronomical Society advise and publish on solar system science, geophysics and many other areas crucial to the protection of our environment, and the Linneans play a substantial role in providing evidence and guidance on the biodiversity crisis and the ever-increasing demands of the global population. All of a sudden, if they were not there, a very large hole would be left. But their very existence is threatened because of a change to the way that their landlord—in this case, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—charges the learned societies rent. In effect, that has meant that in the past 10 years, the annual rent charge has increased by 3,000%. In the case of the Linneans, it has gone up from £4,000 a year to £130,000 a year, and rents are set to double further in the next decade. That was not what was envisaged when a new rent framework linked to the local rental values was first mooted under the previous Labour Government.
When the societies signed the lease back in 2005, they accepted that by 2085 they would pay commercial rent. However, at the time, calculations showed that the societies would have 45 years to adapt to a new model of income generation and rental payment before a dramatic increase. That increase actually started after just seven years, and was so rapid that the societies cannot adapt in time.
The societies are not the sort of luxury retail emporia to be found in other parts of Piccadilly. They are charities with limited income and particularly limited routes to raise more income while their tenancy is highly uncertain and their leases specifically prevent a third party from taking a charge on the properties, meaning that the societies cannot approach major funding bodies for grants to adapt and improve their building. The leases also prevent additional income generation through subletting or commercial activities—they cannot even have a café.
They are severely hamstrung in increasing their revenue, without which they cannot afford to pay their rent. But there is a Catch-22 as well: if they cannot afford their rent, they will have to move, but in the case of the antiquaries, the cost of moving the thousands of priceless fragile treasures would bust that society. Even the prospect of moving to a warehouse on a cheap industrial estate in a town in the midlands or north of England is a non-starter, let alone the fact that it would break up the hub and make the collections largely inaccessible to fellows and the public alike.
Their location in the heart of London enables courtyard society activities across the United Kingdom. As in other areas of operation, affordable tenure at New Burlington House allowed the courtyard societies to dedicate resources to active programmes outside London, from specialist meetings to large national conferences, matching local interests to available expert speakers. The societies are committed to a levelling-up agenda, and have been for a long time, reaching out and undertaking community-based learning. The London base is crucial to that work; they need the base to house their collections and to be near other societies, within easy reach of their important stakeholders who travel to Burlington House from all over the UK and internationally.
The societies are not expecting something for nothing. They have accepted that their rents should rise. At the behest of a previous Minister, at their own cost, they undertook a public value contribution analysis by the consultants PwC in 2019, which calculated that the learned societies together give an annual public benefit of some £47,368,500 to the British public, communities, and science and academic institutions throughout the UK. Surely it is only reasonable that the public benefit should be taken into account when calculating the rental value of those properties. In the case of the antiquaries, the same PwC study calculated that of the £5.4 million public benefit that the antiquaries generate, some 78% would be at risk each year if the society were to be forced out of its current premises.
The societies all want to increase that public benefit. They want to greatly expand engagement with the public at Burlington House and around the country, with other societies in schools and universities, with businesses, charities and many other partners. Indeed, the Society of Antiquaries has shown how this can be done with its other property at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the former home of William Morris. Because it owns the property, it has been able to raise over £6 million from the national lottery heritage fund and others, to build a new education centre. When it reopens after the pandemic next year, it expects to double the number of visitors to more than 40,000. The same advantage awaits the other courtyard societies if they have a secure and affordable tenure, which is the basis of the problem.
We appreciate that Government have made certain proposals and have been helpful, most recently under the new Minister, including offers of a rent freeze, a rent holiday and some adjustments. However, the problem is that the rent now is unaffordable and without a new long-term lease, the offer to help seek lottery funding will not work. Since just 2019, the rent has increased by a further 39% at a time when financial positions have been made even worse by the pandemic. The situation has gone from bad to worse.
The problem is that the Government are still treating the buildings as investment properties housing commercial tenants rather than as the academic charities and educational research institutions that they really are. Unlike commercial tenants, they cannot just sell more widgets or put up the price of their widgets—or, perhaps more appropriately for Piccadilly, Louis Vuitton bags and designer frocks.
We need the Government to take a different approach and to recognise the learned societies for the unique tenants that they really are. The societies will be putting further alternative proposals to the Government and I am glad that there now appears to be a dialogue; for quite a long time, there was a logjam and dialogue just was not happening. Again, I thank the Minister for helping to facilitate that.
Among those proposals we should ideally seek a new long-term lease arrangement, as the Royal Academy negotiated some years ago, whereby they pay a peppercorn rent and have become commercially viable and very successful. The societies could make an up-front payment, made up of cash and in-lieu components, reflecting the public value assessments that have been mentioned already, and ownership of parts of their valuable collections could pass to the Government to make sure that they are enjoyed by even more members of the public.
Perhaps the management of the learned societies could pass to other Government Departments, where they could more readily be appreciated and engaged as cultural and heritage assets. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is an obvious candidate and I know that the Secretary of State has been sympathetic about taking a closer interest in and engaging with some of the learned societies. It would be helpful to understand on what basis discussions have already taken place. Apparently there have also been discussions between DCMS and the National Lottery Fund, because, as it stands at the moment and as I have said, the learned societies just cannot access those funds because they do not have the security of tenure.
The other solution is that MHCLG changes its rental policy so that it can charge a nominal rent but at a level that at least equates to the capital charge levied on the Department as a consequence of holding this asset. We believe that there are parallels with the way that the Ministry of Defence values some of its defence assets, for example, and the way that the Department has disposed of previous assets of historical and cultural value, such as Somerset House and the Royal Naval College.
Whatever solution is found, the Government really need to revisit the way that they charge the learned societies to reside in their purpose-made home at Burlington House. I am sure that colleagues who are here today, and the many others who have shown support for the cause, will help to play whatever part MPs can to help to forge a new arrangement between Government and these unique institutions, so that they can stay in their natural home, a cultural and scientific hub in central London, working with each other and with the Government to produce huge value for the whole country, worth well in excess of the sum of their individual parts.
I know that the Minister is the man to make that happen and I am delighted that he has agreed to visit the learned societies—hopefully next month—to see them at first hand. I hope that that will help to produce a long-term, fair and sustainable settlement that will see these unappreciated gems flourish further, and for the whole country to benefit as a result in tackling the big challenges of the day in science, environment and culture. It all rests on the shoulders of the Minister; I am sure that he will not disappoint and that we will have a solution to take back to the learned societies, which eagerly await the outcome of the debate.
If Back-Bench speakers could confine themselves to three and a half minutes, we should get everyone in.
I should declare that I am a candidate for fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries; so, if anybody in this room is a fellow, please do not blackball me. I should also say that the president of the Royal Academy, the first elected woman president of the Royal Academy, is sort of my adopted surrogate sister, Rebecca Salter.
I start from a fundamental principle, which is that this is basically a part of our national heritage and I cannot see why we would want to unpick any of it. It is part of global Britain, too, for all the reasons that have already been advanced. We stand tall in so many of these fields because of work advanced by these charities, in particular because they are within the capital and in a place that was purpose built for them. That is vital.
The courtyard societies are a harmonious whole. If commercial bodies sold Louis Vuitton handbags or whatever in each of the different buildings, what could then be made of the courtyard and its entrance? That would wholly disadvantage the experience of the artistic, creative, intellectual and academic basis upon which the courtyard was built. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The societies have managed to work together, one with another, to be able to achieve far more on behalf of academia and so many of the different scientific and intellectual pursuits there.
It was specifically built for them. There were endless debates in the House of Commons for weeks, months and years. It took 15 years for them to decide exactly what was to happen. It was built for them; it is form and purpose united. Why on earth would we want to unpick that? As has already been said, the cost of removal of all the valuable and fragile material in the libraries and various exhibits would be so prohibitive that we would effectively be closing down some of those charities. That would be a terrible mistake.
I would say to the Government what I said to the Labour Government when we were in power, because this has been going on all the time that I have been an MP. It was the Deputy Prime Minister who first meddled with it in 2004 and ended up having to backtrack. I said, “Please, Government, stop pulling at the threads of this.” I thought earlier today that the little thread on my sleeve could be pulled, but then the button came off. It may seem like we are sorting out a little thread, but it ends by dismantling the whole seamless garment.
I will end with a simple point made by Gladstone when debating this issue:
“Vacillation, uncertainty, costliness, extravagance, meanness, and all the conflicting vices that could be enumerated were united in our present system. There was a total want of authority to direct and guide.”—[Official Report, 16 August 1860; Vol. 160, c. 1360.]
Things do not seem to have changed much. The Conservative MP, Beresford Hope, said that the traditions of old historic London were every day swept away. I am sure the Minister would not want to be the person who finally swept away this part of historic London.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and on an outstanding campaign that he has waged over the past few months on behalf of the learned societies. It has been a model of good lobbying of the best possible kind. I agree with everything he and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) have said. I will not repeat it, to cut things reasonably short.
I am reminded of Churchill’s great remark, I think about this place originally.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
That quotation applies very much to the learned societies. They shaped those buildings and we shaped them together, over a matter of 200 years, or thereabouts. The shape and existence of those buildings and the things in them shape the learned societies. It would not be possible to remove them willingly and put them into an industrial estate somewhere on the outskirts of London. It would simply not work. Those buildings and the learned societies are integral to each other.
That applies to so many other great Government owned or publicly owned buildings across our nation. With those other buildings—cathedrals, churches, this palace, Buckingham Palace and the MOD buildings—the Government have taken an extremely sensible view over many years, which is to conclude that they are worth nothing. They are not worth anything; they cannot be sold. This palace could not be sold and is, therefore, worth nothing. Of course, it costs money to maintain but it cannot be sold.
The problem behind this particular episode is that the Government have concluded that the building is a valuable asset that they own, and which they can therefore sell or otherwise maximise income from it. That is the wrong presumption. That building was not set up as a Government asset, which could be subsequently sold. It was set up to be the home of the learned societies. Therefore, we require an extremely radical approach, not through a renegotiation of the lease, which cannot succeed. The lease cannot work and they cannot afford to pay the rent, so there is no point renegotiating it. These learned societies cannot pay a rent to the Government. Therefore, let us consider renegotiating it fundamentally. If we depreciate the value of an asset, that depreciation cannot count against profit and loss. It must not work at all.
I would like to think that the Government will consider not bleeding the assets, which is what they are effectively trying to do, whether through rent or another way. We should not be bleeding the assets; they are cultural and historic assets and they should belong to and be preserved by the nation. There are all sorts of ways of making sure they do not cost anything. None the less, the notion that a building, worth billions, freehold, should somehow become a national asset that is there to bleed seems to me to be entirely wrong. The capital value should be set at zero—the same applies to a great many other national assets of one sort or another. This is a political decision. It is not a cultural one; it is not a financial one; it is a political decision.
We need a Government who will say, “This is an asset to our nation. This is an asset that we want to preserve. This is an asset that does more for our nation”— £47 million worth more for our nation, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Bleeding it, getting rent out of it and selling it off would achieve nothing for the cultural and intellectual assets of the United Kingdom. Finding a way of keeping the learned societies there, finding a way of making it possible for them to succeed in that location, seems to be something that we as a Government ought to be doing.
I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will not simply talk about the renegotiation. I want to hear a really radical restart to say, “These assets must be left as they are.”
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for leading this campaign, which I wholeheartedly endorse.
In the centre of London, our capital city, we have a world-class and unique cultural, educational and scientific hub that has come about because of the work that was done, going back to the time of Lord Palmerston and beyond, to create that juxtaposition of the Royal Academy, Burlington House and the courtyard societies. It is irreplaceable and, as has been observed, putting any other type of tenant in there for commercial operation would destroy something that scarcely exists anywhere else. Perhaps the French might claim something similar, but it is a unique selling point.
As we talk about the value of soft power for the United Kingdom, the value of our scientific, educational and intellectual attainments is a key selling point in that assertion of Britain’s soft power and reputation in the wider world. Against that background, it is surely immensely short-sighted to treat this unique set of properties as an investment portfolio, as has been observed.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister. He is an excellent Minister and I am delighted to see him in his post. I moved into the same Department in 2010, doing much the same job, and I discovered that there were things that sat on our portfolio that none of us had ever imagined until we walked into the door of the Department. The truth is, it is a bit of an accident of history that this has ended up on the Department’s books because they are the ultimate successors in title to the old Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, which was merged into the Department of the Environment years ago. In reality, this is a cultural and an educational asset, and therefore needs to be approached as such, as has been observed, rather than as part of the Government’s investment property portfolio. I would appeal to the Minister to sort that out.
I welcome the energy and commitment that the Minister has brought to this subject. Having talked to constituents who work and are engaged with the learned societies on a professional basis, I know they are conscious that things have moved since he has been in the Department. I hope he opens up the logjam and recognises, as has just been said, that the current arrangement leaves a lease that is unaffordable in financial terms and constrains the societies from expanding their other sources of income and activities, as charities might wish to do. They would like to do more, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said. They are keen to maximise their footfall and potential in the centre of London. That cannot be done anywhere else. Off what is almost the nation’s high street we have this unique cultural gem, and it would be a crying shame to allow that to be lost or dissipated; my constituent, who is a professional curator, attests to the massive wasted costs that will be involved in a forced move.
There is the old phrase about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I do not think that applies to this Government and I am sure the Minister will prove that. We place the value, in this instance, above the price, because it is much greater for this country. I hope that he will respond positively to the debate.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd. I, too, would like to thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate, and for his campaign. I am pleased to add my voice to the campaign to secure the long-term future of the learned societies at Burlington House.
Others have eloquently discussed and will continue to discuss the importance of the work of the other learned societies based in the scientific and cultural hub of Burlington House, but it is the Society of Antiquaries and its connection to Wales, through the Welsh Fellows Group, on which I would like to elaborate.
The Welsh national group has long been one of the most accurate and effective fellows groups in researching the historic environment and promoting the understanding and appreciation of Welsh heritage. The group also organises antiquarian events, outings and lectures, helping fellows who live throughout Wales to remain engaged and involved in the full activities of the fellowship, in addition, of course, to the London programme. Past events have included archaeological lectures at Cardiff University and annual field weekends in Wales, such as the 2016 trip to Sir Fynwy, where the programme included visits to castles at Hay-on-Wye and Usk, Llanthony abbey at Abergavenny and Clytha House and gardens.
The relationship between the Welsh national group and the parent society is of real practical value. It promotes the interests and the results of the Welsh group’s work on the international stage. It also provides networking opportunities for members and helps to maintain an effective flow of knowledge and understanding of heritage issues and policy between London and Wales.
Members of the Welsh group have testified to me about the essential value of the central and special location at Burlington House for the achievement of the society as a whole. To go briefly off record into my personal experience as a child, I remember the delight of attending exhibitions at Burlington House. It is a really special place. It brings different experiences to different people. The United Kingdom as a whole would be the poorer if we were to lose it. The relocation of Burlington House would be not only financially damaging for the society, but culturally damaging for Wales.
I call upon the Government to do something that I would have thought would be essentially conservative for a Conservative Government—to conserve an affordable and sustainable arrangement that allows the learned societies to remain at Burlington House and which, in doing so, allows them to preserve their unique record of history, discovery and heritage, and to continue their work in promoting and strengthening historical learning and research as it relates to Wales.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and the eloquent way in which he introduced it, which hit so many of the important marks. It is also a pleasure to take part in a debate where there seems to be unanimity across the parties in the House. The challenge is to find a solution that will work for everyone, and that meets the objectives and challenges that have already been set out.
I do not plan to detain hon. Members for too long; much of what I wanted to say has already been said. I merely want to underline a few points and offer a potential way forward.
We all recognise the unique part that the learned societies—the courtyard societies—including the Royal Society of Chemistry, play in our community and in society, including the public good they bring to culture, science and academia, and the positive influence they bring to global Britain, as has been said. I would add to that the importance of their independence and the scrutiny and the standards they set across their various specialist fields.
As well as their role, their history and their contribution needs to be recognised, as many hon. Members have stated this afternoon. It is part of our heritage. I understand the accounting policy change, the value of capital and the return on investment that Governments, going back 20 years or so, have wanted to gain. However, in reality—this point has already been made—their role in our heritage has made them heritage assets in themselves. The benefit is gained by so many of us right across the UK, but the prominence of their location really matters. It was good to hear from the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who tied in that Welsh link with these organisations that have their headquarters in London, highlighting their reach right across the United Kingdom.
These important organisations are considered in terms of accounting policy and investment property, but in my mind, they should be considered as heritage assets. That would give the Minister greater flexibility to come up with a solution that will meet their demands and needs. I cannot imagine that it is beyond the ability of a bright, ambitious Minister and his officials to come forward with a solution that will work for all of these organisations. Doing so will also place him in a strong position to seek to influence these organisations in a positive way, so that they can extend their reach across the UK—so that their London base is their headquarters, but their reach continues right across the United Kingdom.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for having secured this important debate, and put on record my interest as an elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should not worry: I am not going to blackball him in his election. I also put it on record that I will also speak in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for museums.
The Society of Antiquaries, along with the other learned societies in Burlington House and the courtyard, is undoubtedly a national treasure. I am glad that the Minister is going to take the opportunity to visit that society, because he will be dumbstruck by the wealth of cultural heritage there. Some of those manuscripts managed to escape even the dissolution of the monasteries, yet they are now being threatened by the financial situation that the society finds itself in. When he goes on his visit, he will see remarkable portraits, including not only the earliest surviving portrait of Richard III but Hans Eworth’s portrait of Mary I. He will see the processional cross that was rescued from the battle of Bosworth, which is one of the reasons why I held the launch of my book, “Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors” at the society in 2013. He may also know from his notes that as a Government Minister—the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation—I held a keynote address at the Society of Antiquaries in 2019, in which I underlined the Government’s respect for the arts and humanities.
The society’s collection is unique, with 40,000 artefacts and 130,000 books and manuscripts. It simply cannot be replaced: three of the earliest copies of Magna Carta are among them. My concern is that, with the ratcheting effect of the rent going up, following the supposed agreement over eight years to reach market rent, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) mentioned, the society cannot even afford to pay the current rent of £150,000 a year, which has risen from £4,800 over an eight-year period—a 3,100% increase. The society is asset-rich and very cash-poor, and money that could be spent on preserving these artefacts or on future research projects for early-career researchers is being drained to pay the rent. An agreement should be found—perhaps an in lieu payment of artefacts could be made to the Government, and those artefacts could then be preserved for the sake of our national heritage.
This Government are committed to standing up against cancel culture—they are absolutely right to do so—and to stopping statues from being pulled down so that we can respect our heritage and learn from it, but one of our greatest national assets, artefacts and institutions is being pulled down in front of our very eyes. That is the exact opposite of what the Prime Minister, who so values cultural heritage, would wish. I urge the Minister to look seriously at what could be done to protect the society for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for arranging this session. I do not have a book to plug and I am not clever enough to be a fellow or even a candidate, but I am passionate about trying to find a solution for the societies. We have high hopes for the Minister, as has been seen. Please, please, please free the big planet-sized brains in the learned societies. They need to be freed by you from the interminable discussions about rent and leases, to let them get on to use those planet-sized brains to help solve the greatest challenges of our time and educate people along the way, because we know they can do that.
It takes years of history and knowledge to solve challenges, and the learned societies have hundreds of years of respect and experience between them. The Royal Astronomical Society founded in 1820, the Geological Society founded in 1807, the Linnean Society founded in 1788, the Society of Antiquaries founded in 1707—so much would be lost by a forced relocation that is unnecessary, and that would be a brutal disrespect to all that has gone before.
I thank my Stroud residents, who wrote to me in large numbers and who brought the issue to my attention. Stroud is a cultured and learned place and is also the best place to live, according to The Sunday Times; I have to get that in for a whole year. The cultured and learned place that is Stroud is absolutely exasperated. My small patch of Gloucestershire cannot understand how we have spent 16 years trying to settle a matter that would effectively mean that we are preserving the learned societies for future generations—future generations like that of my baby daughter, who I want to grow up to be a candidate or a fellow, certainly.
What are we asking the Government to do? I have a briefing about that, but what we are asking the Government to do is to stop faffing around. We call on the Government to provide for an affordable, sustainable arrangement that allows the societies to remain at Burlington House, and to use the apartments as appropriate for their needs in the 21st century. That will preserve the unique and irreplaceable record of history, discovery and heritage. In the year of UK COP, G7 and the fact that we are leading on so many aspects of global policy, let us not lose the backbone and history that we have in the learned societies as we go along.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who obtained the debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) I, like others, am not eminent enough to be a fellow of one of the societies, nor am I even a candidate, it has to be said, but in researching the issue, and having had conversations with a number of constituents who brought it to my attention, I have appreciated that the courtyard societies are unappreciated gems, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said.
What is going on here in the Government? I suspect that what is proposed will bring little additional resources into the Department—the amount is not even petty cash, and yet the societies have added so much to broader society and to our local communities through their work over many years. As has been said, we are talking about a 3,000% increase in rents. The societies quite clearly do not have the funds to purchase alternative accommodation, and they are focused on persuading the Government to allow the societies to remain and to carry on their work. Like so many organisations within our constituencies—voluntary groups and community groups—they spend so much time having to find the next funding stream that it takes the energy away from what they are actually trying to achieve. We do not want to put these societies into the same category. Much praise has been laid upon the Minister, and I must say it is very justifiable. Like others, I look forward to hearing how he will explain the arrangements. So many of the debates that we attend are summed up by a Minister saying a lot of words but not actually informing us of the solution to the problem. We want an actual solution, and I am confident that the Minister will provide it.
I add my support to all that has been said. We have organisations here that provide so much in added value to our society. Let us not lose them for the sake of a few extra pounds in the Government’s coffers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Ms Rees. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) not only on securing the debate but on his energetic campaigning on behalf of Burlington House. Appropriately, as a new Welsh MP, my first contact with the issue of the future of the learned societies at Burlington House was through an email last year from Cardiff, from Professor John Hines, the chair of the Wales fellows group and vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Professor Hines, like the right hon. and hon. Members who have already spoken in the debate, made the case with great eloquence for the continuation of the bespoke Government arrangement that has delivered immense public value as a hub of cultural and scientific discovery. As my hon. Friend mentioned, there has been a significant economic benefit from that. It is worth repeating the figure he mentioned of £47.4 million per annum, because it is a significant amount of money, and how it is estimated that almost a third of that value could be lost through the damage caused by relocation.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) emphasised the benefits of decentralised activities, so I will not go back over that ground, but I strongly agree with the points she made. I would like to quote from Professor Hines’ letter to me, which covers some of the right hon. Member’s points as well as others. He wrote:
“Our relationship with the parent society—
in this case, it is the Society of Antiquaries, but I think it is representative of the other learned societies based at Burlington House—
“is of inestimable practical value in placing our own concerns and achievements on the international stage”—
that is particularly important in areas such as Wales that need to ensure that they have representation at the highest level in the UK. He continues:
“learning from networking opportunities, and maintaining an effective flow of information and understanding over heritage matters and policy between the capital of the United Kingdom and the Principality. We are especially able to testify to the vital importance of a central and appropriate location for the fulfilment of the special aims of the Society.”
That sums up why this is an important issue not only for the centre of London but for the whole of the UK. I therefore urge the Minister to find an acceptable solution along the lines outlined by my hon. Friend, which would enable the learned societies to remain at Burlington House. That would enrich not only their activities in London but their wider work in Wales and across the UK.
Thank you, Ms Rees, for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition. It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and setting out so clearly and powerfully the dilemma facing some of the country’s most respected academic and cultural institutions. I thank all hon. Members who took part. We heard from every single one about the value of the learned societies and their concerns about the situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), as so often, gave us a history lesson and set out eloquently the heritage value of the learned societies. What is notable about the debate is how many Government Members have expressed their concern and dismay. The Government have united the House in opposition to the situation that the learned societies have been placed in, potentially being forced to move from buildings specifically set up for their use as a cultural hub in central London.
The problem of unaffordable, escalating rent rises set by a landlord trying to maximise income is not unique, but what is wrong is that the rental arrangement for the societies should be unique, because their history and contribution to our society is unique, and there is a long history of British Governments providing them with an affordable tenancy in acknowledgment of their national value. These are model tenants who make essential contributions to our culture, heritage and society. In the post-covid world, where the climate challenge is huge, our policy makers may well be ever more in need of the advice and intellectual rigour of these learned societies. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said, surely this is a case of a government knowing the price of something but not its value. That is not to say that the economic value is insignificant. As we have heard, PricewaterhouseCoopers say that the total contribution these societies make is well over £47 million per year.
The proposed rents are unsustainable for the societies. If they were forced to find new premises, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to afford another accessible city-centre location without the kind of special affordable rent agreement that was previously in place. A more remote location would reduce public access to the collections.
A relocation would be extremely expensive and likely require millions of pounds to be spent on transporting a huge collection of fragile items and customising a suitable place to store them. PwC estimated that almost one third of the societies’ public benefit value could be lost through the damage caused by forced relocation. Some of these losses would be priceless if the societies are forced to dispose of some of the precious objects in their care.
The societies have attempted to negotiate to secure a solution with the Government. Offers and counter-offers have been made, which have either still been unaffordable to the societies or have been rejected by the Government. Now is the time for the Government to really get serious about finally resolving this problem. For a Government who like to talk about global Britain, they are showing very little respect for protecting globally important British artefacts and institutions. The increases in rental income will be of relatively minimal benefit to the Government, but will do serious damage to the historic British institutions and to their cultural contribution.
The Opposition urge MHCLG to go back to negotiating in good faith with the learned societies, with the concerted aim of finding a sustainable solution that works for both parties and maintains the learned societies in their current home. I encourage the Minister to look at the various proposals put forward by Members today and by the learned societies, for example the acquisition of the long-term lease equivalent to fair market value that was offered by the societies in early 2020. If there are legitimate reasons for rejecting that or other offers, the Government need to be transparent about what they are, to continue the dialogue and to offer the societies the opportunity to work through them and to work together.
I close by making the point that many businesses are struggling at the moment with commercial rent debts, as a result of the pandemic. The Government’s response has been to issue a code of conduct for landlords to encourage them to negotiate with tenants to find a workable solution for both parties. Surely the Government need to lead by example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. Like others, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate. We have heard fantastic contributions from right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. I note the silent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), whose presence in the Gallery signifies a strong interest in the subject matter under discussion.
I am grateful for the contributions, but take issue with the idea that responsibility for the problem needs to sit with DCMS because they are more cultural. That is unfounded. Within MCHLG we have a strong appreciation of the cultural and scientific elements that are being discussed. We fully appreciate that heritage, and for that reason we all want to see the future of the five learned societies secured, not just in the short term but for many years to come, at a venue befitting their enormous scientific and cultural contribution.
I believe, as do the Government, that the right venue is New Burlington House. In deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), unfortunately there will still be some faffing about. We are in the early stages of negotiation; we have just pitched our offer to them and are now awaiting a response, so there will be faffing. Hopefully, with a Minister who is keenly engaged in the subject, we will be able to make some headway.
I echo the comments made by hon. Members who recognise the incredible work done by the Geological Society, the Linnean Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries, which seems to be well represented by Members, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. I will temper any praise with the caveat that many of the wonderful collections housed by those societies are not usually open to the public. We heard a fine outline of some of the things that are available, and I am looking forward to seeing those works myself. The Government recognise their contribution, but we need to support them to survive and adapt in a post-covid world to become, dare I say, modern and accessible institutions for all. Others have quoted Charles Darwin, as one of the Linnean Society’s most notable past fellows: it is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.
The legal position is that in 2005 the High Court confirmed that a landlord and tenant relationship existed between MHCLG and the five learned societies. Both parties openly negotiated and agreed an 80-year lease, which would protect the learned societies from paying full market rent until 2085. This agreement, which included a £1 million contribution to repairs from my Department, remains in place today, with MHCLG acting as a supportive landlord, working with its tenants to help the societies deliver their mandates.
Here is, unfortunately, where we get to the faffing. Under the current rental agreement, the rent set for each year is determined by a valuation designed to bring rents gradually to market value by 2085, when the lease expires. The market value is determined by market evidence from comparable properties being used for education or cultural purposes. Given the references to a posh merchandise that might be available locally, it is important to stress that market value in this context does not mean the same value attributed to office tenants or luxury retailers on Piccadilly. Both the learned societies’ and my Department’s valuers agreed the evidence that determines value, and I think we can all agree that that reflects the terms settled upon by the learned societies.
I want to return to the point that the Minister made about what the learned societies do. I would dearly love them to be able to take some of their experience and knowledge around the country more, but it is very difficult to do that if all the money is spent on paying rent to the Government. I wonder what a sensible assessment of, say, £150,000 a year could do for one of the learned societies, as opposed to what it can do for Government. That might be a sensible part of trying to assess a way forward.
I am sure I will repeat this later on, but we have made our pitch to the learned societies and we are awaiting their response. Given the commercial sensitivity of those negotiations, it important that we wait to hear from the learned societies themselves about what they think the way forward will be.
We must acknowledge that the growth in annual rent under the lease contract has been unpredictable. UK rents have grown significantly since 2005, causing a significant challenge for the learned societies. Achieving a rent that represents value for money to the taxpayer while giving security and certainty for the learned societies is the Department’s goal, and we hope to achieve that in collaboration with the learned societies.
Rent for 2020-21 financial year is £15.35 per square foot, which was agreed through the formula and is some 70% lower than the £50 per square foot that is the current market value for similar use—as I said, for educational purposes, not compared with the much more expensive commercial properties. That was agreed by both parties. However, we have heard the real financial concerns of the five learned societies, and the issue has received significant media coverage. In 2019, the societies sought a grant from our Department that would allow them to purchase a 125-year lease from us at a peppercorn rent. We assessed the proposal and of course considered the benefits, which are incredibly difficult to put a value on, of keeping the learned societies at Burlington House.
The Treasury’s Green Book rules require us to assume that if a learned society vacated Burlington House, it could be replaced by a similar tenant who would meet the cost of the rent at the market rate. So, it is not in our Department’s gift to grant that peppercorn lease. I fully appreciate that others have said that different options might be available to the Treasury, but considering such options is clearly way above my pay grade.
Will the Minister not accept that he is missing the point? We are saying that this cannot be done—this building cannot be leased at a commercial rent. We want the Government to assess the building as having cultural value and preferably to give it entirely free of charge to these learned societies. And the notion that somehow or other, over 85 years, the rent may rise to the market rate is ludicrous. It cannot do so—these societies will go broke, these collections will be ruined and the Government will be to blame. We want the Government to renegotiate fundamentally and to charge them nothing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution; the suggestion that he has made is clearly one for the Treasury to consider. However, in the meantime—as I said at the outset—it is the Department’s starting position that we are determined to try to keep the learned societies at Burlington House. So, as we enter into negotiations with them, I am sure that we will have the opportunity to discuss options further.
In January last year, we explained that we could not proceed with a peppercorn rent arrangement and proposed a simplified agreement, which involved slow convergence to the market rent by 2085. We subsequently held further discussions and recently we have put forward the proposal that I referred to, in order to provide security and guarantee predictable future rents for the learned societies, protecting them from market volatility while ensuring that they only have to pay market rent at the end of the lease.
This proposal is predicated on what I believe is a fair and reasonable condition that the learned societies should work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its arm’s length bodies to become more accessible to the wider public and to advance their cultural and educational agenda, so that the societies’ work continues to benefit as many communities as possible. The societies’ future must also reflect a more open and commercial existence, in order to identify and deliver alternative sources of income.
In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned the fact that there would be a restriction stopping the societies from having, for example, a coffee shop. I am sure that restriction is in place now, but it would be open to us to enter into discussions as to whether we could make changes of use, or to see whether there are other opportunities that could be pursued for commercial purposes. It is important to engender a conversation and get that discussion under way.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that I cannot refer in detail to the negotiations that are under way. However, what I can say at the moment is that both parties are in the early stages of the negotiations, and I very much hope that a constructive and positive dialogue will result in the learned societies remaining in Burlington House for the foreseeable future.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend again for raising this issue today and I thank the other Members who have made pertinent and important contributions to the debate. The Government want to continue working closely with the five learned societies and indeed with MPs from all parties in the House, following their valuable contributions today, to ensure that the outcome of our negotiations is a positive one and that we make sure that the learned societies remain in Burlington House for the future, safe in the nation’s capital, where they can continue for generations to come.
I should have said at the outset that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.
This has been an excellent debate. I thank all hon. Members for the conciseness of their contributions, which were all the more powerful for it. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) said, it all comes down to: “Stop faffing around!”
I am delighted that the Minister absolutely appreciates the value of the learned societies, and I in no way meant to impugn his own culture by suggesting that DCMS might be an alternative landlord. However, the problem is that talking about formulas and talking about tweaking formulas just does not cut it. The learned societies would have to sell a hell of a lot of coffee to get anywhere near paying the sort of rents that are being proposed, and at the current rate they are going to be on a full market rent by 2040, not 2085. This is coming down the tracks very quickly.
This is a crisis facing the learned societies. If the Minister genuinely believes, as I hope he does, that Burlington House is their home, and that we need them to open up—we have given examples to show that they desperately want to open up, but they are hamstrung by the financial positions that they find themselves in—I hope that he will consider the way the rent structure works at the moment. It just does not work for these learned societies. We risk losing the huge contribution that they make unless he does that—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).