Wednesday 1 December 2021
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
Community Debt Advice Services
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reductions in community debt advice services.
It is a pleasure to serve, even if very briefly, under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who have supported me on this issue from the very beginning and who are all here today.
I will start by giving a brief outline of the cost of living crisis and then go into the importance of face-to-face debt advice, before looking at the potential model that the Money and Pensions Service will introduce and finishing with my specific requests for the Minister. For brevity, I will refer to the Money and Pensions Service as MaPS; otherwise, we will end up spending an awfully long time just on the title.
A survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in early October this year showed that the number of UK households that are behind on rent, bills or debt repayments has trebled since the pandemic hit, and now stands at nearly 4 million. The pandemic has dragged families who were previously just about managing into arrears on essential bills, and we know that economic pressures are getting worse. Those in receipt of universal credit are beginning to feel the effects of the £20-a-week cut—a cut that Labour, of course, opposed. The ban on evictions has ended, domestic fuel prices are rising and the collapse of providers means that many people have already been transferred to new companies on higher tariffs. As fixed-term plans end, more people will face increased energy bills, and that is before the energy cap is uplifted in April. The Chancellor has it in his powers to reduce VAT on fuel but has chosen not to do so. Workers also face an increase in national insurance. Inflation is rising and is now around 4%, and many expect it to remain at that level until mid-2022.
This is all creating a cost of living crisis, and an increasing number of people will find themselves needing advice and support with debt—many for the first time. Currently, debt advice is provided by a network of local providers and national charities such as Citizens Advice, and they are funded through nine regional grants from MaPS.
Outside the usual services, a number of charities I have met recently have reported that people are approaching them for debt advice or asking to be signposted. The third sector is already struggling to obtain funding in my constituency. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is unfair to expect charities to shoulder most of the burden?
I absolutely agree. As I have outlined, we expect more people to seek debt advice, and the burden will fall on those who provide it at the moment. I pay tribute to all those who currently provide support and debt advice. Some are volunteers, but they often deal with complex cases and they work with sensitivity and compassion to help people at extreme times of personal crisis. Over 100,000 people attempt suicide each year because of debt, so the services that these organisations provide can literally be life-saving.
Lots of people need face-to-face debt advice for a huge a variety of reasons. There is the obvious reason—that they do not have the technology or the internet—but it is not just that. Debt advice clients are often vulnerable. For many, this is due to personal factors such as disability, language barriers, alcohol or substance abuse or mental health conditions. In fact, debt advisers tell me that 82% of their clients have concerns around mental health. But many others are vulnerable due to a change in circumstances—to quote the famous phrase, “We are all just two pay cheques away from being in the same situation.” People get into debt because of bereavement, loss of employment, poor health or domestic abuse. Face-to-face advice provides a safe, supportive environment for a person to seek help.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and she is making a very powerful speech. Supported by Unite the union, a number of debt agencies in my constituency, including the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre, Money Buddies, St Vincent’s and Better Leeds Communities, are seriously concerned that the renegotiation of the MaPS contract will lead to a dramatic reduction in face-to-face advice. Does she agree that it is precisely in the most complex cases, which she is talking about, where people have a carrier bag full of papers, that those agencies, which do a fantastic job, need to be able to see a person face-to-face in order to give them the best possible help to get out of the debt that is weighing on their shoulders?
[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. As debt advisers say, the first face-to-face appointment can be extremely emotional for many people. Sometimes it is the first time they have ever told anybody about their debt problems. For a number of reasons, they might not be able to discuss them at home. Sometimes people feel ashamed and unable to tell their partner that they are suffering from debt. They do not want to be seen as not being able to cope. They could also be a victim of financial abuse—a form of domestic abuse—and they might not want to tell someone of the situation they are in. Sometimes, as my right hon. Friend said, they have accumulated so much correspondence that they are afraid to open it. Bringing those letters to a face-to-face appointment provides the emotional support they need to address the problem.
Debt is often multifaceted. It is a mistake to think that it is an easy financial problem that can be solved by someone at the end of a telephone following a flow chart and using a script. It is not, and nor is it as easy as someone clicking options on a website. People might start with information from a website, then use the phone and finally need a face-to-face appointment with a case adviser. Those face-to-face advisers know their community. They are not just experts in debt advice; they have links to other charities, councils, jobcentres and even local bailiffs. As debt advisers, they have a relationship with those organisations, and they can speak to them and sometimes resolve the problem. When someone enters Citizens Advice with debt advice problems, there are experts there checking what benefits someone is entitled to and that they are getting them. They might say, “Here is where you can get mental health support in the community.” They know the area because they are based there. Moving services to national or regional call centres breaks that connection, which is a disadvantage to everyone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She knows well the high levels of indebtedness in Hull. The fact that there is such an excellent service operating through our local citizens advice bureau is of huge benefit to many people. We know that demand is only going to get higher with the cost of living crisis, which she has so ably outlined. Does she think that having a hybrid system, where there is accessibility through face-to-face appointments as well as telephone advice, is the way to go, rather than moving to telephone advice only?
As I mentioned at the start, my right hon. Friend has been with me from the beginning, looking at this issue and campaigning on it. She is absolutely right. I accept that some people might want to access more virtual appointments and information on a website, but it cannot come at the expense of the face-to-face component. We cannot lose that face-to-face part.
MaPS is changing the way funding is provided. Although, it is increasing the money for debt advice—I want to acknowledge that, and it is set to increase to £77 million in April 2022—the bulk of that funding is moving to call centres and online services. At a meeting on 17 November, the MaPS chief executive and commissioning team told We Are Debt Advisers, which is a group representing debt advisers, that 20% of the £77 million had been allocated to face-to-face appointments. That amounts to £15.4 million. They also said that regional providers currently spend 56% of their existing £33 million on delivering this way, which is £18.5 million. By their own admission, this is a cut of just over £3 million to face-to-face services. That is made worse by the replacement of the grant system with contracting, which in its current form will exclude many smaller providers active in the sector from being able to bid for contracts at all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her work on this issue. She makes a powerful point about the shift in priority, and therefore funding, from face-to-face debt advice to online and telephone advice. In South Yorkshire, there are currently 28 funded face-to-face debt advisers, but that will go down to seven. Pre pandemic, in Rotherham alone, the number of new face-to-face debt inquiries each year was 2,200. In the context that she has set out of rising prices, bills and taxes, she might question Ministers whether, if the Treasury or MaPS have evidence to suggest that the demand for face-to-face debt advice will go down, not up, and to justify these cuts, they will publish that, and then we will all be better informed and more confident about the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who has been campaigning on this issue from the very beginning. He is absolutely right: all the forecasts—all of them—show that demand for debt advice will only increase. We know that. We also know that cases can be complex and that it can sometimes be the first time that people have got into debt. So the idea that we would cut face-to-face advice at this time seems incomprehensible.
Under the new tender, MaPS will instead have three national contracts. Its staff met me—I credit them for that—and said that these will be a mix of face-to-face, digital and phone services, with one each for the north, the midlands and the south of England, and a separate arrangement for a national call centre. However, three regional contracts, instead of nine smaller ones, as it was before, means that small, local providers that currently rely on MaPS funding for the bulk of their income face having to drop face-to-face services or close entirely. Many already know that they are not included in tender bids because they do not have the size or resources to compete individually for these tenders. Sylvia Simpson, chair of the Leeds Debt Advice Network, described the impact as “catastrophic”, with three out of four local MaPS-funded debt agencies no longer able to provide debt advice after 31 March. There are serious doubts about the rationale for the decision to restructure funding. Where is the evidence to support it and its timing? Does MaPS have confidence in the outcome itself?
Debt advisers tell me that there has been no proper consultation. In the face of the national outcry from debt advice organisations, charities and trade unions, MaPS issued a two-week call for evidence concerning the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on access to debt advice. That concluded on 29 October, but the procurement exercise for the new contracts had already taken place. The consultation will not influence a procurement process that has already gone on, so what was its purpose? It is clear that the procurement exercise expected bidders to focus on digital and telephone-based services rather than face-to-face services, despite MaPS’ own evidence showing that demand for face-to-face services was almost double supply.
A 2019 MaPS assessment of the need for debt advice said:
“Face-to-face is the channel with the smallest gap between demand and supply at the national level. Nevertheless, the levels of unmet demand are high, with demand being over two times higher than supply. It is also the channel with the biggest variation in unmet demand between countries and regions. Face-to-face unmet demand is particularly high in London, where existing supply of face-to-face debt advice could meet only just over a fifth of current demand.”
MaPS does not seem to have evidence that the need for face-to-face services will fall. On 29 November, in reply to a letter sent on 16 November from the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), MaPS provided figures showing that, for the last pre-pandemic year, 2019-20, face-to-face services accounted for 34% of its consultations. That fell by only 3 percentage points, to 31%, in 2020-21, despite the fact, let us not forget, that this was during a global pandemic that involved lockdowns, compulsory mask wearing, the adoption of social distancing and people being afraid to leave their homes. Despite all that, the demand for face-to-face debt advice fell by only three percentage points. In its letter to the Treasury Committee, MaPS notes that its most recent modelling of future demand is from autumn 2020 which, as we will remember all too well, was just before another national lockdown and before the pandemic’s third wave brutally hit, killing thousands of people in our country. That is when the modelling was done. MaPS does not say whether the modelling includes the impact of the pandemic, but I think we can assume it probably did not.
On the importance of face-to-face appointments, MaPS said that the forecast
“did not make distinctions between case complexity or channel of provision.”
If someone has a simple debt inquiry, they would probably google it and look on a website, or they might phone someone up and check. If their case is extremely complex—I refer to my earlier points on domestic abuse, mental health and such concerns—accessing a website is not going to be suitable. MaPS needs to be looking at complex cases and how it provides support.
In other words, the modelling does not tell MaPS how much demand for face-to-face appointments to expect, and the contract does not give it control over how much can be provided. MaPS claims that changes will increase accessibility to advice in those difficult-to-reach places, but those changes could mean the opportunity for face-to-face advice would no longer exist in some areas of the country. I accept—I was discussing this point with the Minister earlier—that some areas could end up with more access to advice, but that is at the expense of other areas.
In the letter, MaPS mentions an equalities and vulnerability impact assessment. That has not been made available and I hope the Minister is able to use his influence to say to MaPS that it should be published. At the moment, MaPS is saying to me, “We do not know, because we are still commissioning. We are not sure how much will be face to face; we are not sure how much will be on the phone or remote. We haven’t made any decisions.” If that is true and it does not know where it is going to end up, how can it have done an equalities and vulnerability impact assessment? When MaPS has made up its mind about what it wants, I assume another impact assessment will be needed. I hope that one is made public.
I hope I have explained clearly why face-to-face advice is the only way of supporting a significant proportion of people in debt, and why a reduction in capacity and coverage will fail some of the most vulnerable in our society. I hope that MaPS does more to reach out more effectively to practitioners with a lifetime of experience and knowledge in the field. Debt advice groups such as AdviceUK believe that MaPS’ vision for debt advice is deeply flawed, does not meet the needs of the diverse communities across England and does not enable the provision of flexible, in-depth and sustainable debt advice services.
MaPS cannot explain why it has made the funding allocations it has done or what impact they will have on people with complex needs. Of course, the pandemic has been a huge disrupter. Its effects are still being played out and the future remains hard to predict, but we do know that there will be an increase in the number of families in debt. We know that we are only beginning to see the devastating impact of the cost of living crisis. I hope the Minister is able to use all the influence he has—accepting, of course, that MaPS is a separate organisation and that this is a commercial contract—to call on MaPS to place an immediate hold on the procurement of new debt advice contracts, pending a thorough and effective consultation into the likely demand for face-to-face services in the near future; and to insist that there should be no loss of debt adviser jobs and an increase in funding for community-based face-to-face services. Consultation with frontline advisers through their trade union should also be essential for all future decisions affecting jobs and service delivery.
I finish by reminding the Minister of my earlier comment: more than 100,000 people attempt suicide each year because of debt. The services these organisations provide can literally be life-saving. Having the right debt advice is too important to get wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on her well-informed and passionate speech.
We know demand for debt advice services is high and likely to increase, because personal debt is soaring, because of rising energy and food bills, and the end of furlough and debt payment holidays. Those schemes did quite a lot to put off the problem, but it never went away. About 4 million low-income households in the UK are behind on their rent, essential bills and debt payments. That figure has grown threefold since the pandemic, and coupled with that, there have been big changes to the commissioning of debt advice. That was on 16 July, when we had hoped the pandemic was coming to an end, but it is probably still carrying on, so is this the right time for a new and completely different approach?
It is really welcome that MaPS is investing more money in debt advice, and I also welcome the fact that it is looking at the wellbeing of advisers. Debt advice puts a considerable strain on those advising: quite often, the people who come in are at the end of their tether. There was a black joke in the citizens advice bureau I worked at that when somebody came in with a bulging carrier bag, it was going to be a debt client, and the bag would be full of bills that people could not open. They had put them behind the clock until the clock fell off the mantelpiece, and then they would seek debt advice. That was not just those who could not cope, but people from all walks of life, including professional people. Debt has a particular impact on individuals. It often leaves people feeling shame that they are in this position and cannot do what they want for their families. That is wrong, but it is how people feel, and we cannot get away from it.
I know that my hon. Friend is an expert in this area, not least because of all of the years that she worked with the CAB. Would she say something about the importance of the holistic approach to advice? This is very often not just about debt, but other issues, including domestic violence. In my experience as a criminal lawyer, people often get into all sorts of difficulties as a result of other factors. Indeed, the problem is often that people have not been pointed in the right direction on issues such as the benefits that they are entitled to, but do not actually claim.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will be moving on to discuss the wraparound provision, which does not just cover debt advice. We cannot just see debt as the problem: the important thing is the person who has the problem, and we have to deal with all their problems through that person-centred approach. It is no good just dealing with a person’s debt if they also have an employment problem or a housing problem that needs to be solved. We have to look at everything in the round.
I do agree, but I do not think there is a silver bullet. Some of the problem is that there just is not enough money to go around, and it does not matter how well a person manages their money if they do not have enough to go around. Money management education is one of the tools of the trade, but it is not a silver bullet.
As I was saying about the new MaPS contract, it is good to look at the wellbeing of the advisers. I have heard that the debt advice peer assessment scheme has caused advisers considerable strain, with people having to do two web chats at once, which is really not feasible: they have to concentrate on the individual. This focus on wellbeing is acceptable, but I worry about the nine regional branches for debt advice going. About half of the money will go to the three national digital and phone-based services centres in the north, the midlands and the south, which will largely be at the expense of face-to-face provision, and providers can bid for only two of those. That element of competition worries me a bit. We all know that advice agencies are competitive: we have had to be, because we are competing for a limited pot of money. However, setting people up against each other is not the way to do it. Collaboration is the key with advice agencies, and we need to see more of that. I do not disagree with contracts—I think they are a way forward—but I do think we need to look at the way in which the contract is tendered and, in particular, how it can promote collaboration.
The 50% cut in the regional services is another worry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, it is vital that there is partnership between the local agencies, and those partnerships are often built up on the ground with local knowledge. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) mentioned, it is the wraparound casework support; the writing and phoning creditors; the knowledge of bailiffs in the area and how the local authorities work; and having those personal contacts that are vital. We know that people who have mental health issues often need the comfort of a face-to-face service. They may well be able to move on to a telephone service at some point in future, but an experienced adviser will be able to say when that point is.
I am also concerned about the nature of the contract. A number of smaller agencies are being put off from bidding because payment in arrears is a real problem. Advice agencies cannot cope with payment in arrears. They need to know that the money is there up front. They are not paying their advisers and rent in arrears; they are paying for everything and it is a month-on-month worry. The full responsibility for the TUPE arrangements is a problem, as is clawback, which needs to be specified as to the quality targets and the amounts.
I am pleased that in my discussions with MaPS it said it would not be a month-on-month target, because all of us in the advice field know that December sees a drop in cases, whereas January and February see a big rise. The demand for debt advice is not stable month on month; it goes up and down. I would also like to see time targets, not numbers. Number targets encourage short, easily dealt with cases, whereas the people who need face-to-face support need time to deal with complex debts and the emotional and other associated issues.
On the important issue of face-to-face contact and the empathy needed, particularly for very vulnerable families obviously in need, will the hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to the likes of Citizens Advice, of which she is well aware, and other groups, such as Christians Against Poverty, that offer empathy and a counselling role to assist people through those problems, and in calling for more support for such groups?
I certainly would. A friendly face is important, somebody outside the family who is not judging, but dealing with someone as an individual with problems, and not just as a problem. Many local providers of face-to-face debt advice have felt unable to bid because of the risks involved in entering the contracts, and the large size of the contract, as well as the lack of any allowance for inflation at a time when inflation is expected to rise.
The specifications place undue risk on the contractors, requiring them to forecast volumes of people over the first three years of the contract. There has been a pandemic and a rise in inflation; how are they going to predict what will happen in three years’ time? Three years ago, could we have predicted what was going to happen now? I do not think so. There is a worry that the small, local providers that rely on the MaPS funding may have to drop face-to-face services or close entirely. Many are not included in the tender bids and they do not have the size or resources to compete for the tender individually.
What assessment has been made of the loss of local services, those that are there now, and those that say they are likely to close if they do not get any funding from the contract? I hope that the shift from face-to-face is not motivated by cost-cutting. That is worrying because the cases are more complex and less capable of being dealt with through telephone and digital service.
Telephone services work where the debt is quickly identified and there is excess income that can be distributed to creditors in a debt management plan. That is when it works. There are fewer and fewer of those cases coming forward. Face-to-face services typically support clients with a wider range of problems, such as benefit claims, charitable applications, access to local welfare assistance schemes, that national and regional contracts are not aware of. Those services become more important because of the new help to claim contract that is being put out to tender, which takes out face-to-face entirely. That is a big mistake and will lead to a lot more debt in the future.
Clients who have complex interwoven problems, including debt, housing issues, mental illness and domestic violence, struggle to access and navigate online services. In my borough, in Wigan, people do not go online as much as in other boroughs. In fact, only a couple of years ago, 30% of people in Wigan said they had never been online. They would be particularly at risk.
It will hit vulnerable clients, less well-off people, young people and people with dependent children. We assume all young people go online to get help with their debt, but that is not the case. Quite often, when they are hit by debt for the first time, they do not know who to turn to. It is important that they can turn to an individual, who can say, “Okay, do this,” and then perhaps move them on.
The previous commissioning strategy seemed to better recognise that people in debt need access to a wide range of wraparound support, but that has now been superseded. How was that previous contract looked at? Why was it seen to be unsuitable in the future?
AdviceUK says that MaPS’ approach is wrong because it is rooted in a mistaken belief that debt is solely a problem of poor choices by individuals. That needs to be part of a wider conversation about welfare support for the most vulnerable, rising living costs, improving life chances, unstable and poorly paid work, which we know is a big driver of debt, and improving the credit industry, especially the way in which people on low incomes are treated by that industry and the products that are available to them, which often cost more and are less suitable.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle that there needs to be a pause to this contract and that we need to look at it in the round, and whether it will improve the lives and the chances of people in debt. I would also like us to look at debt solutions and debt enforcement. We need to put more thought into how to prevent people from falling into debt in the first place, how to get more money into people’s pockets and how we deal with them when they get into debt.
Inevitably, people will get into debt. From the time that citizens advice bureaux were founded during the second world war, they have worked to put themselves out of business, but they are now needed more than ever. There is not going to be a solution that will ever bring an end to debt. We have to get solutions that make the lives of people in debt easier and more manageable, and certainly try to take the stigma away from debt.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on setting the scene and thank her for that. This is a massive issue, not just in the hon. Lady’s constituency, but in my own. In our office, we deal with those who have extreme financial difficulties every day and every week. I will give a couple of examples, without mentioning any names.
In Strangford, the CAB, Christians Against Poverty, church groups and other groups provide community debt advice services; those are the groups that I work with on most occasions. There has been an increase of at least 30% in gas, electricity and oil prices in Northern Ireland, and cold weather and an extreme winter are predicted. Food prices are up by as much as 20% in some places and there is the additional pressure of Christmas, with the expectation that many families feel forced to live up to. We all know about that because we talk to our constituents. When children see something at school that their friends have, there is almost an onus on the parents to make sure their children get the same thing. That is not a criticism; it is the nature of how we live in our lives, but it adds a huge burden to low-income families, with recent reports citing that families will spend an average of £300 per child. That does not include spending on other family members.
For me, Ms Bardell, Christmas is a time to enjoy being with family. I have three boys who are 32, 30 and 28, three daughters-in-law and five grandchildren, so for me Christmas is time to spend with my grandchildren. The good thing about being a grandparent is that at 7 o’clock at night I can give them back. We have all had those joys as parents; when they have a tantrum, or they get a bit tired but they do not want to go to bed—or they do want to go to bed.
A lot of people are not aware that Christmas spending is something that can be accounted for in income and expenditure forms when dealing with debt. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the need for better awareness when dealing with debt does not mean losing that quality of life as well?
We do not want to lose quality of life, but we do need to deal with the reality of life. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) outlined in great detail the issues that most families feel—and address. It is easy for me to talk about time with the family, because it is my wife Sandra who chooses the Christmas gifts. She is better at it than me, and knows what the children want. The money we spend is disbursed as she sees fit. However, for other people, it will be a juggling exercise between buying Christmas presents and being able to afford the oil and electric bills. That is the issue and that is why I am here to speak on behalf of those constituents who are under great pressure.
The security is not there for many families. Rather than seeing disappointed faces on Christmas morning, people make purchases and live with the debt for months to come. Last week, in my local press back home, there was an indication that this year in particular, the issue for those who have maxed out their credit cards is that they will turn to payday loans. I have forever cautioned against that, because the reality will be extreme. There will be a pain-free two weeks, but then there will be a very painful month after Christmas. I have extreme concern for those people.
I certainly am concerned. I am going to give two examples of those who have had extreme difficulties. There are many groups in my constituency that do great work; Citizens Advice is one of them. I have dealt with Citizens Advice ever since I became an elected representative, first, as a councillor in 1985, then as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and now as a Westminster MP. I have a good working relationship and regular contact with Christians Against Poverty; they are inundated with people who have decided to make this new year the one when they get on top of their finances. Last year, CAP helped over 16,000 people with debt; they shared in the success of 2,500 becoming debt free—wow, it is a big day for people when they become debt free. It is so important. They helped almost 1,500 people through a covid-19 emergency appeal. Christians Against Poverty in my constituency are based at Thriving Life Church in Newtownards. I think probably all the churches have a help and advice service, similar to what Christians Against Poverty do. However, Thriving Life Church does particularly incredible work.
While I was sitting in this debate, I thought of one example—I am conscious of time and I want to be fair to other Members. On occasion I have had to contact Pastor Cotter of Elim Church, Newtownards, to deal with some personal debt issues that he has been able to help with. His ability to work through the mechanics of the mathematics and make sure that people get out the other side is incredible. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said in her introduction, and it cannot be emphasised enough, that this drives people to the very edge of desperation. I have seen that. Christians Against Poverty facilitate, through some 1,200 churches across the UK, help and advice to those families and individuals who have got themselves into difficulties with their money. Many of these are working people; they are the working poor. These are the people we are here to represent. They are people who have incredible financial difficulty, who are squeezed most by the removal of the tax credit bonus, and who are suffering most with the universal credit differences.
I am going to give another, desperate example. I know one young women in my constituency whose disability living allowance was turned down. Over the 7 months of her appeal process, she found herself in over £4,000 debt, through maxed-out credit cards and payday loans—she was absolutely in over her head. I know that this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but there must be some way of hurrying up the process. It eventually found in her favour after seven months, but that was seven months of excruciating worry where she was pushed to the point of suicide. This is no exaggeration, but by the time she came into my office she was sobbing her heart out, mortified and suicidal. I was so grateful that my staff knew who and where to send her—where she would receive help and compassion and where there would be no judgment.
People who max out their cards are scared, fearful, apprehensive and extremely worried. That is why Citizens Advice, Christians Against Poverty and other groups are so important, and that is why we as elected representatives make those points on behalf of our constituents. My constituent needed CAP’s help, and that is why I believe that CAP and other community debt organisations are essential in today’s climate. Not only do they help to take the stress of the phone calls and letters but they future-proof finances. In other words, they sort out people’s issues today as well as giving them advice for the future—it is important that they do not later fall back into debt—and teaching finance coping mechanisms. They go through day-to-day finances with savings schemes and allocate money for small treats—people need the small treats for their children and families that many of us take for granted, such as a cinema trip or the Chinese at the weekend—as they understand life and have the expertise and knowledge to teach others a better way of handling the stress and pressure of life.
Christians Against Poverty and other community debt advice providers save lives and prevent the break-up of family units with their support and help. I thank CAP in Newtownards, based at Thriving Life church, for all that it does. Community debt centres are lifelines, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they have funding available to help to cover the costs of their free services, which save lives and improve people’s quality of life. As we come towards Christmas, I remind people that there is a way to come to terms with crippling debt: take that first step of acknowledging your problems and seeking the help you need. People want to help you, and your MP will want to help. Do not wait for the new year to come. Do it now, and have your Christmas unburdened by the stress of debt that is weighing you down. Help is available—just ask. People are there who could help you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing the debate and speaking so passionately about the impact on her constituents, and indeed all our constituents.
In the last 13 years, families in Nottingham East have faced blow after blow to their finances. People lost jobs and savings in the 2008 financial crash, more than a decade of austerity has seen benefit payments brutally cut and, in the pandemic, incomes have plummeted. Throughout all of that, our community has been able to rely on St Ann’s Advice Centre, which has been a lifeline to so many people in Nottingham. Its debt advisers help to set up manageable payment plans, help people to complete financial statements and apply for certain grants, carry out benefits checks, and provide advice on budgeting decisions. More than that, from employment advice to food, furniture and clothing, the advice centre takes a holistic approach to supporting individuals. It is a one-stop shop for people facing poverty.
St Ann’s has three debt advisers funded through a MaPS contract. However, under the new proposals, it will lose all of them and, because MaPS has the monopoly on debt advice, it is unlikely to get support from anywhere else. MaPS argues that, while community-based face-to-face services are being cut, more money is being put into a centralised digital and telephone-based system. There are a number of major problems with that change, but I will outline just two. First, removing the local face-to-face element will take away an entire support system from people. When people come through the door at St Ann’s for debt advice, they can also get support with a whole range of other issues tailored for them locally—they can leave with a food parcel or a clothing parcel—which cannot be replaced on the internet or over the phone. Secondly, digital and phone advice is simply not appropriate for some of my constituents.
According to frontline debt advisers working on webchat, about 50% of all clients either disengage or need to be directed to face-to-face services to ultimately have their problems resolved. Can the Minister say what will happen to people whose problems cannot be solved by digital and phone-based services? Who will support them if community debt advice is cut? Disabled people, elderly people, those who require translation or who lack regular access to a phone or the internet due to homelessness or poverty—those people will suffer. Many of them are among the most marginalised and vulnerable in society.
Recently, St Ann’s debt helpline inbox received 455 emails in one week. That is the worst they have ever seen. These changes and cuts would be wrong at any time, but to implement them now—after a pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s lives, as families have £20 a week cut from their universal credit payments, as national insurance contributions rise, and as bills and food prices soar—is simply inhumane.
The debt crisis will only grow. MaPS is removing some of the last genuine support my constituents have access to—the people they turn to when bailiffs are at the door; the people who will hold their hands in times of extreme personal difficulty and crisis. The Government must remember that savings made through cuts to community debt advice will have knock-on impacts on other public services, such as the benefits system, mental health provision and homelessness services.
I urge the Minister to pause this contract. He has heard today about the catastrophic impact these changes will have on people’s lives—on my constituents and on his. Go back to the drawing board and work with MPs across the House to implement the kind of debt advice system that would best serve our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing the debate.
As we have heard, debt has many forms and can affect anyone. However, it is particularly difficult for those on lower incomes, who are unfortunately kept in what could be seen as a debt trap, with higher levels of credit being offered. Whether it is payday loans—as we have discussed in the House many times—or online credit when people buy online, or someone simply taking on a car and a mortgage and their circumstances changing, many things can put someone in debt. While there are many reasons behind it, the impact is the same. People feel extreme stress; as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle outlined, 100,000 people a year try to take their lives as a result of debt. That is a staggering figure and we should be deeply ashamed of it.
Considering where we are now, after the pandemic, provides important context. Since 2012, household debt has risen every year. Although we have seen a sharp decline in so-called unsecured debt through the pandemic, as savings have risen and outgoings have fallen, it is clear that those aggregated figures mask deep inequalities in our society.
While people on higher incomes were four times more likely to see their family savings increase under lockdown, roughly a third of low-income households saw their savings all but depleted. Part of that inequality is explained by the hit to incomes that many people experienced through the pandemic, by either having their salaries reduced through being on furlough or losing their jobs altogether. One of the most shocking economic facts of the lockdown and the covid crisis is that the increase in the average wage was due not to actual wages increasing, but to the number of people on low wages being forced out of work.
The Government are hitting lower-income families even harder with the cut to universal credit and the increase in national insurance, all while inflation continues to soar and we see large increases in energy bills—I expect we will continue to see a sharp rise in demand for support with unmanageable debts. That is why, after engineering all this inequality, the proposal to reduce the amount of face-to-face debt advice makes absolutely no sense.
I do not need to tell Members about the huge increase in complex constituency casework that we have all seen throughout the pandemic. I do not need to even mention the importance of our constituency caseworkers or surgeries in helping our constituents. It is that detailed, face-to-face meticulous support that the new MaPS proposals will axe. As a former councillor, I know that every local authority deals with debt support differently. Some areas do not offer local assistance grants, for example. With 330 different types of local authorities, a national and regional system would struggle to understand what the full offer is in individual areas.
Some might argue that the overall spending envelope on debt advice has increased. I hope the Minister will not reach for that today, because those resources are going to national services that cannot provide the quality of support and follow-through from one-off conversations with someone in a national call centre.
I worry about access. Will the Minister confirm that calls will be free and web pages free to visit? I am concerned about access in terms of disability. As we know, some people who suffer from certain disabilities are more likely to have issues with debt. It is really important that people can access services no matter their circumstances, so I want to hear more about how the Minister will support people with disabilities and debt issues. I am also concerned about the move away from grant agreements to commercial contracts with debt advice providers. We have seen that fail repeatedly in other DWP contexts. Large outsourcing companies are very good at gaming key performance indicators, as we all know, but when it comes to providing services, the service users and staff often suffer.
MaPS needs to pause the process and rethink. Instead of handing out redundancy notices just before Christmas to some of the most highly trained staff and reducing regional wraparound face-to-face services, which all our constituents rely on, it should enter into proper consultation with debt advisers and agencies, and make sure that any future contracts are accessible at a local level. Only by including those voices and listening to organisations such as We Are Debt Advisers and trade union groups such as the Unite Debt Advice Network will we find a way forward for these services and ultimately help people in a desperate situation.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). Persistence pays off, because my hon. Friend has been incredibly persistent in securing this very important debate. I thank her very much indeed for that.
I want to begin by paying tribute to Unite the union. It is my trade union and I am very proud of its constructive campaign on this issue. I also want to thank Citizens Advice, a crucial organisation that is important to me and my constituents. For many years I hosted a citizens advice bureau clinic from my constituency office. It was incredibly busy. It was probably then that I recognised how crucial the service was. An array of people came to that clinic, but they were not what one might expect—somebody on the bones of their backside. The people varied. Some were in good, well-paid employment, often coming up against it and getting into real difficulty. As my hon. Friend said, it is true what people say that we are only two pay cheques away from such incredible difficulty ourselves.
I am incredibly proud to represent the constituency of Kingston upon Hull East, not least because I was born and bred there, but we have real difficulties in Hull. I think I am right in saying that insolvency in Hull is double the national average. In 2019-20, before the pandemic, I understand that the CAB saw 6,000 people for debt, 89% of them face to face. I did not intend to detain the House for very long, but I just want to make this one plea to the Minister. I pray in aid for his support in this: we need to pause, because we do not know—we cannot possibly know—what the result of the pandemic is in reality.
I think the Minister has the power to say to MaPS, “Let’s pause now. Let’s not do something that we will potentially regret later on.” I ask the Minister to pause the change, because it is obvious from the hon. Members who have spoken today that it is essential to stop it. I am not suggesting it is finished forever; it might be, but after a period of time and proper, decent consultation, we can revisit this idea. For now, I say to the Minister, “You have the power. Use it rightly and pause this now.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) not only for securing this debate, but for becoming a formidable champion for debt and welfare advice services up and down the country.
We are in the middle of a perfect financial storm. Increasing taxes, soaring inflation, the gas price crisis, the end of furlough, the removal of the universal credit uplift—the list goes on. As a nation, our finances are being squeezed more tightly than ever before, and what we have to show for it is an increase in personal debt. At least 7 million adults are currently behind on at least one household bill. The Bank of England has told us to expect a sharp increase in defaults on household and business loans, as well as a coming sharp rise in the cost of energy over the winter.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the newly-crowned most popular show ever on Netflix revolves around the central theme of crushing personal debt. We should make no mistake: whether through malnourishment, fuel poverty or, most commonly, poor mental health, debt does kill. It killed Jerome Rogers, who died by suicide aged just 20, having accrued debts of only just over £1,000 stemming from two unpaid £65 traffic fines. It disproportionately kills renters, the young, those on zero-hour contracts and people of colour.
But there is help at hand. Some of it comes from our own offices and the hundreds of dedicated caseworkers who work so hard for MPs, dealing with the broadest range of issues imaginable in what can often be a fairly thankless task. We all thank our staff for the work they do. Pre-pandemic research from the CAB found that more than three quarters of MP caseworkers had dealt with issues pertaining to bailiffs, and still more are dealing with a case load characterised more and more by personal debt and the issues it causes.
MPs’ offices, however, are not debt advice centres. Our staff do not have the time and, although I am lucky that my senior caseworker is also an experienced debt adviser, most of us are unlikely to have specifically trained staff in our offices. When I heard that MaPS was proposing a rise in funding for debt advice services, initially I thought I would be pleased, especially given that the predicted amount would rise by 60% by the end of the year; but my concern, like that of everybody else here, is that most of the funding is set to go to a handful of national services offering advice over the phone or online.
That change in funding strategy will have the impact of cutting face-to-face debt advice by possibly as much as 50% to 60%. I thank Unite the union for its campaign to support the retention of and possibly an increase in funding—it is defending not only its workers, but people in the most awful circumstances, and going above and beyond the remit of a trade union into broader social campaigning.
In Leeds, the decision will mean that at least three out of the four MaPS-funded services will lose advisers. For the benefit of those familiar with Leeds, that means that the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre is set to lose all its debt advisers, as will St Vincent’s Centre, and Better Leeds Communities will also lose half its advisers. To add insult to injury, Leeds City Council was not consulted prior to the recommissioning, and I am sure none of our other local authorities were either.
All those services are based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), but they cover the whole city—a city with eight constituencies and 800,000 people. The important thing to remember is that those centres are not just there for debt and welfare advice; they are multi-purpose community centres. If someone goes in to see a debt adviser and does not have any food to feed their children, the centre will give them a food parcel. If someone is suffering from crushing mental health problems, they will be taken down the corridor to the counselling service. If someone has had nothing to eat that day, they will be taken downstairs to the café. Sorry—I am getting slightly emotional because I have a lot of experience with these organisations. I am thinking about people I know who have been to them. If someone needs to go to court, a person from the centre will physically go to court with them, hold their hand and support them through the process—an absolutely awful experience for anybody who has to go through it.
Those multi-service community centres cannot be replaced by a screen or a phone. The Minister really needs to think about that. We are not just talking about the fact that people will not have a service that can deal with their debt; they will not get support at all. Many, many people who face debt crises already have suicidal thoughts. We will see a big increase in suicide rates, pressure on A&E and the inundation of hospitals and mental health institutions, just for the sake of saving a fairly small amount of MaPS funding.
Those organisations, and so many like them up and down the country, do vital and essential work. Experienced debt advisers can be the difference between shelter and homelessness, between happiness and despair, for many people. They change and save lives. Once they are gone—once they have left the profession—it is very hard for them to come back. These are not well paid jobs.
Absolutely, it is a vocation—a passion. Debt advisers want to help people. They want to save lives. When they leave the profession, they are very well qualified to work in many other areas, including financial services, where they will be paid much more. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Every community needs specialist debt advisers who are available to those who need them. I am sure that, as MPs, everyone in the Chamber can appreciate that people need face-to-face support for many different reasons. That is one reason why we hold surgeries for our constituents, but we cannot be the last emergency service; we need these specialist services. I therefore ask the Minister today to stop the procurement exercise and retender it with a priority on face-to-face debt advice, as well as online and phone advice, so that we get the services people need and avoid a potential crisis in this country with severe loss of life.
Thank you for chairing our proceedings this morning, Ms Bardell. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing the debate, and thank all hon. Members representing different parts of the country for their contributions.
When people fall into serious debt that they cannot manage, it is one of the most stressful experiences in life. Multiple debts can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, being pursued by creditors, having mental health problems, in some cases losing their home, and, in even worse cases, trying to take their own life. I begin by paying tribute to the advisers who are trying to help people in those circumstances: to the citizens advice bureau and other agencies in my city of Wolverhampton, and to all those around the country that we have heard about this morning.
We come to this issue after a year and a half of the pandemic. The pandemic had contrasting effects around the country for people, financially. It was, in many ways, a tale of two Britains. In one Britain, people were able to work from home, were paid at or near their full salary, and yet saw their expenditure reduce—they were no longer spending on holidays, restaurants or other forms of entertainment—and were able to save money. That is the key factor behind the rise in bank deposits that we saw during the pandemic—something that happened not just in this country, but in most comparable countries. That is the story of one Britain.
However, the other Britain that we have been hearing about this morning is a very different story. Here, families on low incomes saw their expenses increase. They were at home with the heating on all day. They had children who were off school, who needed to be fed more at home than was usually the case. Those families could not afford holidays or eating out in the first place, so they were not saving anything through the absence of those options, yet they had extra expenditure pressures and, of course, some people fell through the gaps in the various Government support schemes, be that furlough, self-employed grants or other support. For those families, the pandemic was really tough financially, and it added hugely to the pressures they were already under.
That took place over the past 18 months, but right now, looking forward, we have rising inflation, rising energy bills and a series of tax rises that will come into force in April next year. The charity StepChange estimates that 14 million people faced a fall in their incomes at the start of the pandemic, and most of those did not experience a quick recovery. It estimates that 4.3 million people are behind on bills such as council tax, rent or utilities. One in three of those who are in difficulty have had to resort to measures such as skipping meals or rationing the use of utilities, and one in four of those who accessed payment holidays during the pandemic have subsequently missed a payment. It is against that background that the Money and Pensions Service is changing how debt advice will be delivered.
As we have heard, debt advice is crucially important, because it can make the difference between someone being overwhelmed by their debts and their finding a way to control them and, hopefully, pay them off over time. Good advice on that front can make the difference between a person being evicted and their keeping their home, and in some cases, as we have heard, it can actually save lives. I acknowledge the work that the Government have done to institute a breathing space that gives people protection from enforcement action for a specific period during which a manageable repayment plan is organised; but access to that breathing space is itself dependent on accessing proper debt advice. The Government have put more money into debt advice since the start of the pandemic, acknowledging the rise in need that is reflected in the figures that have been quoted over and over again in this debate. However, the balance of how that money is spent is changing markedly, from face-to-face advice to online and telephone advice. That is the crux of what we have been talking about this morning.
Of course, it might be that online and telephone advice is suitable for some people, and can help them with their problems. We all understand that the world is changing, and that we should make use of technology in delivering public services—nobody is arguing for the world to stand still. However, online advice will not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with the most complex debt needs, and the fear being expressed this morning is that if the right balance is not struck, people could lose out on the face-to-face advice that they need, with some very damaging consequences for them. Right now, it is feared that the number of face-to-face advisers could be cut by around two thirds under the plans that have been put forward.
Let me quickly give the Minister some examples of where that face-to-face advice is particularly valuable. I am grateful to the debt advisers who took part in a call with me yesterday in preparation for this debate. The first point is literacy: a significant proportion of the people with the most complex debt needs may also have literacy problems. They do not always find it easy to navigate online forums or to realise immediately the key parts of a letter that they might have received, and as we have heard this morning, some people cannot even face opening correspondence because they know the direction in which their situation is heading. It is not always easy for people to admit that they have a literacy problem, but this is an area in which a face-to-face adviser can provide invaluable help.
The second point is privacy. In some cases, domestic violence or fear of a partner can be an important factor. We have heard about financial intimidation within households: people in those circumstances do not want a phone call to be overheard, or their partner seeing which website they are on or who they might be talking to online. Again, face-to-face contact can provide that level of privacy. Thirdly, representation to courts can be crucial, such as in threatened eviction cases. That is often based on local knowledge of key local authority or court officials. It is very unlikely that a call to a call centre or the use of an online service will replicate that kind of targeted local intervention, and those interventions can make a big difference. As such, my plea to the Minister is this: if debt advice is to be reformed, let us ensure that those who need face-to-face advice can still get it.
One feature of debt advice is that people sometimes do not seek it until very late in the day—maybe just a day or two before they face drastic action from a creditor. A face-to-face adviser can know the urgency and make a lot of calls very quickly. We should ask ourselves whether an online service will really deal with urgent situations like that. There is also a problem with which we MPs are all familiar—the need to read between the lines. A person might come to see us with one problem, but as they talk, more and more comes out. We have all had cases like that, and often the initial thing that they raise is not really the biggest thing that has gone wrong in their life. That is something that we all recognise from our advice surgeries, and it is far easier to spot in a face-to-face meeting than through another channel.
The other factor here is that it is hard for the organisations involved to speak up, because they are bidding for money from the contracts and are worried that if they speak up too loudly, they might get on the wrong side of the Money and Pensions Service, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury or somebody who is involved in making the decision. However, these issues have been raised with us, and they deserve serious consideration by Ministers.
Nobody wants the world to stand still. We all understand that the way that services are delivered is changing. As I say, that might suit many people, but my plea to the Minister is not to design a service that cuts off the possibility of face-to-face advice for people who need it. If that happens, the problem is that we will not know about the evictions that could have been prevented. We will not know about the problems that might have been headed off, if only advisers had been able to see people and talk to them. We will not know about the mental health problems that go undiagnosed or untreated. We will not know about the person with literacy problems who did not get the help that might have made a difference to them, because many of the people with the most complex needs might not access the advice at all.
I acknowledge that, overall, the Government have put extra money into this field during the pandemic and the last couple of years, but the money going into face-to-face advice specifically is being reduced. I appeal to the Minister, his colleagues and MaPS to structure the contracts in a way that ensures that face-to-face advice is there for those who need it and that the local knowledge in these services, which is so important, is not lost.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond, Ms Bardell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to speak in the debate on behalf of the Government.
I have listened intently and carefully to all seven Back-Bench speeches, which have revealed considerable understanding of the complexity of the service delivery in constituencies across this country. There has also been significant commentary around the context in which our constituents find themselves at this incredibly difficult time. I will endeavour to answer the specific concerns raised about the recommissioning exercise by the Money and Pensions Service in a few moments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on the constructive tone and content of her speech, and on securing the debate.
I will begin with a deliberately unambiguous statement: the Government are committed to supporting the financial wellbeing of the most vulnerable in society, and to tackling problem debt. As reflected in the contributions to the debate, hon. Members will be well aware of the scale and breadth of the package that we put in place to protect jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. It was one of the most comprehensive support packages in the world, but I recognise that it was never going to be comprehensive for every single need.
We recognise that individuals in problem debt require extra support to get their finances back on track, especially during this challenging and, to a degree, uncertain time. For that reason, we agreed to provide additional funding to the Money and Pensions Service for debt advice provision in England in 2020-21 and this financial year, on top of our wider coronavirus support package.
Several speeches referred to the difficulties in predicting demand and its distribution; indeed, MaPS acknowledged that, in terms of what it ended up needing for the 2020-21 financial year. That will always be a judgment call that it has to make very carefully, but the additional funding enabled the recruitment of more than 500 new debt advisers to provide additional debt advice capacity to meet the anticipated demand arising from the pandemic. Part of that additional funding was also allocated to providers to cover lost income from a key voluntary funding stream known as “fair share”.
I will say a little more about debt advice in a moment, but first I will highlight some of the things that the Government have done to help people in financial difficulty, because some speeches referred to that wider context. In May 2021, as I think the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) acknowledged, we launched the breathing space scheme, with cross-party support, where lenders agree to hold off with their fees and payment requests for 60 days. We have championed that scheme for many years and I am proud to see it up and running.
We will use similar principles of providing respite from bills and demands in the introduction of a statutory debt repayment plan, which is currently under development. Under that new plan, which will essentially give another mechanism for people to use when they are struggling with debt, people will enter formal agreements with creditors to repay their debts over a more manageable timeframe. We are obviously working very carefully with the sector to get that absolutely right.
As well as helping individuals to tackle problem debt, we are ensuring that they have access to fair and affordable credit. In the Budget, we introduced plans to provide £3.8 million for a pilot no-interest loans scheme, which Fair4All Finance is working with partners to design and deliver. It is my ambition, and that of the Government, that those loans will support people who are unable to access or afford existing forms of credit, and prevent them from falling into problem debt. During the debate, the uptick in buy now, pay later was mentioned. As I think we discussed in this Chamber last Tuesday afternoon, that is a priority for us as well, and I was grateful for the contributions from Members who were present.
The Treasury is working closely with the regulators and other Government Departments to help and protect people in financial difficulty. The Financial Conduct Authority regulates debt advisers, and recently published its consultation on debt packager firms. We believe that the FCA’s proposals will put a stop to bad practices in the sector and help to prevent consumer harm. We are also engaging closely with the Insolvency Service, which this summer raised the monetary eligibility limits for debt relief orders. Those changes will enable more people in financial difficulties to access a DRO and get a fresh start.
Let me turn to the specifics of MaPS’ debt advice commissioning exercise, which has occupied the lion’s share of time this morning. That exercise is an important step towards creating a better and more resilient debt advice sector. At the core of the contributions was a concern around the redistribution of face-to-face and online and other modes of delivery, and the outcome of the commissioning process. MaPS’ current commissioning model dates back many years, and some of its current grant agreements even predate its predecessor body, the Money Advice Service.
I listened carefully to the contributions on the complexity of the needs of individual constituents, and I respect the experience of the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who have personal professional expertise in this area. It is important that we aim to achieve an outcome from the commissioning exercise that gives MaPS a better opportunity to manage performance and drive improvement, innovation and efficiency—improving the service that customers are offered and offering greater value for money, but not failing to recognise the complexity of the needs of those populations. That is in line with the Government’s wider approach on the funding that they give to charities, 80% of which is now on a contract basis.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle spoke of a number of concerns raised by the debt adviser community, individually, in representations to constituents and collectively through this process. A transition, such as the one proposed by MaPS, will require some changes and for the sector to adapt to them. The question is about to the pace and scale of those changes, which is the discussion that MaPS needs to resolve in the coming weeks. I am unable to comment on the specifics of the commissioning exercise. I do not run that, nor do my officials. There is a degree of commercial sensitivity around it.
This morning’s debate has put some detail on the nature of the concerns. I commit to ensuring that those concerns are represented fully to the leadership of MaPS as it undertakes this evaluation and moderation of the bids received. Once that is completed, MaPS will have a greater understanding of what the changes will mean to debt advice provision in England, including the proportion that will be delivered face to face. I can say that the Government have given MaPS a statutory duty to consider the needs of the most vulnerable.
Colleagues have raised issues of the unmet, or even undiagnosed, needs that come out of conversations, as well as case complexity and the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East about literacy and privacy. All funded services must be able to handle those complex cases, and MaPS needs to demonstrate that the commissioning exercise will achieve that, irrespective of the channel the cases come through.
Although we are discussing the MaPS contract, we have also heard a lot about clients’ mental health problems. Has the Minister had any discussions with other agencies—for example, clinical commissioning groups in the area of health—about commissioning services, such as Financial Shield, which help those in debt and with other problems? That will save the health service money as well.
I have not personally, but I am happy to look into that. We have to look holistically at the range of new providers and what insights we can gain to improve the services offered. MaPS has factored the concern about sensitivity to the mode of delivery and the complexity of customers’ needs into its commissioning process by requiring bidders to engage in effective promotion and outreach to customers who will most benefit from the service.
One thing I am keen for MaPS to look at is the move towards three regional models. I made the point in my speech that smaller providers simply cannot bid for those large contracts. It appears it is by choice, although it is not—they cannot continue to access the contracts because they are too small. The move is from nine to three.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. The significant concern that the outcome of the commissioning exercise will leave a smaller number of providers that are somewhat detached from local communities and specific needs must be addressed through the process. It would be undesirable for that detachment to lead to a lack of confidence in the new configuration, and MaPS will need to address that directly in how it responds.
When the outcome is secure, it is important that customers’ needs are diagnosed, that they have tailored support, and that providers collaborate to ensure that customers can be referred in a seamless manner when they can be better served by another service within the provision available. I recognise the point that that is not always possible if there is a level of comfort in a specific physical location. How that will be transferred efficiently needs to be looked at. MaPS has not dictated the channel through which advice needs to be provided, although it has required local provision in its regional lots. That is to allow bidders to innovate and compose a service that is aligned to MaPS’ requirements but is also informed by that intimate local knowledge, skills and experience.
A few people mentioned potential adviser redundancies. I will not be able to say anything more until bids are evaluated, and I think colleagues will understand that. However, we strongly encourage MaPS to take all reasonable steps to support the process and use its role as a market steward. That means supporting, where possible, any transfer of undertaking activities that the organisations involved may need to carry out to ensure continuity of employment for debt advisers.
I thank the Minister for his incredibly constructive approach to the debate—we have all seen that. I do not expect an answer, but would he please, at least, consider asking MaPS to pause the process? We are all worried that we do not know the effects of the pandemic.
I will come on to that in my final remarks. I want to give the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle a few minutes to speak, but I have a few more paragraphs, if I may.
Where transfer of undertakings regulation does not apply, MaPS must ensure that successful bidders are aware of, and connected with, any skilled advisers and project staff who might be made redundant so they can be considered for new roles. The Government acknowledge that wherever services are subject to commissioning, there may be elements of uncertainty and change for the sector, as is the case with any new policy. The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions will ensure that the outcome of the MaPS evaluation and moderation exercise achieves value for money and meets the needs of vulnerable customers, in line with statutory requirements.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East about a pause, I will reflect carefully on that and talk to my officials. There has been a delay in the decision about what would come forward, last Friday. Clearly, this is an incredibly complex and delicate matter. We want to ensure that the new provision meets changes in consumer demand from a commissioning exercise that had not taken place yet under these conditions, but it must also take account of the fact that our experience of the last 18 months is distinct from anything experienced before. That does not mean that we will say that there will be no change, but it means that the change has to be carefully calibrated and justified on the basis of the very real concerns that have been raised. I thank hon. Members from across the Chamber for their insights, which will inform the way I take the matter forward.
I am incredibly grateful for those final comments from the Minister. We all accept that we could not have expected a pandemic and we do not know what will happen in the next year. As my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), said, let us have a pause in the process, look again and see what happens to the economy in the next 12 months. Let us see what happens if there is another variant and, my goodness, let us hope that there will not be another lockdown. We do not know what will happen, so I would like to push for a pause in the re-evaluation.
I thank everybody who has spoken today for their expertise, passion, emotion and understanding. The biggest message that has come through is that nothing can compensate for having a real person there. A screen cannot give someone a hug or make them a cup of tea. A person on the end of the phone cannot pass them a tissue when they are crying or offer to entertain their children while going through their debt payments. That compassion from one human to another cannot be replaced in a virtual way, and that is what we are talking about. The majority of people in the country are two pay cheques away from poverty. We cannot typecast the people who need this support. We can only say, “Let’s hope it will never be any of us”, but if it were one of us, I would want somebody there to hold my hand, make me a brew and tell me that they will help me get through it, and that is why face-to-face matters so matter.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reductions in community debt advice services.
Space Sector: Leicester Space Park
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings during the debate when not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidelines, and that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. There will be no opportunity for the mover of the motion to wind up the debate, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Leicester Space Park and the wider space sector.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am delighted to have secured this important debate on a subject close to my heart, as there is huge potential for space science and technology to create the high-skill, high-quality jobs of the future, boost economic growth, tackle climate change and help keep our country safe. When most people think about space, they think about rockets and astronauts, but the space sector does far more than that. The satellites orbiting the earth and the data they provide keep us connected to family and friends; direct us around villages, towns and cities, underpinning all the apps now associated with GPS; underpin much of our country’s defence and security systems; help us see what is really happening to our environment, monitoring deforestation and changes in our oceans and air pollution; and support farmers to manage their crops. I believe the space sector will revolutionise many more aspects of our lives in the future.
The Minister will know that the global space economy is set to grow from £270 billion to £490 billion by 2030. The UK space sector is already worth more than £16 billion a year and employs more than 45,000 scientists, engineers, designers and manufacturers. Leicester is at the forefront of the space sector in this country and is extremely well poised to lead future development nationally and internationally. The University of Leicester is globally recognised for its space research and has contributed to international space missions for six decades. It has led major discoveries, including the observation of the first ever stellar black hole, and at least one Leicester-built instrument has been operating in space every single year from 1967 to the present day. My constituency is also home to the National Space Centre, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city each year and, through its National Space Academy, provides brilliant education to primary, secondary and post-16 students in science, technology, engineering and maths, helping to inspire the scientists and engineers of the future.
Space Park Leicester builds on that proud tradition, bringing together our world-leading university research with industry in state-of-the-art, high-tech facilities. Its aim is to create 2,500 high-skill, high-paid jobs and generate £750 million for the east midlands economy, making a significant contribution to the high-productivity economic growth that is essential outside London and the south-east if we are ever going to level up. There are three stages to the space park’s development. Stage 1, which was completed in the summer, brought together academics from the university with world-leading centres of research, such as the National Centre for Earth Observation, and global multinationals, such as Airbus, Rolls Royce, Thales Alenia Space and AST SpaceMobile. Stage 2—I visited last week—has built state-of-the-art robot and AI-assisted laboratory facilities to research, develop and design low-cost satellite production. Stage 3 will see the manufacturing and production of those low-cost satellites.
Currently, satellites are extremely expensive and take a long time to build. Manufacturing satellites more quickly and at a lower cost is absolutely critical to the future of space science and the space sector, and predicted to increase sixfold over the next decade. My message to the Minister is that Space Park Leicester is very well placed to lead growth in the UK, and across the world, in low-cost satellite production, if we act quickly enough.
The space park is part of a much wider development and regeneration of my constituency. Leicester City Council has led the development of Pioneer Park, next to the space park, which is a hub for high-tech, knowledge-based businesses, which will enable start-ups to develop and turn into viable companies. It includes companies such as EarthSense, which provides air quality monitoring services to local authorities and public health organisations around the world.
The company was spun out of the university’s research, started trading in 2016 and now employs 30 people; it has just taken an entire floor of the new space park, in the expectation that it will grow even further in future. I know hon. Members and people watching are really concerned about the quality of their air, and there are much wider applications for these services in the future. I welcome the £20 million that the council has secured from the Government’s levelling-up fund to expand Pioneer Park and help us to attract even more high-tech businesses to the city.
Underpinning all those developments, and a passion of mine from the start, is a serious commitment to ensuring that children and young people from Leicester and the wider east midlands have the skills they need to benefit from the jobs the space park is creating. That is absolutely critical to people in Leicester West, too many of whom struggle in insecure, low-skilled, low-paid work.
Ensuring the space sector and the workforce become more inclusive and representative of the communities they serve is vital too. Women, black and minority ethnic groups and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are seriously under-represented in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing. That is why I was thrilled to see Dr Suzie Imber running some brilliant sessions with children from two primary schools in Leicester West, Inglehurst and Queensmead Academy, when I visited the space park on Friday. Suzie is the associate professor in space physics at Leicester University. She was also the winner of the 2017 BBC2 series, “Astronauts, Do You Have What It Takes?” She definitely has what it takes to inspire children to take an interest in physics and science. They were hooked on her every word. They loved all the experiments, especially launching their home rockets. I am not going to lie—I had a brilliant time too.
There is even more that we can and must do to deliver the potential of Space Park Leicester and the wider space sector as a whole. Most importantly, we need a long-term commitment from the Government to support and invest in Space Park Leicester. As the Minister will know, we have already made great strides, but it takes time to conduct research, develop ideas, nurture them and turn them into viable and thriving businesses.
I am sure the Minister will agree that much of what we are doing in Leicester aligns with the four key objectives of the Government’s national space strategy, which was published earlier this year. Unlocking growth in the space sector is what we are doing. Growing the UK as a science and technology superpower—we are making a huge contribution there. We are collaborating internationally and developing resilient space capability and services.
I hope the Minister will tell me how the Government will support Space Park Leicester in its future ambitions, especially the development of low-cost satellite manufacturing, an area where I believe the UK can be a global leader if we act swiftly and decisively enough. Can he also tell me how the Government will support Leicester to develop the skills and training that are central to the national space strategy, including higher level vocational qualifications? Ultimately, our people are our best asset. Making sure that people from all backgrounds have the skills they need to secure and create the jobs of the future is integral to boosting economic growth. The east midlands needs support in this area if we are to be part of helping our country grow into the future.
Finally, I invite the Minister to visit Leicester and see, at first hand, the difference that Space Park Leicester is already making, and its potential to lead change in future. It is a positive, aspirational, inspirational programme, and so I urge the Minister to agree.
Thank you, Ms Bardell. It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) on a hugely enthusiastic speech on an issue that she obviously cares deeply about.
I do not need to tell you, Ms Bardell, as a Scot, what a dark cloud—the highland clearances—hangs over the history of Scotland. One thing we in the highlands have always feared is that our young people would continue to leave and go to live elsewhere. It has been one of the tragedies of life in the highlands. On occasion, an Opposition Member ought to have a pop at the Government, but on this occasion, I will not do so, because the news that Sutherland was being considered for one of the UK’s first vertical space take-off sites was greeted with huge enthusiasm locally. It meant that there was hope that young people could stay nearby and see something encouraging for the future. We have the roads, we have the rail, we have the airport at Wick and we have the skills at Dounreay.
It is a curious fact that this issue unites me and the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. One might say that that was an unlikely combination, but the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has the manufacturing company Orbex in his constituency, and it is as committed to the Sutherland take-off site as the local people are.
I will pay tribute to two people and one organisation—Highlands and Islands Enterprise—as well as to the Highland Council. The Highland Council planning committee decided unanimously to approve the application for the space site in Sutherland, and that is unusual, to say the least. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has also gone out of its way to support the project. I will name-check Mr Roy Kirk, who has done tremendous work in bringing this forward, and a splendid person called Dorothy Pritchard, who is the chairman of Melness Crofters’ Estate. She has been a doughty fighter in taking us to where we are. Two challenges were mounted in court to stop the project, but they have both been defeated.
I will conclude with an offer that I made some weeks ago in the Chamber to the Prime Minister, to whom I also give credit for his support. It was no empty offer; I have checked with the people of Melness Crofters’ Estate, and they have said they will indeed offer the Prime Minister a delicious highland tea, including home-made scones, at the first take-off. I now fondly offer the same invitation to the Minister, who will be very welcome in my constituency come that happy day. I have also promised a rather large number of drams of good whisky from the highlands, but I will not go over that again.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to join two very esteemed colleagues from the other side of the House and support the eloquent advocacy of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) for this key sector.
It is my great pleasure to be back in Government, now as Minister for Science, Research and Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is my mission to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a science superpower and, crucially, as an innovation nation—both themes that go to the heart of Members’ contributions.
To frame that mission, it is worth making clear that we are already a global powerhouse in science. What does “superpower” mean? I am defining it as the UK using our science for global good, to help to prevent the melting of the ice caps and understand the oceans, space and the new frontiers; being a global science nation, open to people from all around the world to come to do science, which is fundamentally collaborative; and ensuring that we attract more global research and development into the UK. It is great that we are going from £15 billion a year to £20 billion, and on to £22 billion on the journey to 2.4%. To get there, we will have to attract hundreds of billions of pounds over the next 10 or 20 years. I relish that prospect, and I think we can do it, because supply chains are global.
Fourthly, we must use our leadership in science to support the values of this country’s liberal democracy, and to make sure that cyber, artificial intelligence, space and all those other sectors are not dominated by one or two forces who may not be our best friends, but that we build clubs—commonwealths, one might say—of international collaborators who share our values. The innovation nation piece is about making sure that everyone in this country can benefit, as the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) have already said. To be an innovation nation—this is a passion of mine—we have to move from being a service economy that is really good at science in some silos and does a bit of innovation to being a nation in which every person can feel, see, touch and experience the excitement of science, as well as the opportunities it presents for careers in innovation. I have said this in every speech, but let me say it again. That includes the windy outreaches of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and, dare I say it, Norfolk, as well as coastal towns, left-behind towns and places that may not necessarily feel that they are at the heart of the Cambridge cluster. The good news is that the pace of technology and innovation means that we can create clusters all around the country, and that is my mission in this role.
I congratulate my good friend the hon. Member for Leicester West on securing this debate and raising this issue, as well as her tireless advocacy for the Leicester cluster. Leicester is indeed a vital location in the UK space ecosystem, and I pay tribute to the University of Leicester for its leadership and for being the home of the National Space Centre, which would not be there if it were not for the university’s leadership. That university has been hugely helpful in building the space engineering apprenticeship trailblazer group. As the hon. Lady has eloquently said, not only is the National Space Centre in Leicester drawing people into science and driving a new generation to take an interest in the potential of space to create jobs and opportunities, but it is key to levelling up and creating opportunities in that cluster.
The hon. Lady has described her local cluster eloquently and powerfully, so let me explain the national cluster that we are on the road to developing. As she has said, part of my mission is to make sure that people see the space economy as more than just some American billionaires going into space in rockets. This is about highlighting that space technology is fundamental to our everyday lives. It is key to our telephones, our weather forecasting, most of our banking and our digital transactions, and, crucially, understanding earth observation data, climate change and net zero. It is fundamental to the sustainability of our economy, our society and our planet. It is key to stress that, so that people understand that this is not a vanity project for one or two countries, but is fundamental to a modern, dynamic economy. The truth is that space innovations are already being realised in sectors ranging from autonomous vehicles to wearable technology and health and life science. When I met Tim Peake, he was conducting 32 experiments in space, including experiments on bone density and eye and retinal damage, both of which repair when astronauts come back, giving us a real insight into those diseases and how we might prevent them.
Space technology is so much more than the rockets and the big launches that a generation of us grew up watching on our televisions; it is integrated into the economy. However, that is not to say that those two things are not linked. Part of our strategy is to be the first European country to do domestic launch. After all, we are the Department for industrial strategy, and in order for our downstream skills to grow and for us to support and attract investment, we need to have an ecosystem.
The hon. Member makes an excellent point, with which I completely agree. As he will know, we are very ambitious to make sure that we use that first launch into polar orbit from both Scotland and Cornwall. We are in a magnificent position globally to lead in that sector, and by launching, we also build the ecosystem for serving satellites, supply, and all those supporting industries that the UK is phenomenally good at. We are also using satellite technology to support a whole range of innovations across the economy. The NHS will shortly be starting to pilot drones for medicines delivery, particularly into remote areas, and the Rosalind Franklin rover that has been built in the UK will blast off and land on the surface of Mars, so we are a genuine space economy powerhouse.
The Government profoundly recognise the importance of the space economy. It was my great privilege, on day three as Minister, to launch the UK space strategy. I felt a little bit guilty because it was the culmination—the summit—of years of hard work that I was simply lucky enough to be able to read out, but it has landed internationally and sent a strong signal.
For the first time, the space strategy integrates the defence and civil sectors. I have already met my counterpart at the Ministry of Defence to map out where the MOD is investing. It was allocated significant space funding in the latest comprehensive spending review, some of which was, quite rightly, driven by primary security issues, but some of it can be used to support the wider ecosystem. In the middle of the Venn diagram, there is an area where the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and MOD are working together, and then some of the strategy delivery lies principally with BEIS, as the industrial strategy Department. This is an exciting time, and we are now turning the space strategy into a space plan, which will set out where we are going to invest and in what in the next few years.
The space sector already employs 45,000 people in the UK, over 75% of whom hold at least a first degree, so this is very highly skilled sector, which is key to the Prime Minister’s vision of creating a high-skill economy and moving away from being overly dependent on low-wage service labour.
Space employees deliver 2.6 times the UK average in terms of productivity, so for the Treasury this is a sector that is at the vanguard of driving UK economic growth. That is why we are completely committed to supporting it and to supporting a diverse workforce, as the hon. Member for Leicester West rightly highlighted. We are using the benchmarks created by the 2020 space census to measure that progress.
The sector already directly contributes more than £6.5 billion to UK GDP and underpins a further £360 billion in the wider economy, so this is not a small sector. It is already a substantial sector, in which we see substantial growth opportunity. That is why we have set out the level of leadership and governance that we have done. We have established a new National Space Council, led by the Prime Minister, to co-ordinate space policy. We have also created the National Science and Technology Council—the science Cabinet Committee on which I sit with the Secretary of State—which is designed specifically to lead a cross-Government integrated approach to key technologies and sectors, such as space, so that we integrate defence, civil, the industrial strategy and the global security issues around cybersecurity and data security. We are putting in place the mechanism of government to ensure that this is a cross-Government plan.
On 27 September, as the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross both highlighted, I announced the space strategy. Its ambition is very clear—to make the UK one of the most attractive and innovative space economies in the world. We are in a competitive environment. Russia, China and India all have substantial sovereign programmes, but there are a number of nations—Japan, Spain, Australia, Canada, France, Italy and others—who are looking to be part of a global space technology economy, and who clearly see the UK as fundamental to that. We want to build a domestic space and satellite cluster on that opportunity.
We launched the national space innovation programme pilot in 2020. That was the UK’s first ever dedicated fund for advancing space technology, innovation, products and services, and we have just announced follow-up funding of £7 million to help fund 11 projects in the scheme. We will be setting out the next phase in our forthcoming science space plan.
We have set out our ambition to be the first country to launch small satellites from Europe, and we have kick-started that work with grants worth £40 million to support the work required to deliver that ambition. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross made clear, we are on track for the first launch from the UK next year, whether it is in quarter 3 or quarter 4. We see a huge opportunity, particularly for Scotland and Cornwall, to be at the heart of that launch economy and to drive that supply chain.
As the hon. Members for Leicester West and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross have highlighted, this sector, properly harnessed, is key to supporting the sustainable jobs and opportunities for the regions of this country—not all of this is in the golden triangle—and that is partly why we are so supportive of the sector’s potential. The sector also underpins modern public services.
Turning to the points that the hon. Member for Leicester West made earlier, Space Park Leicester is absolutely integral. It is an excellent example of a locally led regional technology hub and I encourage other regions to look at it. Space Park Leicester’s plans align hugely with our own ambition to promote sector growth and I am delighted that the first two phases of Space Park Leicester are complete, having been delivered through a partnership between the university and the local enterprise partnership, through the growth deal and Research England.
Both hon. Members made some really important points that I want to refer to. The hon. Member for Leicester West spoke about skills and inclusive growth. As the former co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth—I have had to stand down—I know that she is absolutely right that if we are going to create an economy in which a new generation can see new opportunities, we need new sectors that will create opportunities in new places.
The high-level vocational qualification piece is key. I have already met the Minister for Further and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and the Secretary of State for Education to highlight that skills are one of the key barriers to cluster growth but also one of the key opportunities for the Government. We will pursue that agenda and look to address that career path.
The hon. Member for Leicester West made an important point about the power of the space economy to attract a new generation of girls and boys into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For many people, the excitement of space is a gateway to discovering the opportunities in the broader science and innovation economy.
A key focus of my mission at BEIS is on clusters. I am pushing the Department, Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation hard to think about regions—not simply to allocate funding on the basis that a bit of it goes to each of the Government regions, but to think about the clusters that will really drive growth and investment. I encourage the hon. Member for Leicester West to continue to make the case, as she has done powerfully today, that Leicester is at the heart of a cluster, and to follow up with me on that. I think she is right about Leicester in that regard, and I will talk to Innovate UK and UKRI about how we support such clusters over the next few years. That will be about infrastructure, connectivity, skills, data and planning. I would be delighted to come and visit Leicester.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross highlighted similar points, and I pay tribute to his passion and commitment to using this area to promote opportunity for a new generation. The highland clearances were a long time ago, but the fact that they are still a sore point speaks volumes, and we need to do more to create opportunities, as he has highlighted. As he said, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is hugely supportive of creating such opportunities, and it is nice to see a flourishing of cross-party working for the good of Scotland. The Orbex opportunity is huge, and I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to local leaders, because for national strategies to work we need local leaders to deliver.
Space is a huge opportunity, and—from Goonhilly in Cornwall to satellite manufacturing hubs in Surrey and Glasgow, the Leicester cluster and up in Scotland—we have the opportunity in the next few years to do something really significant for the UK economy, for global science innovation and, just as crucially, for a new generation of people in left-behind areas, who need to see that they have an opportunity in the economy of tomorrow.
Question put and agreed to.
Natural History GCSE
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of introducing a Natural History GCSE.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Young people today are caught up in an unhappy paradox. While their concern for the natural world is greater than ever before, their access to nature, to discover its magic and to marvel at its wonder, is much reduced. Earlier this year, a study by Bath University found that almost three quarters of young people in the UK are worried about the future of our planet. The findings from that landmark study highlighted the depth of anxiety felt by young people as a result of climate change and must inspire in us all—politicians, parents and teachers—an imperative to respond.
For me, like many colleagues, those findings reinforced what my parliamentary inbox tells me every week. I receive emails and letters from schoolchildren and young activists concerned about the future of our planet—from climate change and plastic pollution to deforestation and species decline. On Monday this week, I visited Parkland School in Hampden Park, and the very first question put to me by the school council was: what are we doing to address climate change? In fact, this year, messages and petitions from Eastbourne’s young people reached as far as Glasgow and COP26. Their words calling for action were inscribed on templates shaped as birds in flight. I have made it my mission to see those birds next land at No. 10 with the Prime Minister.
However, despite this heightened concern for the environment, many young people have grown up in the absence of nature, estranged from large parts of our precious natural inheritance. There are myriad reasons for this, but a fundamental truth still stands: we are born with an innate yearning for nature—what ecologist Edward Wilson dubbed biophilia. Consider the fascination of a toddler eyeing up a frog or the euphoria of children crunching through autumn leaves and splashing in puddles.
I thank my hon. Friend for that most timely intervention. The forest school movement is to be greatly encouraged. It has inspired a raft of initiatives across the country, including in my constituency. It brings children into that natural environment, where learning is almost by osmosis; it is so natural and incidental. In that environment, children develop a great love of nature, which is so necessary to inspire that desire for further understanding and to learn about respect and protection.
I commend the hon. Lady on bringing the debate to the House. Forest schools were featured on “Countryfile” on Sunday past, which was incredibly encouraging. My constituency has something like that: Castle Gardens Primary School. When the Minister of State for Northern Ireland came over—he replaced this Minister in that role—we visited Castle Gardens to see what it was doing. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a place for children understanding the world around them? For many, that will provide their future employment and livelihood, which is important. Does she further agree that we should work closely with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs here and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back home to align environmental jobs with this exciting prospect of a GCSE?
I concur with all that the hon. Gentleman said. That love of nature that we want to inspire in the youngest children needs to find progression and continuity in every age and all the key stages of the curriculum. Ultimately, that will provide them with skills and insight for a future where, as we look to build the green economy, we need to build a green workforce, too. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this really important debate. I apologise that I cannot stay for all of it, due to a Select Committee happening simultaneously. Does she share my excitement that, since nature writer and producer Mary Colwell initiated this campaign in 2011, it has gathered more and more support, including among teachers and students? Does she agree that it would help to fill a critical gap in the curriculum by helping students understand the complexities of the natural world, with intensive field study of whole organisms in context, in a way that no other GCSE currently allows?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she is my near neighbour along the coast. I had the great pleasure and privilege to speak to Mary this week ahead of today’s debate. I am a huge admirer of her work and her passion to see the next generation equipped and empowered for the future that faces them, in terms of both protecting our natural environment and having a great love for that environment, which is important to their wellbeing.
I would like to focus on another point mentioned by the hon. Lady, which is what this unique qualification would bring to the curriculum. An important gap has been identified and worked on by OCR, not least around the knowledge of organisms in their context, as she described, but also around the mix of subject areas where this GCSE could bring such powerful learning. Some have raised concerns that this subject overlaps with other subjects, such as biology or geography, but we see overlap in the curriculum as it stands. We see overlap between economics and mathematics; we see overlap between history and English. Some say overlap, but I might say reinforcement and consolidation. I might say that this triangulates and makes learning more powerful through the experience of encountering common subject matter across different disciplines. So the hon. Lady is right to highlight this subject’s unique and distinct contribution, in both its mix and its content.
We have all become admirers of Mary Colwell, and perhaps the hon. Lady agrees with her when she said:
“A GCSE in natural history would reconnect our young people with the natural world around them. Not just because it’s fascinating, not just because it’s got benefits for mental health, but because we’ll need these young people to create a world we can all live in, a vibrant and healthy planet.”
That underlines what the natural history qualification the hon. Lady is trying to achieve could do for many of our children, while not in any way undermining the place of traditionally taught history, which has a role to play in the curriculum.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, whose point was well made. This is not an “instead of” qualification; it is potentially an “alongside” or an “as well as”. It complements study across several different disciplines, not least opening up employment prospects, as he described. I go back to that inherent truth that one cannot protect what one does not love. We need to connect with that great love of nature and then reinforce that with the knowledge, insight and skills required to bring conservation work forward. It will be such an important torch for this generation to carry forward.
We have all seen in our schools some of the work that is being done, either in the curriculum or extra-curriculum in the wider life of the school, alongside this heightened concern for the environment. The truth is that eight in 10 children who were interviewed by Natural England in its People and Nature survey agreed that being in nature made them very happy. This generation has not had the same opportunities as previous generations to enjoy our once rich natural environment. Almost half of UK species are in long-term decline, including key species such as the hedgehog, whose numbers are down 95% since the 1950s. We have ploughed up or concreted over large swathes of native habitat in the last century, including 97% of our wildflower meadows.
Access to nature is highly unequal. One in five children living in England’s most deprived areas spend no time at all in the natural environment. The consequence of this precipitous decline is what is known as the shifting baselines phenomenon, whereby successive generations simply become accustomed to ever lower levels of biodiversity, unaware of the greater abundance enjoyed by those who came before. The raucous dawn chorus of a century ago and the splattering of insects on the car windscreen, which were commonplace in our childhoods, are unknown to young people today. One survey found that 83% of five to 16-year-olds could not identify a bumblebee, one in four could not identify a badger or robin, and almost half could not identify brambles, blackberries or bluebells.
Although they have never been so far removed from nature, eight in 10 children and young people in England say that they would like to do more to protect the environment and that doing so is important to them. It is that gulf between, on the one hand, the knowledge and experience of the natural world that are required to protect it and, on the other, the growing concern about ecological decline that a new natural history qualification could help to close.
We know just how important education is if we are to overcome the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Sir David Attenborough has called for a greater role for nature in our schools, highlighting the growing absence of nature in young people’s lives and the negative impact that this is having on their wellbeing and that of the planet.
Sir David’s plea was reinforced earlier this year by the landmark Dasgupta review into the economics of biodiversity, which was commissioned by our Treasury Ministers and published to widespread acclaim internationally. It emphasised the importance of integrating nature studies into the curriculum. Professor Dasgupta argued that this would improve health and wellbeing and—going back to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—empower young people to make informed choices, as well as hold Governments and businesses to account for their impact on the natural world.
With the right knowledge and skills, all young people, whatever their background, can and should contribute to the great national and global effort to halt nature’s decline. After all, that mission is now the law of this land. We are the first country in the world to set a legal deadline for halting nature’s decline by 2030, thanks to the landmark Environment Act 2021, which also contains a suite of measures to clean up our air and waterways, reduce waste and increase biodiversity.
Recognising the essential contribution that schools, teachers and young people can make to protecting our environment, the Education Secretary launched the Government’s climate and sustainability strategy for schools at COP26. I commend the Government for their leadership and ambition, and teachers and students in Eastbourne will relish the chance to increase biodiversity in their playgrounds and contribute to rewilding efforts in our community—indeed, they are already doing so.
It would be most remiss of me were I not to mention at this point the latest members of Parkland, where llamas now join ducks and chickens, or of West Rise Junior School, which now hosts water buffalo, which find their way into every element of the primary curriculum, from art through to mathematics and beyond.
The Eastbourne Schools Partnership, which is now the Coastal Schools Partnership following the inclusion of schools from Seaford and Bexhill, is a group of partner schools that have formed the Reconnect Group, which meets to discuss ways to help young people re-engage with the natural environment. It was inspired by a similar group called the Millennium Kids, an Australian group that it linked up with during Eastbourne’s Making Natural History conference in November 2020. The Reconnect Group is working with the Eden Project in Eastbourne as it looks to develop Jubilee Way as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy project and make it somewhere where young people can do exactly that: reconnect with the environment. The group will be walking Jubilee Way this weekend, as part of the research, so that pupils can contribute ideas to Sir Tim Smit and his team for different learning zones along the way. It is a 10-year project. Good things are happening.
What is more, the Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will help plug the green skills gap. I and colleagues in the Conservative Environment Network believe that they could go even further by setting a requirement in law for the Secretary of State to publish a green skills strategy.
It is within that context—a world-leading Environment Act, a stronger emphasis on climate change in the national curriculum and a green skills revolution—that the Government could also look to introduce a natural history GCSE. It would be a part of the whole—a jigsaw piece. It would demonstrate to schools, students and parents the high value we place on study in this area.
The proposed GCSE was developed by Cambridge Assessment and OCR following an extensive consultation that received more than 2,000 responses. I am pleased to say that the Eastbourne Schools Partnership sat on the strategic advisory group. The results are most impressive and very compelling: 94% of the young people who responded said that they would have liked to study the GCSE, and 96% of UK teachers and educators who responded were interested in teaching the qualification.
The natural history GCSE would reflect progression within the existing curriculum. It builds on nature observation content in key stages 1 to 3, providing a good capstone assessment at 16 that brings together those threads in a way that existing courses in geography and biology cannot.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight one of the challenges around curriculum choices. Of course, with every choice there is an opportunity cost. However, this additional, optional GCSE would complement any choices, be they arts or science choices. The curriculum is designed to provide a broad and balanced education in the core, so there would be no learning loss—the science component is already guaranteed and safeguarded. This new GCSE would provide an opportunity for extended study into the natural world, with all the benefits that could bring. Of course, as I said earlier, it is quite a mix of a GCSE, in that it rests on several different disciplines, so it is a good all-round GCSE choice to complement any combination of subjects that students might choose.
I wonder if the hon. Lady has come across the statements from university lecturers about the fact that they see students come through the school system and arrive at university without having had the field study or the immersion in nature and the direct contact with it in terms of identifying, monitoring and recording the life around them. That is what the GCSE could do. It would give pupils a really intimate knowledge of nature and first-hand experience of working with nature in a very different way from something that is more usually desk based.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the significance of that component of the proposed new GCSE. I think we would all agree that learning through doing and being active within that learning is a hugely powerful experience. The content is, of course, very important, but it is the real-time, real-place study that will make this proposal a particularly attractive and meaningful learning experience, and a brilliant springboard to further study, whether at A-level or at university. As the hon. Lady says, it is about active engagement.
A key component of the new course includes those practical field studies—as mentioned by the hon. Lady—to develop the skills of observing, describing, classifying and analysing wildlife. That bridges an important gap in the curriculum. Students would learn about the wildlife in their local area, engendering that important sense of place, wherever that place might be. They would develop an understanding of ecosystems and the interdependence of the organisms within them, as well as the forces that shape them, including human activity such as farming and urbanisation.
The OCR proposal contains unique skills and content, while reinforcing skills in biology and geography, which are complementary, in the same way as physics complements maths, and history geography. The skills developed by the course would support various academic and vocational post-16 pursuits, including in the biosciences, geography and land-based industry, helping to plug our green skills shortage. If the Government were minded to initiate further work on this, students could begin by taking the course from September 2024.
A number of challenges are involved, as with all innovations, but they are far from insurmountable. Do we have the expertise to teach and establish the course? The answer is yes. Biology and geography teachers would be the most likely to teach the course, but OCR has interest from teachers of all subjects. Teachers are by instinct and training hugely resourceful. We also have a world-leading non-governmental organisation community—from the Eden Project and the Wildlife Trust, to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—which sits on a wealth of knowledge, material and sites that can be deployed to support teachers. Indeed, many of those groups already do great work in providing educational visits for families and schools.
Can we ensure that the qualification is accessible to all students? Again, the answer is yes. Field studies are deliberately designed to be applicable in both urban and rural settings. Government and civil society can play a role in encouraging take-up in deprived areas by facilitating trips and visits to nearby nature spots, as well as bringing wildlife into classroom study.
In short, introducing a natural history GCSE is feasible for schools and could be widely accessible to students from all backgrounds in all parts of the country. It would be part of the jigsaw to arrest the shifting baselines phenomenon by highlighting the change to our natural environment over time and the potential for restoration in the future. Committing to the new qualification would show young people that society values the environment. It would provide them with the tools to make a positive contribution towards solving the biodiversity and climate challenges. It would give them the opportunity to acquire a recognised qualification that reflects a deeper connection with and understanding of the natural world. Such learning and recognition will equip and empower this generation of students to rise to meet one of the principal challenges of our times. I commend its adoption to my hon. Friend the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for bringing this important debate to this Chamber, and I bow to her expertise as a former teacher and director of studies.
My hon. Friend may know that I never miss the opportunity to say that GCSEs no longer have any place in our assessment system. I think that we should have a 14-to-18 curriculum that could include the topic of natural history, as well as other subjects, giving skills and knowledge to young people. Employers, universities, parents and young people themselves are looking for a curriculum that sets them up for future careers. I believe that public examinations at 16, at which 49.9% of young people fail English and maths, are not acceptable.
I thought I was being bold in proposing the introduction of one GCSE, but my hon. Friend has taken that proposal and raised me a revolution. I am sure that teachers everywhere will admire the breadth of her ambition. I think that where she and I agree is that this would include a component or a topic dealing with natural history. Does she therefore agree that this needs to be given a greater profile, greater prominence and greater coverage, and that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on the field studies mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), in order for this new, revolutionary education system to meet the needs of this generation of students?
I absolutely agree with that, and I will come on to it later. We need to look again at our curriculum to ensure that young people are not alienated from education, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has said about natural history may be part of that. I am not against exams or other rigorous methods of assessment, but at present I do not believe that the existing system is working. I am looking forward to the beginning of next year, when several commissions will report on the subject of the new assessment system.
Turning to the OCR proposal for a new GCSE in natural history, the environment is a very important subject—possibly the most important—for all young people. Like my hon. Friend, when I meet children and young people, that topic is always at the forefront of their conversations and questions, and their letters and emails are all deeply concerned about the environment. In 2021, Global Action Plan found that 89% of young people aged seven to 18 said that caring for the natural world was quite or very important, and teachers would like there to be more in the curriculum about climate change, although they need more training and information about it.
As such, I agree with teachers and pupils that natural history should be an integral part of the national curriculum starting at key stage 1, but in fact it is already there. As the OCR report mentions, children begin studying natural history at an early age, from key stage 1 to key stage 4 in science. Science covers many of the subject aims and learning outcomes that OCR has put in its proposal for a natural history GCSE. For instance, in year 1, pupils are taught to use their local environment to explore and question how plants grow, looking at plant structures, using equipment to identify plants and describe them and record how they change over time. Year 2 looks at living things and their habitats: pupils explore and compare the differences between things that are living, things that are dead and things that have never been alive; identify that most living things live in habitats—including microhabitats—to which they are suited; and describe how different habitats provide for the basic needs of different kinds of animals and plants and how they depend on each other, including food chains. Pupils in years 3 and 4 perform a range of scientific experiments and observations on natural history, looking at naturally occurring patterns and relationships and using data, and that continues in years 5 and 6, increasing the complexity of what those pupils are learning, mostly based on natural history. As such, by key stage 4—GCSE level—science already covers nearly everything that is in this new GCSE.
I worry that bringing in this new GCSE would dilute the rigorous science GCSE by diverting young people into another, similar course that is far narrower than the existing science one. They would miss out on many elements of science, such as chemistry and physics, which contribute to young people’s general knowledge and would help their understanding of our environment. Geography is only compulsory up to key stage 3—although, of course, I would change that if I were going to design a curriculum from 14 to 18—but the geography GCSE also covers much of what is in this natural history proposal, and dovetails well with the science GCSE. OCR states that it would use
“the same underlying rationale as the models in GCSE Science and Geography, which support rich practical and field work, but do not use over-structured practical and field work to contribute marks to the grade. This avoids boring work which could easily be ‘gamed’ or leads to poor-quality assessment.”
That is a really odd comment, and I hope it does not mean that OCR believes that this boring work is already happening. If it is, why on earth are examination boards not making it more interesting for science and geography?
OCR also says in its proposal that the new GCSE would not comprise
“a redundant overlap with other disciplines and discipline areas”.
I would challenge that: I believe that it would, and I think that my hon. Friend agrees with me, because she mentioned that in her speech. There is not enough time in such a broad GCSE, which contains geography, biology, geology and so on, to incorporate rigorous knowledge of each of those subjects. Could it be seen as an easier alternative? I have read the proposal carefully, but I am concerned that people will take natural history as an alternative and therefore miss out on important and valuable study areas. However, I agree that we must include much more about the environment and our natural history in the curriculum. Environmental literacy should be developed across a range of subjects. Learning about our natural world should not be limited to one subject alone.
I thank my hon. Friend, who raises some valid concerns that need to be addressed and, indeed, have been addressed in other places. One thing that I seek to understand more is the important idea of environmental literacy that she describes. Throughout the curriculum, there is much emphasis on language and communication as well as mathematics and numeracy. She describes early experiences extending all the way through the key stages. Is it not rather odd that, when we come to key stage 4, there is not that same continuity and, therefore, opportunity for students to demonstrate environmental literacy in a way that further education institutions or employers could recognise?
Indeed—a French teacher. One of the most exciting and potentially dynamic elements of the new GCSE is that it goes beyond a purely scientific approach where it might rest on biology or even geography and extends to our understanding of the natural world as manifested in art, music and literature. There is a rich inheritance therein inspired by our natural world. The new GCSE does everything that my hon. Friend suggests.
In that case, I am even more concerned that the rigorousness of a science—chemistry, physics and biology—would be completely missed out. I fear that people would take the natural history GCSE as an alternative to a science or geography GCSE and that those subjects would be lost. Environmental literacy should permeate every single subject, which would have the same effect as doing a natural history GCSE without the subject being limited to just that course.
I have one final point. Learning is powerful and threaded, as my hon. Friend describes, through the curriculum. Indeed, that is how students first acquired the skills necessary to understand information technology: it was delivered via other subjects. However, we came to recognise that IT has its own standing and should have its own status and qualification. A student can go further, deeper and wider in the specific and discrete study of IT, even though it is encountered, encouraged and supported in every other curriculum area.
That is true, but the reality is that fewer people are doing IT at GCSE, probably because it permeates through all the other subjects. That again illustrates why natural history needs to be part of the curriculum. Perhaps examination boards could design better examinations and curriculums rather than bring in a new GCSE that I believe would lead to young people missing out on much knowledge covered by science and geography courses.
Of course, I would much prefer to incorporate environmental literacy into a 14-to-18 curriculum, which would allow for a greater depth of study and development of skills. However, I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am standing in today for the previous shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who is no longer in the role. I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), for her help in advance of the debate, and I congratulate her on her recent appointment. I also thank the previous shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for the enthusiasm and passion that she brought to the role and to this topic. I will take all the points that were made in the debate back to my colleagues who cover the curriculum as part of their Front-Bench briefs.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for making such a passionate speech and for securing an interesting and timely debate on how natural history is a central part of children’s education. Having two small children myself, it is something in which I am very interested. The Labour party believes that natural history, and the damage to the natural world brought about by climate change, must be at the heart of every child’s learning. Indeed, with global temperatures continuing to rise, we have a duty as legislators to introduce our nation’s children to the beauty and wonders of nature, and to ensure that they understand our planet, our place and our dependency on the natural world. Currently, however, only 17% of teachers report that climate change is taught at schools in core subjects other than science and geography. That is why it is so important that nurseries, schools and colleges are supported to instil a love of nature in future generations and to educate children about natural history, how climate change has impacted on that history, and how the damage can be reversed.
It is important to recognise that teachers and school leaders are already working across the country to teach their students about sustainability and the natural environment—whether that is through school vegetable patches or planting trees to mark achievements and special occasions.
I know that the hon. Member for Eastbourne was a teacher, and I believe she is married to a teacher, so she is well versed on the teaching world. I am sure she will join me in celebrating the efforts of all teachers who try to teach sustainability as much as possible. Like me, she is also a school governor, as I think are many MPs. We recognise that schools are trying and doing their best to teach as much as possible. For example, there is the work of the Eco-Schools green flag programme, which is supported by many of the schools in my constituency and others, as well as by nurseries and colleges. It consists of seven steps that educational institutions can take to engage their students on climate change and the natural world, including putting environmental issues in learning plans and choosing texts that explore those issues in subjects such as English. I must admit that that did not happen when I was at school, and I wish it had.
Sadly, despite the fantastic work that is taking place in many parts of the country, many children are still being denied an environmental education. I looked at some of the recent research from the youth-led Teach the Future campaign, which revealed that 70% of UK teachers have not received adequate training to educate students on climate change. It also found that 41% of teachers say that climate change is rarely or never mentioned in their school. Perhaps most shockingly, just 5% say that climate change is integral to many aspects of the curriculum and teaching in their school, which is deeply concerning.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to a report commissioned by the Treasury, “The Economics of Biodiversity”, which warns that the absence of the natural world in our children’s education is a risk to future prosperity. In a time of extreme climate change in which we have seen a loss of biodiversity, it is essential that young people have the knowledge and tools to tackle the climate crisis, because long after most of us have gone, our children will still be here. That is why I once again ask the Minister to carefully consider the report that the Treasury commissioned, and to look at what it recommended.
The research also shows that outdoor learning can improve children’s educational outcomes, particularly for those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that regular contact with nature makes children happier, healthier and better able to learn. This point was made in a very articulate fashion by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who mentioned that she had to leave the room to attend a Select Committee. She talked about the impact that contact with nature can have on children. I go back to a recent poll commissioned by the Wildlife Trust, which revealed that 75% of adults believe that children do not spend enough time enjoying the natural world. As I represent the inner-city constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, I have certainly seen that for myself.
Of course, the situation has got even worse in the past 18 months. A survey by Save the Children found that more than half of all children were spending less time playing outside with their friends since the outbreak of covid-19. That is very worrying. Once again, while such cross-party agreement might be rare in this House, I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that natural history should be at the centre of children’s learning. The Labour party believes that children should have a strong understanding of the environment, and we look warmly on any proposal that fosters that ambition.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond)—I hope I pronounced her constituency correctly. When I speak to schoolchildren, as I often do when visiting local schools, climate change is the one issue they passionately care about and will bring up without fail every time I address a school assembly. It is important to ensure that every child, not just those who choose to study for a particular GCSE, understands the challenges facing our planet and our society. That would require the natural world to be integrated across the whole curriculum, not just in science and geography lessons or a natural history GCSE, but in all subjects, from English literature to history and others.
We must support schools and educators to do that if we want to see a genuine difference in the way natural history is taught. Embedding natural history, biodiversity and climate change within the curriculum will require new training for teachers and teaching assistants, which is why the Labour party has committed to giving all teachers a right to continuing professional development, with £210 million extra a year for CPD. That funding could be used to deliver training on the climate and the natural world, and I hope that is something the Government will also consider.
The Labour party has also announced plans for 400,000 green jobs, and it is essential that we enable young people to develop the skills for those employment opportunities. That has to start in schools and colleges, and climate change and green skills should be a priority for schools as well as for further and higher education, a point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I think he had to go, but obviously no Westminster Hall debate is complete without his contribution, so I had to mention him.
I have a series of questions for the Minister that I hope he will answer. How are the Government working to ensure that natural history and climate change are embedded across the education system? What are the Government doing to ensure that teachers receive adequate training to educate students on climate change? We cannot just tell them to do it; we have to help and support them. How will the Government ensure that outdoor learning is a key part of children’s experience at school? That question is particularly important in the light of the statistics I talked about relating to covid-19. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people are gaining the skills they need at school and college to prepare them for the green economy?
Ensuring that the future generation value and respect their natural environment will be fundamental in the struggle to reverse the climate crisis, so I wholeheartedly welcome this important debate on how best to secure that end. I urge the Minister, who I know is willing to listen, to reflect on today’s discussion to ensure that the natural world and climate change are at the heart of children’s education and learning.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who gave a very good speech. Although I understand she is here in a caretaker capacity, I welcome the tone with which she engaged in the debate. I particularly welcome the lively debate that we had on the Government Benches between my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond).
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, as I am sure do her constituents, for her dedication to tackling environmental issues such as pollution, toxic air quality and single-use plastics. I also thank her for her continuing dedication to improving education and ensuring that every child gets the best start in life. She is one of many former teachers on our Benches who bring huge passion and experience to the Chamber and our debates.
I welcome this timely debate and the contributions we have heard from hon. Members across the House. The Department is currently considering its broader strategy for sustainability and climate change, one of the key strategic aims of which is excellence in education and skills for a changing world. I will do my best to answer the specific questions that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn put to me, but I also direct her attention to a recent debate that we had in this very Chamber on the broader issue of sustainability and climate change, and the responses that I gave then.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne echoed one of the points raised in that debate, about the level of concern among young people around these issues. It is absolutely right that we should seek to address that, and to equip them with the tools and the confidence to find solutions to protecting the natural world and tackling climate change. On launching the draft strategy, our Department committed to engaging with young people and stakeholders ahead of the publication, and we are keen to hear many different views and consider many different opportunities, of which natural history may be one.
I begin this response by fully acknowledging the importance of educating young people about the environment and nature. Climate change impacts everyone and requires us all to change the way we behave and work. In England, there are over 72,000 early years and childcare providers and there are more than 16 million children, young people and adults in education across the whole of the UK.
We have a responsibility to prepare all our children and young people to meet the challenges, and to empower them to play their part in finding solutions so that they can benefit from the opportunities that we will face in the future. This is clearly a worthy topic for discussion. We must prepare young people as our country prepares for a low-carbon, greener future—one in which we can be better custodians of nature than, perhaps, previous generations have been.
At COP26, on 5 November, the Secretary of State announced a draft sustainability and climate change strategy and two key new nature-based initiatives—the national education nature park and the climate leaders award. Throughout the development of the draft strategy, the Department, including Ministers and the Secretary of State, has been engaging with young people to ensure that it reflects their needs. As part of that, we explored the subject of improved sustainability and climate education, of which nature clearly forms a critical element. We discussed the matter of a specific natural history GCSE with young people, and they told us they believe it is important for all young people to learn about the natural world, not necessarily just those who attend a school that may be able to offer a specific natural history GCSE or who elect to study it.
As we have heard, No. 10 commissioned the landmark Dasgupta review, “The Economics of Biodiversity”, which also set out the importance of young people learning about and valuing nature for the protection and restoration of biodiversity. For that reason, we have set out action in our draft sustainability and climate change plan that enables young people to learn more about the natural environment. That includes a primary science model curriculum, to include an emphasis on nature and the recognition of species, which came up briefly in today’s debate but was mentioned more in the previous debate that we had in Westminster Hall about the environment.
In that debate there was a lot of interesting talk about British birds and the importance of recognising them. I repeat the remark that I made then—that, as a Robin, I feel particularly strongly that this is something to be welcomed. Including the study of species native to the United Kingdom, such as the hedgehog, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly made an impassioned case to protect, will ensure that all children understand more about the world around them.
Science continuing professional development would further improve the teaching of the national curriculum, which already includes many elements related to the subjects. That should ensure that all young people, right through to key stage 3, will receive an excellent and robust science education. We are continuing to work with sector representatives, young people and delivery partners across Government to refine and build on the draft strategy, ahead of publication of a final version in April 2022. We will continue to discuss the case for a natural history GCSE with stakeholders over the next few months, so that a decision can be made in the context of our broader strategy for sustainability and climate education.
When the Department, which I recently rejoined, started to reform the national curriculum and qualifications a decade ago, we wanted to ensure that they were firmly based on the knowledge that young people need to give them the basis for future study and work, including knowledge about the natural world and the environment. Currently, many elements related to the subject are taught throughout the curriculum, primarily through science and geography, both of which are core parts of the EBacc.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley pointed out, in key stage 1 science pupils learn to understand the concept of habitats, and the relationship between habitats and the organisms that live there. During key stage 2 they learn how to classify organisms and about how changing environments have impacted upon organisms. Pupils also learn about the principles of evolution and how living things have changed over time to become adapted to their environments.
At key stage 3, pupils build on their earlier learning by learning more about the relationship of organisms within ecosystems and their environment. They also study the differences between species, to build an understanding of variation and, in turn, to understand the role that variation and adaptation have played in the evolution and extinction of species.
Key stage 4 biology develops further the key idea of interdependencies within ecosystems, including the specific impact that humans can have on the dynamic nature of ecosystems. Pupils gain a greater understanding of the importance of adaptation and the process of natural selection, and develop their knowledge of classification.
As part of the national curriculum, geography teaching should equip pupils with knowledge about diverse places, people, resources and natural and human environments, together with a deep understanding of the earth’s key physical and human processes. Geography enables young people to become globally and environmentally informed and thoughtful inquiring citizens. Aspects of natural history can be covered throughout the geography curriculum. At key stage 1, for example, pupils are taught to use—
The Minister does full justice to all the important content that is already within the curriculum that touches on natural history. Speaking of geography, is it an issue that this does not sit within that key stage 4 core? Does that mean that students are necessarily missing out on some important insight and understanding?
I want to come to key stage 4 geography. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will just run through the key stages building up to that, and then address key stage 4. We all recognise the benefits of this engagement, both within the curriculum, as I will come to later, and in activities that go beyond the curriculum.
Returning to where we are today, at key stage 2 children are taught to describe and understand key aspects of human geography, including types of settlement, land use, economic activity, including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources. That connects to natural history, as it provides pupils with an understanding of the physical and economic context in which organisms live, including the impact of agricultural and industrial processes on nature.
At key stage 3, children are taught to understand how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environment and the climate, and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems. There is scope to cover other aspects of natural history throughout the geography curriculum, and coverage need not be limited to the examples that I have given.
In key stage 4 geography, young people gain an understanding of the interactions between people and environments, change in places and processes over time and space, and the interrelationship between geographical phenomena at different scales and in different contexts. Again, that links to natural history, as young people gain knowledge and understanding of key ideas and principles, such as sustainability, human impact, complex systems and interdependencies. They also learn an overview of the distribution and characteristics of large-scale natural global ecosystems, drawing out for two selected ecosystems the interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans; the processes and interactions that operate within them at different scales; and issues related to biodiversity and to their sustainable use and management. Students are also taught about causes and consequences of extreme weather conditions, and about climatic change and evidence for different causes of that, including human activity.
In both science and geography, young people develop knowledge and understanding of the principles, processes and events that make the systems within which organisms live dynamic. They also develop an understanding of key ideas and principles of life cycle, sustainability, human impact, complex systems and responsibility.
The Government do recognise that fieldwork is a very important part of teaching within geography, which is why geography programmes of study contain geographical skills in fieldwork as a theme in key stages 1, 2 and 3. The new GCSE in geography, taught since September 2016, includes a clearer balance between human and physical geography, and requires pupils to carry out at least two pieces of fieldwork outside the classroom. It is worth noting that the vast majority of students take science GCSEs and 41% took a geography GCSE in 2019-20—an increase from just 26% who took geography GCSE in 2009-10.
Curriculum and qualifications are not the whole story. We have a number of examples in this debate, but we can go beyond that. It is worth reminding everybody that the national curriculum is a framework, setting out the context of what the Department expects maintained schools to cover in each subject. Academies are free to use the national curriculum as a benchmark, to ensure that they deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. The curriculum does not set out how curriculum subjects or topics within the subjects should be taught. Teachers can and do use their own knowledge and expertise to determine how they teach their pupils, and make choices about what they teach, including the teaching of aspects of natural history, building on and enriching the words on the face of curriculum documents.
On a recent visit to the Rivers Multi-Academy Trust and one of its schools in my constituency, I was pleased to see that topics such as nature, climate change and the environment are already included, not just in citizenship, science and geography but in English and art, in a balanced curriculum that it was created to reflect the millennium development goals. Schools are making room in the curriculum to let children experience nature. This provides key learning to all students but also offers flexibility. We see some excellent work in climate education at all levels in schools.
We trust teachers to use their judgment when it comes to materials that they use in class. They are experts in bringing the content of the curriculum to life for their students. Teachers can choose from a wide variety of resources and have the freedom to choose the approaches that best suit their pupils. One example of innovative teaching is from Sara Falcone, a teacher at Dagenham Park School, who, like the Rivers MAT, has introduced the global sustainable development goals into her science lessons so that her students can make links to sustainability in a range of different science topics. Another example is from Matt King, a teacher at Westcliff High School for Girls, who adapted UK Research and Innovation’s Clippy Island resource to make learning about natural selection accessible and engaging for students.
Teachers draw on the expertise and resources of subject associations in this area. For example, the Royal Society of Biology, the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society all produce expert resources, advice and continuing professional development on topics related to the teaching of the environment and natural history. The Department is supporting them on that; through our strategy, we will provide teachers with access to more high-quality resources and share best practice.
Formal education is not the only route for children and young people to learn about nature. There are many excellent opportunities, programmes and awards for pupils focused on natural history and the environment, as well as outdoor education. We worked to ensure our outdoor education centres were included as part of the lifting of covid restrictions, so children are now able to access those on a residential basis. We heard about the fantastic work that goes on in forest schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley was right to draw attention to their work, providing young people with a greater sense of connection with nature and an understanding of our shared future.
Many varied organisations, such as Scouts, Guides, the Young Foresters Award, London Zoo, the John Muir Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, also engage young people with the natural world. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly points out the benefit of initiatives such as planting trees for the Queen’s jubilee, which can also make future contributions in this space. The Department’s Climate Leaders Award will act as an umbrella for the many existing awards and activities that stakeholders currently provide. In doing so, it will help to increase participation in nature-based activities and celebrate and recognise the enormous effort that so many education providers and children and young people put into improving their local environments.
We are currently working with the Natural History Museum to develop the nature park and the climate leaders award further, and we will engage with many stakeholders and young people to ensure that, when those are launched, they provide excellent opportunities for all young people to get practically involved in nature and to contextualise their learning. The ambition is to launch the park and the award scheme in autumn 2022. We also have the Wildlife Trust wild school award pilot and the wild challenge award.
One recent real-life example of work in this space is by Hollie Daw, a sixth-form geography student at the Hurst School, Basingstoke, who received the RGS’s prestigious Ron Cooke award for her individual research into infiltration rates— water soaking or filtering through the soil—in her local Ashford Hill nature reserve. Thousands of primary and secondary pupils and schools have been exploring how they have reconnected with their local environments and green spaces during the covid-19 lockdowns through their entries to the RGS’s Young Geographer of the Year competition, which had the theme, “Remapping our lives”. I look forward to the RGS announcing the winners of that competition on 3 December.
In considering whether to introduce a new GCSE, there are many complex factors that we need to think about. We have heard some of those already, including whether a new qualification is the best way forward to enhance all students’ knowledge and skills in these important areas. Alternatively, we could consider whether there is more we can do to support teachers to teach the current curriculum and qualifications in a way that encourages all pupils to engage more with natural history elements.
Another factor is whether a new GCSE would support progression for pupils who want to go on and study and work in the field of natural history. I heard the strong case from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that it would. Pupils take only a limited number of qualifications at GCSE, and we could consider whether we should do even more to encourage pupils to study geography at GCSE alongside the sciences, as almost all pupils already study two or three GCSEs’-worth of science. Another factor to consider is whether the qualification adds to the total knowledge that a pupil will gain by the age of 16. Any new GCSE needs to avoid significant overlap with other GCSEs—in this case, science and geography. That is to ensure that young people leave school with a broad and balanced curricular experience, and that individual students are not awarded two GCSEs while only covering the content of one and a half, for example. We also need to consider how teachers of natural history would be sourced without exacerbating existing pressures on the geography and science teacher workforce. It is worth noting that this year we have already seen an increase in the bursaries for both biology and geography.
I have been very grateful to hear the arguments for this case, and to be given the opportunity to set out some of the work that is already going on in this area. There remains a huge opportunity to enrich the existing curriculum. The development of the primary science model will focus on nature and help young people recognise different species, giving them more knowledge that will be required as they move through education.
The Oak National Academy serves millions of children through online classrooms, providing lessons and accompanying resources, which include coverage of the environment, climate change, wider sustainability and other natural history topics. Teachers are choosing from a wide range of high-quality curriculum resources available, from Oak and beyond.
This is a very important area of education. It ensures that young people are prepared to meet the challenges of and equipped to benefit from the opportunities that they will face in the future. As I have outlined, there are already many exciting opportunities within the existing curriculum for people to be taught about natural history. The Department will continue to consider carefully the proposal for a natural history GCSE. It will also continue to support schools to make the most of our new initiatives. The national education nature park and the climate leaders award will ensure that all children and young people, regardless of the subjects they choose to study, will learn more about nature.
There is a huge amount of important work going on, building on the opportunities within the existing curriculum and the qualifications structure. There is always more to do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and all who spoke today for emphasising the importance of nature and a love of nature in our education system.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for doing justice to all the very good work that is already being done in schools. He highlighted that there is further work to do to enhance the curriculum as it stands, and that the Department and he are still considering the opportunity to enhance the curriculum by offering this new choice at key stage 4.
During the debate, natural history has variously been described as a priority and something that we must embed and profile. It strikes me that there is consensus around how important and valuable the topic is. It would be a very fitting acknowledgment of how important it is to offer it as a qualification, so that students can demonstrate their skills and the learning that the Minister described, right from when they are tiny all the way through school. As important as those lessons and wider learning are—through different awards and programmes—having a qualification that reflects a body of knowledge and the skills acquired could be an important, valuable contribution to a student’s portfolio.
Choice is very important as students approach their final key stage, unless we are going for the bigger, wider reform that was previously described. All the while we are still in the realm of GCSE subjects, I do think it is important that we continue to innovate, and that the curriculum continues to be dynamic and reflect the future that we are working towards. I noted that the Minister mentioned the Natural History Museum and the Wildlife Trusts as partners, but they support the introduction of a natural history GCSE, so there are some very significant partners willing to bring their expertise to bear to bring forward such a qualification. I heartily recommend the introduction of a natural history GCSE, while appreciating the complexities that are involved. There is nothing more significant or important than the curriculum that we design and offer to this next generation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of introducing a Natural History GCSE.
Cider Industry: Duty Changes
I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I will call Bill Wiggin to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the cider industry and duty changes.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome the progress the Treasury is making on cider and alcohol duty. It will be helpful to hear what the Minister thinks the direction of travel is for the industry, and how the Treasury is helping. The announcements by the Chancellor in his autumn Budget on alcohol duty were largely welcome. His five-point plan will simplify the tax brackets. It is supposed to come at an overall cost to the Treasury of £555 million by 2027. The number of bands at which different duties are levied will be cut from 15 to six. That ambition is tremendous. However, I hope the debate will be helpful in ironing out some of the issues with the proposed changes.
I want to draw attention to the traditional small-scale cider makers, who make up roughly 80% of the country’s cider makers. I also wish to draw the House’s attention to the announcements on flavoured cider. My constituency of North Herefordshire is home to many small-scale and large-scale cider makers. The cider orchards of Herefordshire are said to produce more than half the cider consumed in the UK.
The call for evidence document in the Government’s alcohol duty review consultation sets out three objectives:
“a) Simplifying the current complicated system;
b) Making the basis of alcohol taxation more economically rational, with fewer distortions and arbitrary distinctions; and,
c) Reducing the administrative burden on producers when paying duty and complying with excise requirements.”
Alcohol duty was harmonised under EU law, but now we have left the EU and its onerous legislature, it is right that we consider how the duty system works. The stated aims from the Treasury are welcome, but why are the Budget announcements made only to have a consultation occur afterwards? Should it not be the other way around? On a positive note, I can report that the consultation has been managed in a way that cider manufacturers found very helpful. However, one cannot help but feel that all this could have been ironed out before the Chancellor rose to his feet.
UK cider producers sell to more than 50 countries over five continents, and that trade is worth more than £100 million a year to the economy. I hope that the duty reforms will encourage cider producers to go beyond the hobby level to become sustainable businesses and increase those figures.
What the Chancellor announced in relation to alcohol duty is welcome. However, looking a little further, there are some discrepancies, and I hope the Department will not mind me bringing them to its attention. In his Budget statement, the Chancellor proclaimed that this would be the
“biggest cut to fruit ciders in a generation.”
Fruit cider is currently treated as made-wine for excise duty purposes, and it is taxed at two and a quarter times the rate of apple cider. The proposed tweaks in the duty rate leave made-wine with a proposed excise duty two and a half times the duty rate for packaged ciders, and more than twice that of keg ciders. That is probably because flavoured ciders have a 22.8% market share of the UK’s £2.1 billion cider industry. Helpfully, the flavoured cider market is established at 4% ABV, or alcohol by volume. They are some of the lowest-alcohol ciders on the market—obviously, excluding the no and low-alcohol ciders—but they are charged a premium in excise duty.
Under current proposals, the duty on 4% packaged fruit cider bought from a shop will change from £91.68 per hectolitre to £90 per hectolitre. To put that in context, the duty on a hectolitre of apple-flavoured cider will move to just over £35. That is a difference of £55 per hectolitre. The higher rate of duty for fruit cider was introduced to protect apple cider made using British apples. However, many fruit ciders now simply have an apple cider base, made with British apples, with flavourings or colour added. The excise duty rates seem to be hampering innovation and growth in this sector—a sector that can offer much safer, lower-ABV ciders. Producers such as the ones in North Herefordshire want to increase innovation and diversity across the cider category.
At present, flavoured cider has not been included in the Government’s consultation. I hope that the Minister will agree that it can be added, as I am sure many producers would like to have their say. Helpfully, the anomaly was recognised in the Chancellor’s statement. Paragraph 2.11 of the consultation, under the heading “Anomalous and arbitrary”, notes:
“Larger cider makers felt that the duty differential between flavoured and non-flavoured cider impeded innovation in the market.”
However, paragraph 2.12 suggests that craft and small cider makers are supportive of a higher rate of duty for flavoured ciders. That is not right; in my frequent discussions with producers, I get a very different picture.
Fruit ciders, rosé ciders, mulled ciders, cider with honey, cider and elderflower and spiced cider are all treated as made-wine. Such ciders have been made for centuries, and there are records of them going back more than 400 hundred years. They are firmly part of the traditions of cider making. Many small and craft cider producers make such variants using traditional methods, and the market for them is increasing. Each household is reported to buy fruit cider an average of six and a half times a year.
The demand is also there to support local, small-scale producers, many of whom would like to tap into the fruit cider sector. Those small and craft cider producers still use traditional fermentation processes to create fruit cider, and then work with other local fruits to produce their local version of fruit cider. What does stifle innovation is the fact that when making cider through the natural process, rarely does a product come in at under 6.5% ABV. Fair enough—that changes slightly each year, depending on how much sugar is in the apple crop. Because of the way the fermentation process works, unless the cider is diluted, it will probably come out at above 6.5% ABV. My own cider, when I made it myself, was above 7%. The benchmark ABV is 4.6%, so someone wishing to make a fruit cider using traditional methods, without dilution, is likely to be hit with an excise rate too high to justify that diversification. Traditional cider makers using natural fermentation from apple juice could see upwards of a 40% increase in duty, and it could be even higher if they venture into fruit versions.
The proposed changes to flavoured ciders will only truly benefit the makers of large, mass-produced flavoured cider in the established 4% ABV market, selling in 50-litre kegs. That is Kopparberg, which is Swedish; Heineken, which is Dutch; and Aston Manor, which is French. Those manufacturers, with their foreign-owned parent companies, are destined to benefit the most from the excise duties at their current levels—the same duties that are meant to be championing the local little guy.
Would the Treasury not see benefits in bringing fruit cider in line with the apple cider rate, which is better known as notice 162? If the fruit cider market is opened up and brought into line with its apple-only equivalent, growth will occur. Flavoured ciders lead many global cider markets, so encouraging the growth of lower-ABV flavoured ciders can help the rejuvenate the industry and expand our global reach in the sector.
The changes to alcohol duty rightly address concerns about problem drinking. A recent survey asked 20,000 people about alcohol consumption in 2019 and 2020, and it found a spike in high-risk drinking following lockdown, from around 25% to 38%. According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally.
It is no secret that white ciders—the type sold in 2.5 litre bottles at a cheap price—have exploited the current duty system. A report by the charity Thames Reach found that of the 8,096 people found sleeping rough by outreach teams in the capital, 43% had an alcohol problem. Of those, an astounding 98% are primarily drinking high-strength cider and super-strength beers. Popular brands include the 7.5% Ace cider, which comes in a three-litre bottle and contains 24 units of alcohol, but retails at only £3.99. This is clearly wrong and dangerous, so I understand the Government's commitment to increasing the duty on this type of cider.
However, there are concerns that such products are conflated with those made by the producers I am championing today. I will quote a company in my constituency called Little Pomona, which has visits to its cidery during the tourist season:
“With over 1,000 visitors over the last year, we have never had any instances of over-drinking. We don't serve our cider in pints. Purely as thirds, halves of pints, and wine glass measures. Our ciders are served in restaurants, from modest bistros to Michelin starred establishments”.
The point is that the consumer who indulges in a craft, artisanal, small-batch cider is different from the consumer who buys a £4 bottle of white cider. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can point the industry to how it can best maximise its potential safely, and tell us how the Government see the industry progressing.
I declare my interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary cider group, and I support my hon. Friend in his argument. I know that the Minister takes a keen interest in this issue, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that cider is an incredible, world-beating British product. He has laid the case out beautifully. Does the Minister agree that we, as a Parliament and as a Government, need to do much more to highlight the benefits of responsible cider drinking? We have Glastonbury in Somerset, and we do not get drunks on Glastonbury. It is not cider that causes the problem; it may be other things, but it is not cider.
I will have to take my hon. Friend’s expertise on that matter at face value, but I agree with all the good things he said and I thank him for his work as the chairman of the all-party group.
The cider industry in this country is unique. Family-owned companies such as Westons in Much Marcle, which has 240 employees, contribute so much more than just delicious cider from local apples. People such as Helen Thomas, to name just one of many, ensure that my constituency leads the way. That spirit of innovation and history needs to expand as we forge new relationships with nations around the world. Fruit ciders produced by a craft cider maker in North Herefordshire should be in stock behind bars from Armenia to Zimbabwe, in a truly global British fashion.
From my discussions with relevant local stakeholders in the cider industry, I know that most of their concerns could be addressed via the consultation. I hope that any additional points are taken as constructive and that the Minister will be able to provide reassurance to cider makers in Herefordshire, and indeed nationwide, that their historic and significant craft will be nurtured and given the boost that the recent announcements have set out to achieve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I raise a metaphorical glass to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) on securing this debate, and I thank him for his constructive tone and his welcome for many of the announcements on alcohol duty in the Budget.
It is clear that my hon. Friend is indeed a true friend of the many cider producers in his constituency. I know that this is an industry with a long history in Herefordshire. In fact, as far back as 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote of the county’s people that
“they have the finest wool, and the best hops and richest cider in all Britain.”
As a Kent MP, I know that other parts of the country might dispute that claim, at least when it comes to hops. Today, as my hon. Friend pointed out, Herefordshire is home to many cider makers, small and large, producing drinks that are enjoyed both in this country and around the world. Although Herefordshire is a centre for the industry, the economic benefits of cider production are felt nationwide.
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight cider producers’ contribution to the national economy and the many jobs that the industry supports. I am sure hon. Members can understand why the Government want this fantastic industry, which has been with us since at least Roman times, to go on to even bigger and better things.
Before I address the detailed points raised by my hon. Friend, I will briefly run through some of the changes we are making, which we believe will help the industry to go on to achieve further success. First, I will discuss alcohol duty reform. Quite frankly, reform of our alcohol tax laws is long overdue. They have barely changed since the 1990s. As my hon. Friend said, that is largely because of incoherent and prohibitive European Union rules that have hindered much-needed change. However, now we have left the EU, we have an unmissable opportunity to create alcohol laws that are simpler, fairer and indeed healthier, and by doing so we can help cider producers—along with British brewers, wine producers and spirit makers—to innovate and grow. That is why in the Budget we announced a series of major reforms to our alcohol duty laws, including the biggest reduction in cider duty for 98 years. Our new draft relief will cut duty on draft cider by 5%, encouraging people to choose to purchase cider in our great British pubs.
We look forward to working with the industry to understand how keg size and distribution methods can best support small producers and cider makers. We are also cutting duty on craft sparkling cider by up to half, so that anyone buying a 75 cl bottle of such cider that is 6.5% alcohol by volume will pay £1.25 less duty. This boost is a clear benefit of the Government’s decision to introduce a common-sense approach to alcohol duty and to remove the arbitrary and unfair premium rates on sparkling ciders and wines in the current system.
The new lower duty rates for ciders below 3.5% alcohol by volume will incentivise cider producers to innovate and develop healthier alternatives for consumers. As the Chancellor said at the Budget, sales of fruit cider have increased from one in 1,000 ciders sold in 2005 to one in four sold today. As has been mentioned, we are also cutting duty on such drinks by 13p a pint in the pub.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire was right to highlight the health risks of white ciders. Although we are reducing the cost of lower-strength ciders, we are increasing duty on high-strength drinks, including harmful white ciders. Under our reforms, people buying superstrength ciders will pay 7p per 500 ml can. We believe that, together, such measures will not only boost British craft cider producers, but give consumers more choice, with healthier, lower-alcohol alternatives. They will boost community pubs by incentivising people to drink at their local instead of at home.
Beyond the duty changes, we are supporting the traditional cider industry in other ways. Although we are listening closely to the industry as part of our consultation on changing minimum duty requirements, we are keeping the definition of “cider” as a drink made wholly from apples and pears. My hon. Friend pointed out that we need to champion the little guy, and I agree. That is why all the measures will be underpinned by a new small producer relief for businesses making cider that is less than 8.5% alcohol by volume. That will build on the duty exemption that the smallest cider makers currently enjoy and help smaller, innovative craft cider makers and other producers, such as those found in Herefordshire and Somerset, to expand and grow their businesses without facing substantial tax increases.
On consultation, I want to stress that the reforms announced at the Budget were part of our review on alcohol duty last year. That involved a call for evidence and received over 100 responses from the industry and other groups. We spent almost a year carefully considering the feedback from cider makers and other producers. We have been closely discussing our proposals with the industry throughout the policy development process. The consultation will be published in October and remains open until January, and I welcome the industry’s views on the questions raised in the consultation documents and on the points covered by my hon. Friend during the debate.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about the difference in duties between flavoured and non-flavoured ciders. We believe that maintaining this difference helps to safeguard traditional cider’s valuable contribution to local heritage and agriculture. As I said a moment ago, there is also the small producers relief, which is a very important support for our smaller cider makers.
I recognise that the changes outlined at the Budget are significant, and we will continue to listen to the sector. I have heard the arguments that my hon. Friend has made, and I look forward to working with him and other colleagues on this matter.
In the context of promoting high-quality cider in the spirt of this commendable debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), would the Minister look at minimum unit pricing for drinks from a healthcare perspective? That would actually clear out and stop the production of dangerous white ciders, which are part of the problem that feeds alcoholism and alcohol dependence in this country. Would she take that suggestion away and look at it?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I hate to pass the buck, but the question he asks about minimum pricing in shops and supermarkets—I was asked about this issue in correspondence recently—is a Home Office matter. From a Treasury point of view, and as he will have seen from the policies that I have been describing, our reforms to the alcohol duty system take a public health approach to changing the current system, in which higher-strength drinks sometimes enjoy a lower duty. We are moving to a system whereby higher-strength drinks will pay more duty, encouraging the production and, relatively, the consumption of lower-strength drinks, and therefore healthier options.
In conclusion, once-in-a-generation duty cuts, new incentives to grow and innovate, and a boost for pubs—our reforms spell exciting times for cider in this country. These steps will not only put more money in people’s pockets, but encourage people to try new healthier and, may I say, delicious drinking choices. I am confident that together these measures will support our wonderful, traditional cider industry for many more years to come.
Question put and agreed to.
Food and Drink: UK Economy
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in Portcullis House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the importance of the food and drink sector for the UK economy. I also mention that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for food and drink manufacturing.
During the pandemic, we rightly clapped and acknowledged the work and dedication of the medical staff, who did so much for the many people affected by covid. We rightly recognised the commitment of those who continued to work in supermarkets and the many drivers who ensured that the deliveries actually got through. However, there were many other unsung heroes in many different industries and sectors who also helped to ensure that our society continued to function and that life continued in a manageable way.
One such group was the food and drink manufacturing sector. Hon. Members may recall that, at the beginning of the crisis, there was some concern that our food shelves could become empty or the supply of food would be greatly reduced. The adage is that if there was no food available, it would not be long before there was a major crisis, panic buying and potentially something rather worse. That did not happen. Indeed, the factories, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, continued to produce the food and drink that we as a country needed. The deliveries continued to be made, the supermarkets were supplied, the shelves remained full and families continued to shop in the knowledge that there would be food to buy.
There was no panic buying, except—interestingly enough—of toilet roll and pasta, which to this day I do not understand. Nevertheless, that did seem to be something that exercised many people up and down the country, but even that was short-lived. We therefore have a lot to thank the food and drink sector for and, very importantly, all those who work in it. At the time, there was some recognition of their work, and clearly there was a greater awareness of the importance of the food and drink sector, of the vital need to ensure the supply of foods to shops, and of the overall significance of the sector to our society. In many respects, that awareness has sadly disappeared. I believe this is extremely unfortunate. We should be far more aware of the nature of the sector, how important it is, its many strengths, and also its weaknesses. This is about not just the basics in life, such as the supply of food, although that is extremely important, but the real and substantial contribution that the sector makes to our economy, both nationally and locally.
I have a few statistics and facts about the sector. The food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the United Kingdom. I am amazed at the number of people who are surprised by that. They often think that pharmaceutical, automobile or aerospace would be the largest manufacturing sector, but in reality the food and drink sector is our leading manufacturer.
It has a turnover of more than £104 billion, representing 20% of all UK manufacturing. It contributes over £29 billion to the economy, and directly employs over 440,000 people and thousands more indirectly. Think of the many brands, a large number of which are iconic and international—the very best of British products. Exports exceed £23 billion, going to more than 220 countries and territories, with a huge potential for much more.
We should also be aware of the contribution the sector makes to the local economy. It is often a substantial local employer, which has a significant impact on the performance and growth of local economies, and offers employment and training opportunities to local people.
My constituency of Carlisle is a prime example. Nestlé employs 400 people. It is the largest food and drink company in the world, a significant exporter and a purchaser of much of the milk that is produced by local farmers. The 2 Sisters Food Group employs nearly 1,400 people, and if I were to have a ready-made meal from Marks & Spencer, it would probably have been produced in the factory in Carlisle. McVitie’s, part of Pladis Global, employs nearly 800 people. Talking of brands, Carlisle produces the iconic Carr’s water biscuits and, of course, 6 million custard creams every single day.
These businesses make a huge contribution to the Carlisle economy and the wider regional economy. Think of the spending impact that 2,500 directly employed staff have on the local economy, and those are just the larger employers, as these figures do not include the many smaller businesses.
Indeed, the sector as a whole is incredibly diverse, with over 10,000 manufacturing businesses, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. In reality, there are very few large players, which can be both a strength and a weakness for the sector. It means it is a dynamic sector, with much innovation, but at times it also means that the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making some very interesting points, but does he agree that one of the problems the sector has had in recent times is labour shortages? They do not just affect the retail end of the sector, but the farm gate, with many pig farmers, for example, suffering from a lack of qualified abattoir workmen. Is this not something that needs to be addressed?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I will come to that later in my speech, but he has picked up one of the key issues that relates to the sector at the moment, and that extends beyond the food and drink sector, which I fully acknowledge.
The sector can be dynamic, but sometimes the voice of the sector is not heard as much as it should be. This can be a drawback, and something of which the Government should be acutely aware. Just because it does not have the loudest voice, is not the most glamorous sector and does not have a few substantial players with easy access to Government, it is still vital that the industry’s concerns are heard at the very highest level of Government.
I have talked about the economic importance, but I am fully aware of the health issues surrounding this sector as well. I appreciate that we, as a society, have become concerned about obesity and health, and rightly so. To be fair, the industry gets this and is aware of the criticism that is often directed, rightly or wrongly, at them, partly because of their products. However, the issues do not wholly lie with the industry. Indeed, the industry has made huge strides in producing many new products that are healthier and reformulating existing products, and substantial reductions in salt and sugar have helped to improve many of the products.
New products that have been brought to the market often reflect consumers’ interest in these healthier products. I must, therefore, question just how useful schedule 17 to the recent Health and Care Bill will be. The industry is already working hard to improve its products, it co-operates fully with the Government and is receptive to change. However, as a society, we must be realistic and look for other solutions to obesity concerns. We cannot and should not overlook our personal and parental responsibilities. I suspect that the provisions of schedule 17 are unlikely to produce any real improvement, as some people anticipate.
The purpose of this debate is primarily to raise awareness of and the success of the food and drink manufacturing sector, its contribution to our country, what the Government can do to support it, and the challenges it faces in future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, as has already been said. I know he is a great champion of the British food industry. There is something very straightforward that Government could do: they could ensure that public sector purchasing—the procurement of food—prioritised and favoured domestic produce. We make some wonderful things in this country, yet we continue to import far too much food. That would add to traceability, food security and, frankly, simply back Britain. The Government should buy British, and I hope the Minister will confirm that that is exactly what they intend to do.
I very much agree. The two key parts of Government policy in terms of security are energy security and food security. At present, we probably import more food than we should.
I want gently to challenge the Government on some of their attitudes and thinking towards this sector. First, what will the Government do to help promote the sector domestically and internationally?
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech. One of the sectors in the food economy that concerns me is fishing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said, in this country we do not buy our own produce. How can we encourage people in this country to buy the brilliant seafood we produce all round the coastline, so that it is not reliant on a foreign market?
I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point. How can the Government help our industry both domestically and by creating greater opportunities in the export market? We need to continue to see the success of the industry and exploit the opportunities in both our domestic market, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) just said, and in exports.
The development of new products, the competitiveness of the sector and the opportunity to export are vital to our country. However, there is sometimes a feeling that other countries promote this sector far better than we do. I am interested to hear what plans the Minister has to improve that.
The Minister knows that hers is a sponsoring Department for the food and drink sector. Therefore, will the Department with such responsibility challenge in a more constructive way some of the unreasonable pressures that sometimes emerge from the health lobby? As I said, the sector has made great strides on the health issue and does work with Government. Everybody accepts that more needs to be done, but a realistic approach is fundamental.
The supply chain is critical to all industries and the food and drink sector is no different. The appointment of Sir David Lewis as the new supply chain adviser is welcome. I know that the Food and Drink Federation will fully engage with the new supply chain advisory group. It is an outstanding advocate for the industry that works well with Ministers. I am sure the Minister will comment on that in her remarks.
None the less, there are concerns about the supply of food and the inflationary pressures in the supply chain. Those will undoubtedly have an impact on the consumer in due course. That leads on to issues surrounding our trading relationship with the EU. There are concerns about the border controls on exports, but also the very real issue of shortage of appropriate labour. As we know, there is a shortage of HGV drivers, farm workers and factory workers. I can easily give local examples of the firms I have already mentioned and the issues they have with securing employment. We also have pressures in the tourist industry, which compounds the problem in places such as Cumbria.
I agree with my hon. Friend on this point: the shortage of labour is a real problem for employers in my constituency at this time of year, as they are quite busy in the run-up to Christmas. Does he agree that the industry needs help to increase its productivity and invest in the new machinery that it needs, and that in the short term it probably needs some access to additional labour to help it produce the products that we all want to see in the shops?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend; it is about striking a balance between the two. Clearly, at this moment in time there is a shortage of labour, and the industry needs to secure that labour if at all possible. However, I think the industry itself would accept that driving productivity is equally important, and that through productivity it can quite often end up needing fewer employees while being a much more productive sector. My hon. Friend will know from our visits to factories that the food and drink sector is an incredibly innovative and productive sector overall. It is therefore vital that industry and Government work together, so I would be interested to know what actions the Government are taking on the issues I have already mentioned.
As I have already said, the food and drink sector is a hugely important part of our economy. It employs a large number of people and contributes significantly to our economy, but there is the danger that the Government add more and more cost and regulation, which endangers its success. A small but significant example is the definition of “small and medium-sized enterprise” in the Health and Social Care Bill, which could have a huge impact on UK businesses and give a competitive advantage to foreign competition.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. One area in which I am sure much of the UK food and drink industry would welcome greater support from Government is that of honest food labelling. As it stands, food could be farmed in Argentina or elsewhere overseas, but packaged in the UK and still labelled as UK produce. Does he agree that the Government need to look at that area, so that we can back British farmers and British food producers more effectively and make sure we have informed consumers who can back our food producers in the shops?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Interestingly, food labelling could potentially give us an advantage as a country when selling those products: the UK label, the Union Jack, has great resonance with many overseas consumers as well as our own domestic consumers.
On the cost and regulatory side, we also have the prospect of the extended producer responsibility. The sentiment behind it may be sensible, but the additional cost to the industry will potentially have serious consequences. Have the Government fully thought through the very real cost implications? I appreciate that the relevant primary legislation, the Environment Act 2021, has already passed, but it is the secondary legislation that will determine the detail. As the Minister will know, the industry is concerned about the scope, timescale and implementation of those regulations. It believes that the costs have already risen and could reach £2.7 billion for the industry, which will inevitably be passed on to the consumer. Indeed, it is estimated that each household will face a £75 increase in its annual food bill. Is that something that the Government are happy with? If not, will they work with the industry—particularly, as I have already mentioned, the FDF—to ensure that the regulation and costs are proportionate, and that the industry can absorb them without losing its competitiveness? If it cannot, there is a real danger that the regulations could backfire and be detrimental to an important sector of our economy.
In conclusion, I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the specific points I have raised. I look forward to her comments on how she intends to properly and fully support what is one of the unsung successful sectors of our country, but also one of the most important, as has been conclusively demonstrated during the pandemic through the industry’s performance in making sure that we continue to be fed at a very difficult time. I also hope that the Minister and her Department will fully recognise the importance of this sector, celebrate its successes, and truly be a champion of the industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing this debate on what is a very important issue. The debate has a very wide scope, and we could talk for many hours on the subject, but I want to talk about the interconnectivity between the food and drink industry and the market in this country—how we can ensure that suppliers of food and drink, big or small, local or national, have the best possible conditions for people to buy what they produce. I am meeting a little business on Friday that works in the production of gin. How are we going to ensure that it is competitive—that the markets are there for people to buy that product?
I am passionate—I do not think this is a secret—about pubs. Perhaps I should not frame it in that way. I have set up an all-party parliamentary group on tenanted pubs. One of the points that is directly linked to the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, is that we cannot see the food and drink industry on its own; it is interconnected with so many different markets. Tenanted pubs are going through a very difficult period. They are the buyers of the meat from local farmers, the drinks from the suppliers I just mentioned. To allow the industry to flourish, as we all want it to, we have to support the market for it. That is pubs and restaurants—pubs in my constituency such as the Waggonmakers, the Dungeon and The Two Tubs, which just won my pub of the year competition.
Until we as a country consume the shellfish from the coast of Cornwall or the east coast around Bridlington, until we have those markets and create the campaign and market conditions where, as a matter of course, we are buying and making best use of the fantastic products we have throughout the country, then we will have failed. There is much to be done as a Parliament in championing British food. We have some real champions in this room. The small producers of quality produce and drinks require this Government to support them in any way possible. The Hearth of the Ram, a great pub in Ramsbottom, buys everything local. If we did not have it, there would be no market for local producers in my area.
Local, small producers are part of this debate, but I fully accept that the scale of the contribution that the food and drink sector makes to our economy should not be underestimated. As a native of Carlisle, I recognise a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said. Two of my favourite places on earth, Carlisle and Bridlington, are represented in this room today. I am delighted to have taken part in this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and thanking him for securing this important debate.
Although I am sure that Members from all parties will be keen to share details of the great local businesses in their own constituencies, I can truly assure everyone that none of them can quite compete with Stockport. We have a massive range of food and drink businesses in the constituency. From the vegan Hillgate Cakery in the heart of my town centre, run by Simon and Sarah, to Robinsons pubs, which stock some of the best beer in the country, Stockport boasts some of the best food and drink venues that the UK has to offer. Like the hon. Member for Carlisle, I also have a McVitie’s biscuit factory in my constituency. It is part of the Pladis Group, which is one of the largest employers in my constituency.
The pandemic has put a significant strain on the hospitality industry, with the sector seeing one of the biggest economic declines of all sectors of the economy since the start of the pandemic, but the industry is resilient. Businesses have re-opened, adapted and transformed. However, the effects of covid-19 have exposed some shameful pre-pandemic trends.
The pub economy, part of the lifeblood of our country, has been particularly damaged. Between 2010 and 2020, Stockport lost 31% of its pubs. In the year 2019-20 alone, Stockport saw a reduction of 8%. That is in spite of the fact that it has been reported that the brewing and pub sector contributes £28 million to wages locally, employs over 1,400 people and contributes £26 million in taxes.
In today’s debate, we celebrate the contribution of food and drink to our economy, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on and push for what needs to be done to protect and grow this important industry. Independent businesses need to be given assurances that they will be protected in the depressing situation that there may be another lockdown. Far more needs to be done to support local retailers in the face of a growing online multinational markets. Equally, the Government need to legislate to ensure that all those working in the sector—all of them—earn the Living Wage Foundation’s living wage, so that their work pays.
Any discussion about the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy must include the workers in the sector, who are sadly often overlooked. Workers in the food and drink industry, from those in manufacturing and production to those in the service sector, often work long and unsociable hours so that we can all enjoy ourselves. Since the pandemic, there has been a crisis in hospitality staff numbers. This is often attributed to a culture of harassment, burnout and poor pay. Research by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers revealed than nine in 10 retail staff has been victims of abuse, threats or violence. That of course includes those working in the food and drink distribution sector. That is why I am backing the campaign to legislate to protect retail workers in the face of abuse.
Although the picture seems wholly bleak, sharing food and drink unites us and our communities. I was so proud the day Stockport gained the Purple Flag award in recognition of the excellent management of our town centre at night back in 2019. So much of that is due to our independent food and drink retailers. Their passion and drive to provide for the people of Stockport and all those who visit is truly inspiring. I encourage all Members to come and visit Stockport to see what our excellent food and drink businesses have to offer.
I have only two points to make, and given that other Members want to contribute, I shall make them briefly.
First, I want to amplify the point I made about procurement. In my various roles as Government Minister —during which time, by the way, the Minister served as my Parliamentary Private Secretary—I attempted to persuade the six Government Departments that I served to buy British. It was a struggle throughout. I was usually told that it was because of some regulation—state aid rules were often cited. There was a reluctance on the part of the administration to even entertain the prospect of prioritising British products and services. This has to change. It is disadvantageous to our economy. It is, frankly, out of keeping with the expectations of our constituents. It is intolerable, as it lengthens the supply chain, with all the consequences that brings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who very sensibly brought the debate to this Chamber, emphasised the issue of food security. He is right to say that there are other factors—air miles being one of them, as well as traceability and similar matters. Again, I urge the Minister to look at this matter closely. I have no doubt that she will face a struggle, but I know what her perspicacity, determination and assiduity look like from the time we spent together in government. I am confident that if any Minister can do this, it is her. I know that her heart is in the right place, as it is in respect of my second point—I promised to make only two point and am sure that people will be counting, so I had better stick to my promise.
Secondly, we must shorten the food chain. We have far too much food travelling immense distances across the country, with all kinds of consequences, not least those that I have just described: travel miles and traceability problems. We have got to get back to purchasing what is grown locally. I represent an area that might be described as the food basket of Britain. We produce immense amounts of foodstuffs in South Holland and the Deepings, both through the good work of primary producers—farmers and growers—and through the food sector itself. I have a number of food businesses located there.
Imagine the nonsense of growing a cauliflower in Holbeach, in my constituency, transporting it to some distant distribution centre miles away for it to be processed, whatever that means—it usually means being stuck on a piece of polystyrene and covered in plastic. It would then be sent back by truck to Holbeach to be sold in a supermarket yards from where it was grown. My parents would have regarded that as some sort of dystopian nightmare 50 years ago. It would have been the stuff of fiction, but fiction has become fact in our lifetimes. Are we prepared to sustain this? We certainly should not be if we have any sense.
Local production and shortening supply chains helps our own food sector and is also the right thing for local communities, because it sustains communities. We must build a kind of fraternal economics, if I can call it that— this will be dear to the heart of the shadow Minister, who agrees with me on so many things, to his great embarrassment, I suspect—that sustains a strong degree of social solidarity, because what we do economically has a huge effect on our sense of local purpose and pride and the connections between people.
We have to ask: what kind of future do we want? In asking that question, we must face these huge challenges of changing trends that have prevailed for the whole of my lifetime. There is no such thing as a predetermined course of history—that is a Whiggish nonsense. We must create a future better than the present. We can do that by ensuring that more food is consumed in the locality and country in which it is grown.
I have a lot of sympathy for the argument of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) about the shortening of the supply chain, as he called it, but I do not think that any of us should be in any doubt about the complexity of that task. This is essentially about the transport around the country of goods. He mentioned cauliflower. From my family perspective, I come from and was raised in a meat-producing community. The consolidation of abattoirs into large central points is part of that whole process. That did not happen by accident; it was a consequence of the dominance of the supermarkets as the customers for food production in this country. Until we tackle that and level the playing field between the producers and the supermarkets—in that regard, we need to get a serious grip and give proper powers to the Groceries Code Adjudicator—nothing in that respect will change.
I will be very brief. The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I served with him in Government when he was a member of the Cabinet and I attended it. He was a very good Secretary of State, by the way. Is one allowed to say that? I suppose one is. He is absolutely right. We need to back small retailers and face down the huge power of the supermarkets, which frankly sell short their suppliers and bemuse, befuddle and make immense profits out of the people who shop in them.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I essentially agree with his analysis. Since I am talking about producers, I should perhaps have reminded the House at the start of my contribution of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am an unremunerated partner in my family firm in Islay—I am one of the few people who seem to have found a second job that actually costs them money, rather than bringing it in.
To our local economies in Orkney and Shetland, food and drink production is absolutely critical and essential. Orkney has Orkney beef and Orkney lamb, and Shetland has Shetland lamb. Shetland is one of the largest and finest seafood-producing ports in the country, producing Shetland shellfish, as well as our substantial and very valuable aquaculture industry, which produces salmon in particular. It has been fascinating to see that grow over the years. When I was first elected in 2001, we had one and a half whisky distilleries—one full time, one part time—and two breweries. Twenty years later, we have two full-time distilleries, four breweries and four gin distilleries. Lest there be any doubt, I do not take single-handed credit for that growth, contrary to popular belief. We also see the way in which that growth brings with it myriad small artisan producers—people adding value to local produce, which is critical to the success of our local economy.
Indeed, it does not stand on its own; as a consequence of the quality of local food produce in Orkney and Shetland, we have seen a significant growth in the visitor economy, because being able to offer good-quality local produce is enormously attractive to those who wish to visit the isles. I often feel, however, that somehow or other that growth has been achieved despite rather than because of Government intervention. Orkney, which is one of the best suckler beef-producing counties in the country, has seen its abattoir regulated out of existence.
At the moment, we have a consultation from the Scottish Government about the transportation of live animals by sea. If the proposals under consultation were to go ahead, we would see a massive reduction in the number of days on which we could ship cattle off the islands. The way in which cattle are shipped from Orkney and Shetland is in cassettes. It was designed by local farmers along with Ministry vets and the shipping companies some 20 years ago, and is there as the gold standard in animal transportation for all to see, but that consultation, were it to be followed through by the SNP-Green Administration in Edinburgh, would be an existential threat to agriculture in the northern isles.
I will touch briefly on protected geographical indications. The conclusion recently of the Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein deals—an interesting triumvirate—is causing concern among many food producers. The absence of protection for PGIs, which are very important to us in the northern isles, for our export markets is causing concern. It may not be massively important in those three deals, but the danger is always that, if we allow a provision in one deal, those who come along the line later on will want to follow.
Time is against me. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. This is, for us all, an enormously important industry. For communities such as mine, however, it goes beyond important; it is vital to our future.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for letting me speak. I too thank the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for setting the scene on a subject that every one of us takes a great interest in. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), in his place. I am also pleased to see the Minister back in Westminster Hall; we seem to be here quite often—this is two days in a row—but, again, this is something we are both interested in. I was intrigued by the introduction from the hon. Member for Carlisle. He mentioned some of the products. I have to say that, in my house, not just for me but for my grandchildren, custard creams are top of the tree when it comes to biscuits. I usually dunk them in tea, but the children just eat them by the score. The more packets I bring in, the more they eat, so I think we are keeping the custard cream sector going in my constituency.
There has been much emphasis today on the creation of a more resilient food and drink system across the United Kingdom, especially after the consequences of the pandemic. The hospitality in particular sector has suffered incredible financial and personal losses. I know that that is nobody’s fault, by the way. It is not the Government’s fault; it was the pandemic, and the changes that it made, but it has affected the food and drink sector, especially the EU-UK economy.
In addition to the pandemic, other factors have had a negative impact on the food and drink industry, such as Brexit. The Northern Ireland protocol has had an horrendous impact on us in trying to get our products out and back in again. Our biggest trading partner is the UK mainland. The UK Food and Drink Federation says that the UK has lost over £2 billion in sales. We have been proven to be heavily reliant on the EU in the past in relation to food and drink; 28% of our food supplies come from the EU, and the UK’s ratio of food production to supply has dropped by 10% since the 1990s.
Northern Ireland food and drink is worth £5 billion per year. In 2019, just before the pandemic came in at the end of the year, we had an increase in Northern Ireland of 4% on the year before, to £5.77 billion, and some 25,000 jobs. Therefore, when it comes to the Northern Ireland economy, and particularly that of my constituency, the food and drink sector is massively important.
The UK food and drink sector involves 440,000 people, has a turnover of £104 billion and accounts for 20% of total UK manufacturing. I know that the Minister is well aware of the Red Tractor labelling, which was a proactive move by the Government that I was happy to support. I always like to see the Union flag on labels, not just because I am a Unionist but because it is my country and I am proud of it. I am proud of my Union flag and want to see it shown wherever it can be. We must, however, set some goals for the hospitality sector to regain what has been lost in the past year.
In 2019, UK food and drink exports exceeded all expectations, going to 220 countries worldwide. That was truly brilliant in trade. We should be proud of what we have done and, now that we are out of the EU, look to where that extra business is going to happen. In Northern Ireland, Brexit and the pandemic have led to a greater focus in the industry to ensure that, if something similar happened, we would be in a better position to respond. I believe that we can do so.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are in a better position for that to happen.
A more localised approach to food production would be beneficial to our systems. On how we can do it better together here and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Mash Direct, a company in my constituency, does significant work in the Strangford community and beyond, delivering to the UK mainland, the EU and the middle east.
I want to give right hon. and hon. Members a culinary experience of Strangford. We are lucky to have Lakeland Dairies, which produces some of the best milk in the world because the grass is sweeter—the Park Plaza hotel just across the way has its wee milk sachets to go in a coffee, so they have made it here. For the main course, there is the beef, lamb, pork or chicken from my constituency. It is not just that—alongside, you can have Mash Direct’s products, Willowbrook Foods’ products and Rich Sauces. You can have Portavogie prawns and Comber potatoes, which are both protected under the EU, and you can finish the meal with Glastry Farm ice cream. That is another company in my constituency that has done extremely well in food and drink. Then there is Rademon gin and Echlinville whiskey, local beers and all the cheeses you can have to finish up. Right hon. and hon. Members who want a culinary experience should come to Strangford because it has got everything. They could not go to any better place for a restaurant or a menu. All those things are in my constituency.
The importance of the hospitality sector goes beyond turnover. Our exports make a key contribution to overall industry growth. Greater understanding of industry performance often depends on Government reporting. I am confident that the Minister well understands the importance of that for us in Strangford and indeed for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Let us see all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland work and sell together across the world. I believe that the world is our oyster for selling things now that Brexit has been undertaken. Perhaps it is not entirely the same for us in Northern Ireland as it is for the rest of the UK, but we hope that we will shortly overcome that. We should grasp the opportunities for food and drink sales with both hands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for calling the debate. Going to Strangford for the ultimate British Isles culinary experience? Well, we will see about that in the course of the next five minutes.
It is a pleasure to sum up the debate. We sometimes get those calls from the Whips where they rhetorically ask whether we would mind going to Westminster Hall to sum up a debate on anything from synthetic fuels to the shape of clouds, but this one is a shootie-in for a Scottish MP, much less the MP for Angus. I like to explain to English colleagues that if Kent is the garden of England, Angus is very much the garden of Scotland, and it is in that context that I will sum up.
Food and drink manufacturing is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carlisle, who secured the debate, for highlighting that point, because it is often lost in the noise of other, more prominent industries. There is a footprint of food manufacturing and production in every single constituency across these islands, and the sector contributes more than £120 billion to the UK economy. If that sounds good for the UK, we have bells on it in Scotland, because exports of Scottish food and drink make a vital contribution not only of many billions to the Scottish economy but therefore, for the time being, to the UK economy.
We export to countries worldwide: Scotland, with 8.2% of the UK population, delivers almost 20% of the food and drink exports—doing the heavy lifting once again. It is little wonder, with iconic produce such as Scotch lamb, Aberdeen Angus beef and Scotch whisky. I could go on—[Interruption.] You want me to go on, Mr Davies? Okay. I will add to that list Irn-Bru, haggis, shortbread, smoked salmon, porridge, Scotch broth and steak pie, and let us not forget that the iconic Skull Crushers sweets were invented in Scotland.
That is just Scotland’s produce, and I have not started on Angus—specifically our world-famous Arbroath smokies, of which I know the Minister is a fan, and the supreme champion of savoury pastries, the Forfar bridie. Looking around Westminster Hall this afternoon, I see a lot of potential Marks & Spencer customers, so let me assure them that their summertime Red Diamond strawberries from Markies come from Angus too, because Angus is the leading soft fruit producer across these islands—[Laughter.] That is uncontroversial.
Scotland delivers 80% of the valuable seed potato sector, and Angus is at the forefront of that, which is why McCain has its Pugeston facility in Angus. On the drinks side, to name just a few, we have Ogilvy vodka, made from potatoes in Charleston; the Gin Bothy up the road in Glamis; the Glencadam distillery in Brechin; and the Arbikie Highland Estate distillery at Lunan, not far from Lunan Bay Farm, which produces Scottish asparagus and pasture-fed goat meat just down the road from the lobsters landed at Ferryden. If anybody is looking for directions to Angus, I can provide them after the debate.
So it is all well and good, then? No, I am afraid it is not. Remember that seed potato sector? Thanks to the UK’s hard Brexit, the sector has lost not only its European Union market access, but its Northern Ireland market access. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) can no longer buy seed potatoes from Angus, and that is much to be regretted at both ends of the transaction. Neither can his farmers take their bulls to Stirling to be sold any more, because if they do not sell, farmers will have to pay to keep them there because they cannot take them home as they used to.
The jute sacks that seed potatoes need, which are imported from India and Bangladesh, were tariff-free while we were in the EU, but now they come with tariffs. That is a matter for the Department for International Trade to intervene on, but it seems unable or unwilling to do so. Similarly, I have asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to intervene, along with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade, on the proscription of pork exports to China—I know the Minister is aware of this—from the Brechin pork processing plant in Angus, and they are unable to help with that either.
It is interesting listening to right hon. and hon. Members today. If Hansard were to do a Wordle of today’s debate, the big word in the middle would be “labour”. There can be no doubt about the crippling labour shortages and how they threaten to undermine the great strides made in market development—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you, Mr Davies. Before we were interrupted, I was talking about the crippling labour shortages that threaten to undermine the great strides made in the market development and process efficiencies of the food production sectors.
Industry experts are being undone by Whitehall Departments and Ministers with little knowledge of, much less regard for, this industry, although I would not apply that to the current Minister, who will be answering today and—in my estimation, at least—gets the industry and has its best interests at heart. However, she is part of an Executive who are putting substantial problems in front of the industry.
In closing, I will mention the Home Office, with its arbitrary £30,000 figure, which has deliberately made it as difficult as possible for the industry to access those figures. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is an extremely problematic piece of legislation, which does nothing to enhance the devolution settlement or relationships between the industries north and south of the border. I met with the National Farmers Union of Scotland this morning, which described a perfect storm coming down the road, and we need to protect this valuable industry at all costs.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) not just on bringing the debate but on introducing it in a very informative way. I will not repeat the good points he made about the success of the sector. It has been a remarkably wide-ranging debate, from tenanted pubs, to Strangford, to whisky in Scotland—and who could forget the invitation to Angus, which I am sure we will all be taking up?
It has been a remarkable achievement of the sector to maintain the reliable availability of food and drink at prices that most can afford 24/7, 365 days a year. There is much to be proud of, but it has been a tough time. I am grateful to many in the supply chain who speak to me regularly, particularly the Food and Drink Federation in the context of today, but the story over the last 18 months is a mixed bag. I want to particularly focus my comments on those who work in the sector and pick up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra).
At the retail end, the violence and abuse that shopworkers face has been highlighted by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Sadly, I see it in my own city. I pay tribute to the Co-op stores in my city and particularly to PC Matthews—or EJ, as she is known—because they have made a huge difference in cracking down on some of this abuse. People should not face abuse when they are at work.
It is not just the retail sector; as we go down the chain, there is the processing sector. Far too many people are working on contract and too many are on poor wages in shared accommodation—frankly, there is a real covid risk there. Sadly, I am told by the GMB that some employers that introduced more flexible approaches during the pandemic have been pulling back from some of those. That is really dangerous for all of us. We cannot have people going to work because they cannot afford to isolate. With omicron upon us, may I ask the Minister what plans she and her colleagues have to tackle the sick pay issue once and for all? Some employers have behaved well, but others have not and we need the Government to act on that.
I am also grateful to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union for highlighting the sad issue of low pay in the sector, which means that some are not able to afford the very products that they produce, because of their low wages. In a survey, it found that 40% had reported not being able to afford food on some occasions, which is shocking.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), who has been highlighting this scandal through the Right to Food campaign. The campaign has launched a study to look at the impact of food poverty within the food sector, and I commend my hon. Friend for that, but what are the Government doing? Can the Minister tell me what she is doing to tackle low pay and insecurity within the sector? What analysis has her Department done?
That leads me to the point made by a number of hon. Members about labour shortages in the sector. We all know the problems, but I ask the Minister on behalf of many: when are we going to have some clarity on the seasonal worker pilot scheme for next year? Producers really need to know. One operator told me recently that in some farms up to 35% of edible crops were wasted last year, as a direct result of these shortages. These points were raised effectively earlier in the debate.
What about ornamentals? Does the Minister really want almost 300 million daffodils wasted again next year? There are also the points made about the pig sector. The figures that I heard, yesterday, were an on-farm cull of 16,000, but we know that actually the figure is sadly likely to be much higher. How many of the pork butchers that were promised have arrived? How much has gone into private storage so far? I fear that the answer may well be none and none.
We also need to look at the wider supply chain issues. Lots of points have been made about the resilience of our food supply. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who is no longer present, made a point about shorter supply chains being necessary. We know that under the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government are bound to produce a report on food security by the end of the Session. That is within two weeks.
I see the Minister nodding. I wonder whether she could tip us off about when we might expect that.
We also need fairness within the supply chain. We have heard about the power of the retailers, and the imbalance of power. What we are seeing at the moment, I fear, is that although consumers may be benefiting from the price competition between retailers, they are just pushing the pressure down the supply chain harder and harder, which is not sustainable. Perhaps she could tell us something about where the Government have got to on those supply chain contracts, and on dairy contracts, the consultation on which was, of course, a while ago. She may need the opportunity to once again comment on competition laws, and suspension and relaxation, which has happened a number of times.
In the interest of time, I will not make any further points on farming and environmental land management, but we are hoping for some more information soon. Finally, I praise and thank all those in the British food and drink sector. We are fortunate to have a sector that can produce food to such good standards and to such excellent quality, and we cherish it. That is why we want a plan from the Government. We have repeatedly called on the Government to produce a plan for the sector: a plan for food, a plan to get to net zero and a plan to buy British. If the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings were here now, I would tell him, “There is a party that will do that!”, if he is dissatisfied with his own side. We want to get to a situation where people can buy our food with confidence as part of that strategy, but that strategy must also improve conditions for the workers throughout the sector who have given so much. There is plenty to celebrate, but much to be done.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I am sorry you have had to cope with so many interruptions for votes during the debate. I join everyone in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for organising such a fantastic opportunity to talk about food and drink, which is obviously my favourite subject. I will now refer to him as the hon. Member for custard creams, which is how I will forever think of him. He made a thoughtful and serious contribution, and I will do my best to answer as many of his points as I can.
We have had a bit of a pub crawl around the nation, and I look forward to being bought a drink in The Two Tubs. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) also made some serious points about the consumption of British fish, which is something we are working very hard on with Seafish. I will definitely discuss that matter with him outside this debate, because it is something I feel passionately about.
From Stockport, we heard more about beer, but also a serious point about the unsocial hours and sometimes difficult conditions in which hospitality workers, in particular, have to work—a useful contribution from the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra). We heard from Shetland, where we can get our chaser of whisky and gin, and where there are many small artisan producers. I have enjoyed working with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on some of the difficulties that we have been able to overcome, by and large, for his fish exporters; we will continue to do so. We also had a culinary experience of Strangford, which was an extension of the experience of the fish of Strangford that we had yesterday—although very little can beat a smokie from Angus.
The food and drink sector is a vital part of our economy; it is our largest manufacturing sector, and I certainly think about it many more than three times a day. This is a very exciting time for food. We are preparing for the publication of the Government’s food strategy early next year. However, in the meantime, before the end of this Session—on or before 16 December—we will publish our analysis of statistical data. That may not sound exciting, but it is a large and serious piece of work that will be used to inform the Government’s food strategy going forward. There is a plan and it is being developed; I will not pretend in any way that the strategy we publish next year will be the end of the plan, but it will include many of the solutions that we need for this important sector.
I pay tribute to Ian Wright, whose retirement do is later tonight, for all the Food and Drink Federation’s superb collaborative work with Government. Ian took the helm of the Food and Drink Federation in 2015; he has represented the industry with knowledge, passion and enthusiasm through Brexit and covid. He has also overseen a major overhaul of that organisation, and I salute him.
Many Members have commented on food supply chains. We have all thought a great deal about food supply chains in the last 18 months. We know that the most effective response to food supply disruption is industry led, but I firmly believe that Government also need to provide appropriate support and relaxation of rules, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) mentioned, when appropriate. One of the most helpful things we did early on during the pandemic was to relax drivers’ hours and extend supermarket delivery hours.
We all know that labour is a major challenge across the industry as we have a very tight labour market. We are working closely with the Home Office to introduce temporary visa solutions: for example, for poultry workers before Christmas, ensuring that turkeys will be on the table; and for butchers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) alluded to. Other mitigations for the pig sector include the slaughter incentive payment scheme and the private storage aid scheme.
On dairy, yes, we consulted, and one of my first acts when I joined DEFRA was to ensure that we did that work on the dairy supply chain. That is coming to fruition, and I thank all dairy farmers involved in that work. It has been a difficult and sensitive piece of work. I hope that we will be in a position to regulate next year, and pigs are definitely next on the list in terms of supply chains. Sir David Lewis has been mentioned, and I thank him for his work on the new supply chain advisory group and the new industry taskforce, which will look to pre-empt future issues. There will be clarity on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme very shortly.
Tackling obesity is a priority for the Government. Some 64% of adults are classed as obese and for children in year 6, the figure is 40%. The strategy was set out in July by the Department of Health and Social Care. We have ensured that some of the more stringent requirements do not apply to smaller retailers, and it is important that we continue to bring industry with us when making these changes—some useful points were made on that.
Every area of the UK has drawn on the local ingredients they produce, often because of a particular place, climatic conditions or type of ground, to make distinctive drinks and dishes. We are working hard to expand abroad. We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries, covering 80% of our trade within the next three years. We are very ambitious for this sector. We have heard figures of £23.6 billion in 2019. We have taken some recent action, including setting up the food export council and the new agri-food councillors. There were announcements on that yesterday, and I had a meeting with the Paymaster General at lunch today to discuss the issue with people in the industry. It is very exciting.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) mentioned Government procurement. I agree that it is very important. We have not refreshed the Government buying standards on food since 2014; now is definitely the time to do so. We are consulting on that at the moment. I hope that I can repay his faith in me as his willing PPS for doing this. We will definitely place a greater emphasis on local, seasonal and sustainable produce in the new procurement rules.
On extended producer responsibility, our proposals are trying to shift the payment for excess packaging waste from local taxpayers to businesses. The analysis indicates that that will not push up consumer prices, but I accept that further work needs to be done to ensure that that really is the case, and it is important that we continue to work on this issue as we prepare the statutory instruments.
In short, the Government are totally committed to maximising real opportunities for our vital food and drink sector across all parts of our nations. And I don’t know about you, Mr Davies, but I am getting hungry.
I thank hon. Members for participating in this debate. I have often said that this industry affects us nationally, but equally importantly it affects us at the local level. As individual constituency MPs, we all know that the food and drink sector has an impact in virtually every constituency up and down the country, which was demonstrated by the contributions that people have made today.
I am grateful to the Minister for her speech at the end of the debate and for the comments that she made. I look forward to challenging her on some of the issues that we touched on and to maybe having further conversations with her. But as I say, I thank her for her contribution to the debate and I will pass on her good wishes to Ian Wright, who I will hopefully see very shortly as he departs from the FDF. I think he has been a great advocate for the food and drink sector, and I am sure that his successor will continue the good work that he has done.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the contribution of food and drink to the UK economy.