Tuesday 1 February 2022
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Environmental Land Management Scheme: Food Production
I beg to move,
That this House has considered food production and the Environmental Land Management Scheme.
I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an arable farmer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to have been able to secure this debate today on food production and the environmental land management scheme. I thank the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is here today; and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for addressing us at the highly successful launch of the UK agriculture partnership at the Royal Agricultural University in the heart of my constituency last Thursday.
As more and more land is taken out of food production for environmental schemes, we face the dangerous consequences of becoming reliant on importing larger and larger amounts of food. In short, this debate is all about putting the “F” back into DEFRA. Food should be at the heart of ELMS policy and should be classed as a public good with public money under the scheme. I am aware of the 2021 UK food security report, but it is largely full of dry facts and we are looking for some policy to underpin it.
This is a timely debate because the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am deputy Chair, carried out a detailed inquiry into ELMS and published a report on its findings at the beginning of the year. Now that we have left the European Union, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to completely replace our agricultural support system with an ambitious post-Brexit agricultural policy that supports the Government’s ambitious 25-year environmental plan.
Our environmental policy should be joined up with agricultural policy that encourages sustainable food production here at home. Alongside sustainability, we need to help the agricultural sector’s competitiveness and resilience in the macroeconomic, trade and regulatory context. At the heart of ELMS are the changes to the mechanism for distributing funding—that was previously done via direct common agricultural policy payments—to a system that will launch fully in 2024, where farmers will be encouraged towards environmental and productivity improvements.
The Government have stated that all the objectives of ELMS will be delivered for just £2 billion. During our hearing last October, the Public Accounts Committee pointed out that that was a highly ambitious target. As we all know, there are three key elements to the project: the sustainable farming initiative for all farmers to be paid to manage their land in even more environmentally friendly ways; local nature recovery, for more complex and collaborative projects; and landscape recovery, for large-scale projects such as afforestation, rewilding and re-wetted peat.
However, there are clear structural and timetabling issues in ELMS implementation, because details are still not as comprehensive as we would expect by this stage in the scheme. It is not apparent what the aims, objectives or metrics are for supporting more than £2 billion of public funding, whether the schemes will provide good value for money, or how they will help in achieving the Government’s 25-year environmental plan and net zero by 2050. Some farmers are concerned about the practicality of implementing schemes on time. Because of the natural cycle of animals and plants, such schemes can take two years or more to implement, and that is why timely information from DEFRA is so vital.
The Government trialled the first phase of the ELMS programmes with the SFI pilot last year, from which they will draw information before they begin the scheme properly this year. In December, the Government produced a policy paper on how they will expand the scheme over the next few years, but that information is too late for farmers to change their plans. What is clear is that the scheme will require a huge amount of land. For example, the Committee on Climate Change has a target for 30,000 to 50,000 hectares of forestry to be planted every year between 2024 and 2050—an enormous amount of land.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. One concern that my farmers in North West Durham have, especially as they look to diversify and specialise in their production, is that forestry has to be only part of the solution; it cannot be a replacement for food production. As with gas and heating recently, food security will be so important in the future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He could have rewritten my speech; if he is able to stay for the end—I know that he has other engagements—he will hear me say almost exactly that.
At our PAC hearing, top officials from DEFRA were certain that ELMS would promote increased efficiency on the remaining land that is not going into environmental schemes, but they were not able to tell the Committee how much more food would need to be imported as a result.
In 1984, the UK’s self-sufficiency in food was 78%, but by 2019 it was down to 64%, according to National Farmers Union data. However, according to Government statistics, just 55% of the food consumed in the UK was supplied by the UK—this being the result of subtracting UK exports from domestic production. In 2019, we imported £11.5 billion-worth of fruit and veg and exported just £1.3 billion, and we imported £6.6 billion-worth of meat and exported just £2.1 billion. From a balance of trade point of view, it is critical that we reverse that trend, bolster our home production and find opportunities to export more of our excellent, high-quality British food.
The Department for International Trade, along with DEFRA and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, could do a real trade drive to get experts across the world to promote great British food. At the moment, we are not getting our act together fast enough.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, the excellent Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. He is 100% right: there are a lot of opportunities all over the world for us to export our produce.
As an island nation, it is vital that we are able to feed our population. Considering that we have such a temperate climate, which is well suited to agriculture, we have all the means to increase our self-sufficiency. There is also an argument that we have a moral duty to maintain our food security. With a growing global population leading to increased food demand, alongside climate change, which will have a disproportionate impact on certain countries, it is imperative that we ensure that our own needs are met, rather than being more reliant on other countries around the world.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Member is saying about the need to improve our food security, grow far more in this country and consume it here as well. However, does he agree that the Government’s current policy of pursuing trade deals around the world completely undermines that? It seems as though the whole policy is based on trying to reduce support for farmers in this country and chase cheap food imports from elsewhere.
I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Lady. Given the number of times that we have debated in Bristol and been at odds, to have her support is somewhat amazing. I was on a programme the other day agreeing with the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) as well, and I have never agreed with her before, either. The Whips must be getting worried that I might defect soon.
Even for a global trading nation—this goes to the heart of the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—shocks can expose real fragilities in any reliance on imports. The current severe spike in energy price is a result of an increasing reliance on imports; we became vulnerable to the global squeeze on energy and gas supplies last year, and going into this year. With technical and geopolitical issues impacting on supply across Europe, we have been hit hard for a number of reasons, including our storage capacity, which is one of the lowest in Europe, and our demand, which is among the highest.
Imports will always play a critical role in our food system, but I say to the Minister that the Government must take our own self-sufficiency more seriously. It is stagnating, and the public will not thank us if there is ever a world food shortage, prices rocket and supermarket shelves are emptied of certain commodities. Although the nation is encouraged to be healthier and eat more fruit and veg, our domestic production of those products falls below our potential. We are only 18% self-sufficient in fruit, 55% in vegetables and 71% in potatoes. The figures for veg and potatoes have fallen by 16% in the past 20 years, despite the sector demonstrating sustained investment. The entire economy is aiming to build back better and greener from the covid-19 pandemic. British farming can be central to that green recovery. We have a golden opportunity to place food security fairly at the centre of our food system and become a global leader in sustainable, high-quality food production.
The Government have a crucial role to play. Food security should be at the heart of Government policy, and there needs to be an annual system of reporting to Parliament to ensure that we do not allow our domestic food production to diminish. UK farmers are best placed to implement many of these environmental schemes, while at the same time maintaining the countryside to the high standard that the public have come to accept. I do not think the public are going to welcome the look of countryside that is going to waste growing brambles and shrubs. It feels highly counterintuitive to have such high environmental standards here that food production becomes unprofitable enough that we need to import more.
Not only does physically importing food produce greenhouse gases, but by relying on farmers from the rest of the world to produce food for us in the UK, we are simply exporting our environmental problems and responsibility to other countries with lower plant and animal standards. The public place real value on high standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and the climate ambition of British farmers. We cannot guarantee or enforce those high standards on farmers from other countries around the world. It would be morally unjustifiable for a UK farmer to be put at a competitive disadvantage by imported food with lower standards—a point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East.
The innovation I have seen from UK farmers throughout my lifetime, working towards ambitious environmental goals, has been incredible. The NFU has been working with its stakeholders to outline the policy mechanism for agriculture to reach net zero by 2040, which is a critical goal. I believe that the best way to reach our environmental targets is by supporting British farmers, not by making food production an unsustainable economic model.
The second of the key issues in the report from the National Audit Office—a highly respected institution—on which the Public Accounts Committee inquiry majored is that, without subsidies, most farms in England make an average profit of just £22,800 a year, after labour costs and investment, and a third of all farms would not make any profit at all. That makes the sector pretty financially vulnerable. For small and tenanted farms operating on wafer-thin margins, there is a real fear that many will go out of business. The consequence would simply be that the average size of farms would increase and the environmental benefits they provide would be lost. ELMS should provide advice and funding to help those small farmers diversify.
The future farming programme for England, which will replace the direct payments with a new scheme based on public money for public goods, will see small farms have their direct payments reduced from December 2021, and 50% will be lost by 2025. There is a real concern that some of the ELMS options will be completely unprofitable, given the amounts available, and too complicated; and that many farmers will simply not take them up, especially if they do not have the administrative capacity to negotiate the complicated bureaucracy. That could mean that only large institutional landowners, such as the National Trust or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, benefit from these Government schemes. It would be quite wrong if such landowners received a bigger and bigger share of the agricultural subsidy cake when they provide less and less food each year. ELMS should have a part to play in protecting small, tenanted farms and upland farmers—I class small farms as less than 100 acres—alongside their significant environmental aims.
The final problem I would like to take up with the Minister is the average age of farmers, which is currently 59. My own farming situation has been discussed here; my farm is in north Norfolk, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). I am delighted to see him here today and I have issued an invitation to him to come and visit my farm. I know from my own farming situation that my son, who is in his thirties, is much more adaptable than I am to new technology, which would have two key effects of increasing productivity and innovation. ELMS should have a structural element to help young people who wish to enter agriculture, particularly those who are leaving education, because agriculture tends to be a highly risky, capital-intensive business, combined with very low returns.
DEFRA is providing money to councils, landowners and county farm estates via the new entrant support scheme, to support young people joining the sector with access to land, infrastructure and support for successful and innovative businesses. My own farming business, to which I have referred, provides an opportunity for three different businesses to get on to the farming ladder. Chris is my long-term farming contractor; Ben runs a successful outdoor pig-breeding business; and we are currently discussing an arrangement with a lady who has a rotating ewe flock of sheep, to graze our increasingly over-wintered green cover crops. Existing farmers could do more to help young people into agricultural employment and business.
All in all, if farmers are to survive, they must produce better returns, either from increased productivity, Government subsidies or increased prices from the market. Otherwise, many will simply not survive. The consequence will be that the average farm size increases, employment in agriculture falls and social cohesion in rural areas is lost. The Government are formulating a new policy on ELMS, and we need to see much more detail before it is launched in 2024. I appreciate that a lot more was published at the beginning of the year, but I still do not get the full sense of where the Government’s aims for ELMS really are.
As I have said, we cannot become over-reliant on other countries to fulfil our food needs. We have the means to produce food here in more sustainable and smarter ways, but to do that we must support farmers across the country, and not make the industry so unprofitable that only the largest farms survive. The Government should be much more ambitious with their aim of producing food in the UK. Well over 60% of the food we eat should be produced by UK farmers. That would well and truly put the “F” back in DEFRA.
It is a farm mask made by my little sister, who is a farmer. I declare an interest in that my two little sisters are farmers in north Cornwall; I am very proud of them and what they do. I thank the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing the debate so well, with his fervent focus on the future of British farming, which is not as secure as it once was. On one hand, the changes being made by Government could be positive, but, on the other, they could be disastrous. The problem is that very few people in this room, including probably the Minister, know which way it will go. That is why it is so important to have parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals and for Ministers to bring forward more information.
The spirit behind the environmental land management scheme is good. It enjoys cross-party support and I welcome it. Even as a remainer, I was not a fan of the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. Frankly, they were rubbish, but we need to replace them with something better—not just better soundbites, but better detail and support for our long-term objectives. As ever, the devil is in the detail, and the problem is that we cannot see the detail because so little has been published. We need to convince the Minister to accelerate the publication of the detail of the scheme, so that farmers can make better decisions about how to farm in the future, and so that parliamentarians can scrutinise the proposals to ensure that they deliver what we need.
There is simply too much uncertainty around future funding for farmers, and particularly for south-west farmers, whose farms tend to be smaller than those on the east coast. Those farmers are worried that the direction of travel favours fewer smaller farms and fewer farmers; that it favours larger farms, more technology-intensive farming methods and more equipment and machinery, which cannot fit down smaller lanes in the west country; and that it will mean greater reliance on food imports to sustain our food needs—with many imports produced to lower standards than those for UK farmers—and less food security.
On top of that, one of the key aims of the environmental land management scheme is to reduce carbon impacts. Yet having supply chains that span the world and relying on food from Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada and America, rather than farms in England, seems an odd way to reduce our carbon impact. The carbon in that maritime shipping is not yet counted, but it will be. What is the point of investing and locking ourselves into an import system whereby the carbon intensity of that food—and, therefore, the future cost—is not counted now, but will be hugely costly down the line?
There is often a sense that the Government’s strategy of larger farms and fewer farmers—in particular, fewer small and tenant farmers—is because of lack of interest, or because Ministers have not quite thought it through. However, in my view, that is not right. It is a deliberate strategy. Hon. Members present from every party need to make it clear that that deliberate strategy is not right. It has the potential to devastate UK farming. Ministers should think again about that high-level strategy.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds raised one issue with the scheme: the funding. Since we left the European Union, the Treasury has taken large chunks out of the farm support budget. As of December, farms that previously received £150,000 a year in direct support have seen their support cut by a quarter, while those receiving between £50,000 and £150,000 have seen it cut by 20%. I suspect that will continue. Farmers cannot see what ELMS will do to replace it, so they cannot invest in that method of farming to ensure they receive that subsidy in the future. That matters. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds very effectively described it as the effect on the sustainability of farm businesses, and he is right. It has the ability to undermine small farming in England in a way that no Government have done since medieval times.
It also undermines the character and spirit of our farming. I worry about the impact on the mental health of our farmers, in particular. We know that farming is a tough business. New figures from the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution show that 47% of farmers are experiencing some kind of anxiety at the moment, while some 36% are probably or possibly depressed. We must consider the mental health of our farmers in these policy changes. The uncertainty that is created around this area is not just for policy wonks, but applies to farm businesses up and down the country, with people worried about how they will pay the bills; how they will make rent, if they are a tenant farmer; and how to ensure that their business will be there to pass on to their children. As parliamentarians, we need to take that much more seriously.
I would like to see funding addressed, but it is not the only hole in the ELMS proposals. The scope of the schemes is not ambitious enough. Of particular concern are tenant farmers, whom I would like the Minister to pay a bit more attention to in the proposals she is looking at. I am not certain what role they will be able to play in all the schemes, and that is a problem Ministers should address early. In many cases, tenant farmers are more at risk because they do not own the freehold on their land and are subject to rent charges. They are at risk from absent landlords who might see the benefits of getting more support by using their land for forestry or rewilding schemes and using that to grow the rental income on those lands, putting further pressure on tenant farmers.
Finally, I want to turn to food production. We need to be much clearer that Britain should grow more of its food in Britain. This is not just an argument about jobs in rural areas—although it is about that—or supporting our rural communities, and the fact that smaller farms are more likely than larger farmers to employ people in the local area. It is about our national security. The 1945 Labour Government classed food security as part of national security. A lot has changed in the intervening period, but the privatisation of thinking about food to supermarkets, in particular, that we have seen over the past few decades has done a disservice to our food security. We need to support an agenda to buy, make and sell more in Britain, but that means growing more in Britain. It is not about an outdated “dig for Britain” nostalgia, but protecting our supply chains and jobs and, importantly, taking the risk out of a future economy that will be much more reliant on the carbon intensity of production. If we get rid of our lower carbon production farmers, to rely on imported food produced with lower standards but often with greater carbon intensity, we need to build into that a massive allowance for the increased carbon cost, which will have a pound, shilling and pence effect in the future—at the moment it does not, but it will do.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is absolutely no point trying to do some of those things if all we are doing is offshoring our carbon emissions elsewhere? All that potential benefit is then eaten up in transportation costs, especially in sectors such as shipping and aviation, at the back end of decarbonisation at the moment.
I thank the hon. Member for his point. Whether it is a farmer in North West Durham, in Gedling or in the south-west, this matters. The Government are making a strategic error in their trade policy. I realise the Minister is not responsible for trade policy, and is merely the recipient of all the silage coming from the Department for International Trade in this matter, but the lack of a joined-up Government policy on food is part of the problem. We need to make sure that future trade deals match our agricultural policies, environmental policies and policies on rural employment.
All that speaks to what type of country we want to be. I think Britain should be a force for good. We should maintain high standards, support people entering those sectors, decarbonise and support nature recovery. We cannot do all those things if we do not have the information about what an ELM scheme will look like, if we rely imports produced at lower standards and if we lock ourselves into the risk of a supply chain spanning the world at a time of greater international instability. This is a really important debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds on bringing it to the Chamber and I hope the Minister listens carefully to the speeches.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a great novelty that you are in the Chair and I can be the recipient of your rulings. It is an interesting world.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for outlining very well the position of agriculture and food. Let me say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that the EFRA Committee will look into mental health in farming and rural communities because there is a real problem at the moment. May I also say to the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food that I very much respect and enjoy working with her? She has done detailed work on farming, water, animal transport and all sorts of issues that come out of DEFRA and, dare I say, need sorting out. That is the whole reason we are here this morning.
I do not intend to go into the detail of what my hon. Friend for The Cotswolds said, because he did a very good job. I want to wax lyrical about where I think farming and food is going in this country and where we are not exactly getting it right. I think we all agree that the direction of travel is right, but we are not getting to where we need to go, for the simple reason that the payments coming forward are too small. They will not encourage farmers into a lot of extra bureaucracy and administration, and £20 a hectare for the first scheme under the sustainable farming incentive will not pay for the extra work needed. The Minister could well argue that many farmers are already doing that. That is great, but the whole idea of the scheme is to get those farmers who are not doing it into that place. Eventually, we might get all sorts of sticks to get them into that place, but the carrot will be so much more effective than the stick.
I declare an interest, as a farmer, and as a farmer who is older than the average age of farmers—perhaps I should put that on record. To be serious, we have an opportunity to get this right. None of us here, whether remainer or Brexiteer, wants to go to war to protect or maintain the common agricultural policy, but the one thing it did do under the basic farm payment, for better or for worse, was deliver a good, strong payment into farmers’ bank accounts. Some of the big, wealthy landowners—I have often waxed lyrical about, the barley barons of East Anglia, because I do not represent them—may have been able to take the basic farm payment, put it away in their bank accounts and farm without it. But I tell you what, most of the average family farms depend hugely on that payment.
I would say to our Minister, and, if he were here, the Secretary of State, who I also work with—I work very well with all the Ministers in DEFRA; they are very co-operative—that we have not done enough work on the effect of taking the payment away and how many farms will be viable afterwards. We have gone from having our heads in the clouds, “This is the new policy, isn’t it great?” to a bit of reality. By 2024, half of the basic farm payment will be gone. How will farmers replace that?
Prices are good at the moment; costs are high. There will be a lot of farmers out there who will try to maintain production, and who may even try to enhance their production, which is perhaps not the way the Government want farming to go. That is why the level of payment must be got right.
It is very laudable to plant forest, but it is also very good to have all that carbon held and sequestered in permanent pasture. Our hill farming, our permanent pasture farming and our small family farms are doing an excellent job. Let us be clear: it will be at least 20 years after a tree has been planted that it gets anywhere near holding the carbon that permanent pasture holds. It also is great to rewet peat. All those things can be done, but let us have some food security. Let us make sure that the food we eat comes mainly from Britain. Lots of people struggle to buy food, and these policies will reduce food production: make no mistake about it. That is where we will find that food prices may rise even higher, which would be wrong, not only for farming, food production and food security, but for the people of this country.
Let us look at the landscape. We want some good forests, but do people go to the forest a great deal? No, they do not. They like to enjoy the British countryside. They like to see copses in the fields and enhanced hedgerows. They want agriculture to take perhaps a slightly more organic route, but still produce very good food. We may actually need more land, not less, to do that.
Today gives me an opportunity to say that what we are doing is not wrong, but we need to take a raincheck. We need to get DEFRA out there, talking to the farmers more. I say quite bluntly to the Minister that there are a lot of staff in DEFRA, but I am not convinced I know what they are all doing. We know the proverb, “One boy’s a boy; two boys be half a boy, and three boys be no boy at all.” I do wonder sometimes. I am not criticising any particular individual—all I am saying is that having more staff in a Department does not necessarily make it more efficient.
Let us go back, not to fundamentals, but we have the right policies, wrongly implemented, with farmers not knowing where they are going and losing a lot of money. Should we not look again at the overall cake and say, perhaps, we need more for farming, more for competitive and environmental farming, covering slurry stores and the like? Do we need to slightly tweak the amount that is going to large forests so that we do not, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, just hand it over to big institutional landowners? If not, the family farms, which are the core of this country’s food production and environment, will be the losers.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to say a massive thank you to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). This is an important debate and he introduced it really well. I pretty much agree with everything he said.
Like the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), my views about the wisdom of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union are on the record; people know what they are. My views on the common agricultural policy are also on the record; if I could find one glimmer of hope or a silver lining about leaving the EU, it is leaving the CAP. That is one of the reasons why I am so frustrated that we are not taking the opportunities that leaving the CAP provides.
In principle, the environmental land management scheme—ELMS—is good. It is good that we should pay farmers with public money for producing public goods. I have no argument with the principle. However, we surely cannot ignore the fact that producing food and being able to feed ourselves as a country is a public good. Also, if we do things that lead us to being able to produce less food, that is a public bad and we should seek to avoid it.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen a 10% reduction in our capacity to feed ourselves as a country. Clearly, that is something that Governments of all colours are responsible for, and that this Government, which now has more power than previous ones to do something about it, should seek to address.
However, given where the Government are going over the transition to the new payments system, my fear is that that will make the situation worse—in fact, it will clearly make it worse. If we lose farmers, we lose our capacity to produce food. By the way, those who think that there is some kind of a challenge or contest between farming and the environment do not understand either. The bottom line is that nobody can achieve good environmental policies without farmers. We could come up with the most wonderful environmental schemes through ELMS, but they are bits of paper in a drawer if there are no farmers out there to operate them. Farmers are the frontline warriors in the battle against climate change and the battle to establish biodiversity.
We value our farmers and it is important that we do so. They are often wrongly blamed for climate change. Seventy per cent. of England’s land is agricultural, but only 10% of our climate emissions come from agriculture. Let us remember that our farmers are our friends and allies in tackling the climate catastrophe, and not blame them for it.
My fear is that the Government’s policies seem set to eject farmers from the countryside, partly by accident and partly by design. By accident? The transition from basic payments to ELMS feels like it is being thoroughly botched. In December, we saw the first loss of the basic payment scheme—BPS—to farmers. Farmers will have lost between 5% and 25% of their basic payment in December, and virtually none of them has access to an alternative scheme. ELMS may be available by 2024, but it probably will not be fully available until 2028.
We have seen a poor take-up of the sustainable farming incentive, or SFI. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Chair of the Select Committee, indicated, that is largely because the SFI is unattractive. Therefore, we have not got people into the scheme and, consequently, what will they do? They will either go bust or go backwards. They will decide to do things that are not environmentally positive because they cannot get into the SFI scheme, so they will think, “Why bother? Let’s just pile ’em high instead and go farming”, as people sometimes say. The reality is that if we do not get people into those schemes, they will either be lost to farming altogether or they will certainly be lost when it comes to trying to deal with the environmental challenges ahead of us.
In total, 85% of the profitability of the average livestock farm is basic payment. If any of us were in a situation where we were progressively losing massive chunks of our income, year on year, with no alternative to replace it for up to seven years, we would go bust or we would think of something else to do.
That is the situation that the Government are creating and it is why I call upon them to peg basic payment at its current level. I know that the Minister will need to have a word with the Treasury to achieve that, but the Treasury should care about farming and food security. We need to peg BPS at its current level until ELMS is available to everybody.
Farmers are leaving farming and they will continue to leave, which will reduce our capacity as a country to feed ourselves and undermine the Government’s stated environmental objectives. Without farmers, who will deliver those environmental goods?
As I have said, I feel that the SFI is an accidental mistake. I wonder whether it is perhaps down to the fact that hill farmers and small family farmers in particular do not have time to leave the farm and take part in consultation exercises. So is DEFRA just listening to the big boys? That is my worry, because it is easy to listen to them; they have staff who can leave the farm and talk to Ministers. I do not say that Ministers are being deliberately biased; it is just natural that many smaller farmers, including many of my farmers, simply do not have time to leave the farm to lobby Ministers or make their voices heard in other ways. I pay tribute to the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association, which are doing their best to make farmers’ case known. The Government’s policies on the transition are pushing farmers out of farming and reducing our capacity to produce food—partly by accident, but partly by design. It almost looks as though some aspects of ELMS will deliberately kill farming and our rural communities.
I have been in many Westminster Hall debates, and when we were in the EU, I would have a go at Ministers of different parties about the fact that money went to the landlord and not the farmer, and the Minister’s response would be, “Well, we’d do something about this, but it’s all the EU’s fault.” Now it is down to us. We could do something about it, but the Government are designing schemes that will incentivise big landlords—some institutions and some private individuals—to kick out tenant farmers, turn the house into a second home, and let the place go to seed. They then brag at their Hampstead dinner parties about doing good for the environment, but they are actually killing rural communities, ejecting tenant farmers and destroying the landscape.
What matters is not just food production, but the heritage of our environment and our landscape. I am proud to represent the lakes and the dales. The Lake district became a world heritage site relatively recently. It will lose that status if farms become wilderness and are not carefully managed.
I ask the Government to think very carefully, and not botch the transition by making the same mistakes the EU did in handing wads of cash to wealthy landowners, who kick out the tenant farmers who are the backbone of our farming economy. The Government’s plans are morally unjust, and would destroy our rural communities, remove the Government’s key partners in the delivery of environmental schemes, wreck our landscape and our landscape heritage, and cut food production. It is no surprise, then, that many people in the countryside think that this Government take them for granted. I would love Ministers to react and prove me wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), my constituency neighbour; we are both vociferous campaigners for farmers across the Cotswolds and my valleys and vale. I also thank the Minister, who took the time to come to Stroud, speak to famers there, and visit our mighty Frampton country fair. It is incredibly important that we have a DEFRA team that is stocked with farmers and people with real-life experience—the same goes for our fantastic Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—because it gives confidence that there is thinking, knowledge and experience behind the policies. However, as we have heard, and as the Minister knows, there is more work to do. I think we would all agree on that.
I could just say today: “Food, food, food; security, security, security,” and sit back down. Ultimately, those are the key points that farmers feel that this place—both green carpet and red carpet—often forgets when creating fancy-pants policies to improve on and replace the common agricultural policy, which we all know needed to go. However, in this increasingly uncertain world, if we do not get the farmers and the public to understand the importance of food production, and do not get the country standing on its own two feet and feeding itself, we will be in a difficult place when sudden shocks hit. Hopefully nothing like the pandemic will happen again, but if it does, we must be ready and able to look after ourselves.
Our farmers earn a pittance. Jeremy Clarkson has done a good job of highlighting, to people who have probably never looked at the agricultural world before, that real stretch. They understand that he toiled seven days a week, and his earnings at the end were quite difficult. For those who are out on the farm every day, working the land, there is no time for paperwork or bureaucracy, and definitely no time to try to understand which scheme to apply for, or whether to hold their horses and go for the next one that might be coming up. There is quite a lot of nervousness, and I understand that.
Farmers are the custodians of our environment. They have been looking after our countryside for years; they were thinking about the land, the trees, the environment, the species and biodiversity long before it was fashionable to do so around city-centre dinner tables, as was highlighted by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). If we do not get this right, we will damage the pillars of food production and security, and we will put farmers out of business. That will hinder our ambitions on water quality, biodiversity, climate change adaptation, air quality, natural food management and coastal erosion mitigation—all things that we in this place want, as do DEFRA, the Government, and our environmental groups in Stroud, but they will not happen.
On a practical point about what farmers are dealing with, the NFU surveyed all its members, and 84% of farmers and growers were very clear that they were interested in applying for ELMS. I have regular meetings with my farmers and the NFU, and at my last meeting I was in Slimbridge. The farm there is diversifying, and the farmers are working really hard, but there was a lot of hesitation, and many concerns about the practicalities and the waiting game that they feel they are in. My anecdotal take from that was that the general lack of organisation and support around the ELMS has put off many farmers from engaging with it. More needs to be done to make sure that the schemes are attractive to farmers, so that they engage. They are busy people; if they do not engage, nobody wins—that is the crux of it.
Some farmers have already dropped out of the sustainable farming incentive pilot due to the lack of timely information from DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency. Food security needs to be considered part of these schemes, and that should be vocalised, or we are asking farmers to ignore the reason why they farm, which is to feed the country. Farmers have asked me for details of the support scheme that the Secretary of State explained to me was available when I raised this in the Chamber last year. There is still a lack of understanding about what is available to farmers. I again highlight that they are busy people, out there doing their job.
Putting on my all-party parliamentary group for wetlands hat, I am very proud to have the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in my patch. We know that trees and forestry are definitely not the only gig in town for carbon capture. Indeed, wetlands can do far more than a lot of what is planted. I have spoken to farmers; they have seen the carcases of trees that they have planted with plastic tubes around them. They get funding to plant the trees, but then there is nothing to support their maintenance. They are nervous about that. We need clear thinking about wetlands, and all the options that are available that may do more good—notwithstanding the fabulousness of trees. I am not an anti-tree person.
Finally, I am very lucky to have the chair of the NFU next generation forum, David Ratcliffe, in my patch. With the help of young farmers, ELMS could be a big source of resilience for farming business while delivering environmental outcomes. However, when farmers are in the early stages of their career and are trying to grow, they are at their most vulnerable to price volatility. There is price movement at the moment; for example, fertiliser is at about £600 plus per tonne, whereas it was £250 per tonne previously. That has to be thought through with our young entrants. I have spoken to the Minister before, and she has kindly spoken to David. The problem is with funding; with loans not being available to new entrants; with tenant farms going; and with rich people buying up land that would historically been available for farming. I thank the Minister for all she does. I know she cares deeply about the issue, and that she will do everything in her power to make things better. However, the practical elements need to be fixed very quickly.
It is always a pleasure to speak in any debate, but I thank the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this one. In his introduction, he hit upon all the salient matters. From what he has said, and from my knowledge of his constituency from afar, it is a richly rural place with beautiful scenery—as is my constituency. I take pride in the rural sections of my constituency, and I like to represent my local farmers. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and as a landowner and a farmer. I say without boasting—that is not what this is about—that we have already made a commitment on our land to planting 3,500 trees, retaining hedgerows and introducing ponds; those are the things that we should be doing, and I have made an active commitment to doing them on our land.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions and I look forward to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), contributing; he has a grasp of the issues. I particularly look forward to hearing from the Minister. As others have said, she understands these issues, has a passion for them, and has a feel for what we are trying to say. I am quite sure that when she responds, we will get the answers that we hope for, and the encouragement we want for our constituents.
Farm support across the UK has changed, and will continue to change. Before the UK left the EU, farmers were supported by common agricultural policy funds. That scheme allocated some £4.7 billion to the UK in 2019. The Government said that they will maintain pre-Brexit funding from 2021 to 2027. Those CAP payments will be based on how much land is farmed. Northern Ireland’s farmers have suffered enough from the impacts of the protocol, as we all know. I urge the Government to provide reassurance for those in the farming community that those who own land and have done so for many years will not be further disadvantaged by any new legislation. Northern Ireland is a nation of small farmers. The average farm size is probably between about 70 and 90 acres. We could have reared a family on less than that years ago, but today farmers have increased their land, and the larger ones are still working the land.
The most recent land management strategy released in Northern Ireland was in 2016. It aimed to be a sustainable agricultural land management strategy for Northern Ireland, which would outline how the ambition of “Going for Growth” was to be achieved in a way that improved farm incomes, environmental incomes and food production simultaneously. The strategy said of land management:
“Almost 30% of agricultural land is let in Conacre”—
an important issue for us back home—
“a short term arrangement which denies tenants security in their land tenure and therefore impedes long term planning”.
We therefore have special circumstances, and that might be where our difficulties are. The Minister is not responsible for that, but it would be remiss of me not to make this plea on behalf of my constituents. We have the Comber Early, a potato that has had protected geographical indication status under the UK scheme since 30 October 2020. I am a man of simple tastes, and there is nothing I enjoy more than early Comber potatoes with a pat of butter. There is not a meal like it. The EU protected them, and we wish them to remain part of what we are about in the future. The Minister and the UK Government have issued that protection as well. That tells us what the land does: it produces the best of products, so it is important that we protect it.
The new Agriculture Act 2020 passed by Parliament in the previous Session had several new measures for protecting land management and food production services. They included requirements on Ministers to consider the need to encourage environmentally sustainable ways of producing food, and to report on food security at least once every five years; measures on agricultural tenancies, fertiliser regulation, and the identification and traceability of animals; and the red meat levy. That perhaps indicates that Government have grasped the issue—they have put in place three pointers to what needs to be done.
There is general support for replacing the CAP system of paying farm subsidies based on the area farmed, and for instead paying farmers to provide public goods such as environmental and animal health improvements. Farm groups, however, were concerned that food production was not included in the list of purposes for which funding could be provided. DEFRA has stated that it is maintaining farm support in every nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that is imperative for farming in all nations.
I know that the Minister is in regular contact with our Minister back home at the Northern Ireland Assembly; they have regular discussions about agriculture and fishing. I am very pleased that we have an active Minister present who has those discussions as a matter of form—not because we ask it, but because she knows it is the right thing to do—so again I thank her.
The National Audit Office revealed that there were 85,000 recipients of CAP payments in 2017. It also stated that 82,500 would participate in the new environmental land management scheme by 2028. I hope that that will be the case, and perhaps we will capture all current recipients. The new Agriculture Act prepares our agriculture sector for the future, so that it can meet the needs of the country.
I will conclude, Mr Davies; I am ever mindful of the timescale for the debate. I urge the Minister—I know that we are pushing at an open door—to have all necessary discussions with organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Ulster Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance, which is very active on these matters, to ensure that the financial protection of our local farms across the United Kingdom. Without doubt, land management and food production have suffered in some ways as a consequence of Brexit. It is time to get this right for our farmers across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, we are better together.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. You were far too lenient on the EFRA Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), so well done; that shows great character and integrity.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this critical debate. How wonderful it is to talk about the countryside, our farms and our farming and food production! We are up in London, in the midst of all sorts of nonsense, but for those who are privileged, as I am, to live in one of the most beautiful—mine is the most beautiful—part of the United Kingdom, it is great, when we get back to the constituency, to get out in the morning and have all that disappear while we appreciate God’s great gift of the countryside. It is fantastic to be able to talk about it today.
The three core areas of ELMS are: supporting sustainable farming; the recovery of nature; and collaboration between landowners to deliver, as hon. Members have said, public money for public goods. West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are great examples of where much of that has already been done. There is an irony, in that farmers who have been delivering public goods for a long time may not benefit in the way that ELMS intends, as they have less far to go to get our countryside to where it needs to be.
It is a great privilege for me to visit farms across west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and see the good care and concern of farmers for the natural environment. They know it is the hand that feeds them. Many farms in Cornwall have developed the ability to produce food and energy. There was a time when Cornwall was the county that produced the most renewable energy on land in the UK. It also grows trees. I committed to planting 20,000 trees in 2020, and it was landowners and farmers who found pastures that were not productive for food, and who gave up that land so that the Woodland Trust, I and my volunteers could plant over 21,000 trees on it. I appreciate how long it takes for them to bear fruit, as it were, but planting trees is certainly an important part of managing our countryside; it has benefits for run-off and flood management, and is a good thing to do on balance.
We need to strike a balance between farming, food production and biodiversity. I hear comments—not necessarily from DEFRA, although comments can be misinterpreted—about the need to produce much less meat around the UK. That is most definitely true around the world, but there are examples on my farms where grazing and producing meat supports and enhances biodiversity. We need to be careful, in all messages from Government and DEFRA, to get the balance right. For promoting biodiversity and looking after many parts of our countryside around the UK, meat production is a positive and helpful thing, if done properly.
We heard about public money for public goods. I was delighted when the Secretary of State at that time came up with that expression. It reassured me that we were going to get the policy right and turn our backs on the common agricultural policy. There is an enthusiasm across farming for public money for public goods, but there is a frustration that it has taken so long to get the detail, and I worry that we might not be delivering what we set out to. Everything that has been said today pretty much agrees with what I am hearing farmers say.
On ELMS, as has been said, we need to ensure food is being produced. The first debate I ever had in Westminster Hall was on food security. At that time, we were producing around 54% of the food that we could produce in the UK. We have to increase that. We need to enthuse our farmers and, rather than bogging them down with red tape, give them a renewed passion and enthusiasm, and let them know that DEFRA and the Government are on their side when it comes to producing good, healthy food for our constituents to eat.
We learned in the pandemic that it was the local food producers that helped to address the food chain supply problems. Let us not lose the lessons we learned just two years ago. We must do whatever we can to cut through red tape and give farmers the enthusiasm to produce the food we need, and we must protect and value their knowledge. We have heard already about the knowledge of farmers. It is no accident that they produce food from the land they own or look after. It is an incredible art and a gift. It is years and years, or generations, of experience. If we do not get this right, we will lose them and that experience will not be passed on, which takes me to my next point. DEFRA and the Department for Education must get together and use ELMS, if possible, to promote careers in agriculture and food production in our schools and colleges, harnessing that experience and knowledge and giving young people the opportunity to have a job on the land.
We are concerned about mental health and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, particularly about mental health in farming. However, the countryside has an awful lot to contribute towards supporting people’s wellbeing and good health. We must look after soil security. The Climate Change Committee has talked about that. We allow our soil to wash into rivers and seas, where it is lost forever. We must be cleverer and use ELMS to stop that.
Although ELMS may encourage some farms to get things right, there is a danger that it will discourage others from engaging, and that they will work the land and the soil will be wrecked—it takes an enormous amount of time to recover soil. ELMS must deliver good soil health across the country.
Finally, we need to protect small farms. We have heard about landowners buying up parcels of land, and we are really seeing that in Cornwall. Small farms that are no longer viable are being snapped up by hobby farmers. They are maintaining a piece of countryside, but it is not as productive as it could be, and it is not supporting the opportunity to bring fresh blood into the industry. We must do everything that we can to support small farmers and to preserve small farms. We have to get on with that and not give in to those voices telling us to delay ELMS. Seize the day, get it right, and help our farms produce the food that we need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and all colleagues who have spoken so clearly. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this important and timely debate.
In the short time that I have, I want to ring the alarm bell on behalf of hundreds of thousands of farmers across the land. What I am about to say is felt unanimously by farmers, including those in Dorset who I meet quarterly, and farming organisations, such as the NFU under the determined leadership of Minette Batters. I am most grateful to the Minister, who came down to Dorset at my behest and met our farmers. She has heard what I am about to say from the lion’s mouth, so nothing here will surprise her. Those farmers say, “None of us can see the logic behind much of the Government’s thinking—and this is a Conservative Government. It and its Ministers seem in thrall to the environmental and wildlife lobbies, which have a role to play, but are behind the push for this greener agenda, at the cost of food production.”
The Government have got themselves into a pickle. They are replacing the basic payment scheme, which is paid to ensure food resilience and affordability, with a system that offers taxpayers’ money to take land out of production, in part to improve
“environmental and animal welfare outcomes.”
The local nature recovery scheme and the landscape recovery scheme will see £800 million spent on replacing productive land for both crops and livestock with wildlife habitats such as peat bogs and wetlands, and nature reserves and tree planting.
We all love trees—I plant trees—but during the last election I think the Labour party promised to plant so many millions of trees that it worked out at about 100 trees a second. Common sense is what farmers are desperately calling for. The green mantra does not make sense. This narrow agenda implies that nature and farming cannot co-exist, but they have done so for generations. The words “food production” were not even in the first Agriculture Bill, so the mad path we are heading down is hardly a surprise. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, our food self-sufficiency has dropped from 78% in the mid-1980s to 64% now. Where on earth are the policies that we need to grow more of what we are good at and produce to the highest standards in the world? We are an island nation and in the face of any serious adversity we might not be able to rely on imports. Our island’s history should have taught us that basic fact many times.
What annoys farmers even more than the misguided green agenda is that the BPS, on which they have relied for so long, is to be removed before its replacement has been fully tried and tested. There are genuine fears that some farms, particularly in the grazing livestock sector—both lowland and upland—will simply not survive. The NFU predicts that 80% of them will become unprofitable. Those policies are a threat not just to the farmer but to the consumer. As the Public Accounts Committee stated in January, DEFRA has also
“not explained how the Scheme’s changes in land use will not simply result in more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of food production being ‘exported’ to countries with lower environmental standards.”
I join the NFU in calling for an urgent review of DEFRA’s future farming programme for England, including of the temporary postponement of direct payment reductions in 2022-23. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who spoke with such common sense and who has repeatedly made that point. Those new schemes must be piloted because we cannot afford to see them fail. Farmers are crying out for secure, fit-for-purpose measures that will sustain food production while, of course, continuing to protect our countryside and all that lives in it. Reckless rewilding, pushed by those with the best of intentions but with little grip of reality, is a classic example of nonsense. Placing beavers in small Dorset rivers, for example, while no doubt pleasurable to see, will create havoc to river flows and banks and lead to flooding as dams are built and then, no doubt, protected by law.
The argument to subsidise farmers in some form or other—or not—is a live one. If the Government want to see farmers, especially the smaller ones, go to the wall, food prices and imports increase and our rural economy die, then end all support. There is a balance to be drawn, but farmers and food production must be given the priority they deserve.
Thank you, Mr Davies. As an MP representing a rural constituency that is predominantly agricultural, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for securing this debate. I had to speak in this debate, because he farms not only in my constituency but in the very villages that I grew up in, so I would be in a lot of trouble if I was not here this morning.
In general, I am a great supporter of the Government’s ambitions with the new agricultural reforms. I get them and, as has been said, they have cross-party support in large areas. It is right to say, however, that there are some real concerns about them and our ability to produce our own food in a way that is not just sustainable to fit with the new ELMS, but profitable for our farmers to be able to make a livelihood.
It is natural that as we exit the European Union we will have some concerns as the new regimes settle in. There is a risk that the scheme will not work adequately, and we have heard this morning about the harsh reality and impact on farmers if that were to happen. They will, of course, diversify. If the balance is wrong, farms will not produce food in the way they currently do, preferring natural schemes instead. Our food security could diminish and we would import cheaper, lower quality food from overseas. That is a worst case scenario, but we have to get it right.
Rather than repeat many of the arguments which have been so eloquently put this morning, I want to focus my short comments on a different area, which is labour and skills, and the shortages that we have to address. Production, which is at the very heart of what we are debating this morning, will not be helped if we cannot get the very skills to be able to bring the harvest home.
The timing of this debate is very apt because on Friday night I met Norfolk farmers at an NFU dinner, where we discussed their concerns. The labour market and skills shortage that they face was by far and away their greatest fear. That is the huge area that they wanted to discuss, whether it related to fruit picking, pig production or turkey farming. Pickers, pluckers and butchers are all in short supply. That was the unanimous feeling across the industry. It was felt that the labour market can adjust, but not as quickly as the stringent rules that the Home Office is operating—note that I said Home Office, not DEFRA.
We have two problems. First—I have experienced this at first hand in my constituency recently and have spoken to the excellent Minister about it—it is simply not sufficient that only 30,000 workers will have temporary visas. There are strawberry growers in my constituency. Sharrington Strawberries requires—it will not mind me saying this—just 33 foreign workers. Pro-Force could offer it none—zero—out of its allocation of 7,500. When I pressed Pro-Force further, it said that it had already received 6,000 additional requests for visas on top of those 7,500.
Secondly, if one operates a scheme with just four operators, that is simply far too few for the 30,000—or even 40,000, with the extra 10,000—visas we are allowed. On behalf of Norfolk farmers from Broadland, South Norfolk and West Norfolk, we will meet the Home Secretary very soon to ask for some help.
To sum up, farming is the lifeblood for all of our constituencies. I am very grateful to the Minister. She has always been very helpful to me, whether on issues of pigs, potatoes, fishing or the like; it is very good to have a Minister who knows, from sheer experience, what she is talking about. I am sure that she is always welcome in North Norfolk, and quite possibly at the farmhouse of my hon Friend the Member for The Cotswolds.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate and on outlining so successfully the problems that face us. In particular, I am pleased that he endorsed many of the positions that Labour Front Benchers took two years ago when the Agriculture Bill was discussed. We very much wanted annual food security reports, and for food to be a key priority. The Minister will remember the lengthy discussions that we had on the Bill.
We genuinely want ELMS to succeed. I was pleased that the Minister offered me the opportunity to go to look at some of the tests and trials, and I thank some of the people who showed me the 23 Burns project in Northumberland—Louis Fell in particular—the Barningham Estate, and Alex Farris, the Exmoor national park conservation officer. From those conversations I learned that there are people who are putting a huge amount of effort into this—they have a passion—but that the scheme is also very complicated and bureaucratic. Most of all, I came away thinking that the scheme is not going to work for everybody. For some people, it will work, but what about everybody else?
There have been lots of reports, including the PAC report and the National Audit Office report. I will not repeat all the criticisms that have been made, which are well known. It is certainly the case that a proper impact assessment for ELMS, as the NFU has called for, should be done soon and quickly.
I have some very specific questions for the Minister that repeat some of those that I raised two years ago. We are now into the scheme. We heard the excellent speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made about the money that farmers have lost this year. We know how much has been cut, but how much has gone back to the frontline, rather than lost in bureaucracy, in producing reports and all the rest? The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, very expertly, as always, that not only is money coming and going; the scheme is costing farmers money. How much is it costing them, at a time when farming margins are so very tight?
Why are we facing those problems with ELMS? There is so much agreement: we want to tackle the environmental crisis, and overwhelmingly people in the sector want to see farming conducted in a more sustainable way. What is the problem? I will explain it. I know that not everyone loves “Countryfile”, but it had a very balanced report on the issue this week. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was there, looking very dapper on his farm. When asked how many farmers would still be in place in 10 years’ time, he could not possibly say.
That took me back to a conversation that I had with a farmer in Cambridgeshire. When he last did the forms, they came back saying that there was a mistake—that he had got the numbers the wrong way round, putting 1692 instead of 1962. He said, “No, it was 1692 when we started here.” The point is that farmers have been there a long time, over many generations. I know that the world moves faster now, but I put that question to the Minister: how many farmers does she expect to be here in 2030? I think that the Secretary of State expects far fewer, and that is why he set up the scheme to help people out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, the Chair of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made exactly the same point: this is an attempt to clear out British farming for market fundamentalist reasons. That is the fundamental difference between Opposition Members and some Government Members. I do not think there is unanimity among the Conservatives. Being a market fundamentalist explains why, when we had the food security report at the end of last year, the Secretary of State was an agnostic. In fact, I do not think I have heard the Secretary of State commit to the NFU’s 60%. Perhaps the Minister will do that today.
I am glad the hon. Lady is committed to it, but that is not what the Secretary of State indicated. That goes back to a point well made by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), whom I do not normally find myself in agreement with. He was absolutely right about the first iteration of the Agriculture Bill, which did not forget food by accident. It forgot food because those who are driving the agenda do not consider it to be the prime purpose of farming in this country any more. That is a fundamental difference.
Of course, the Government have not only managed to upset a huge part of the farming sector. They are also failing to satisfy the environmental sector. I will not go into the internal dispute in the Conservative party, but let us look at some of the outcomes. I commend the House of Commons Library for its excellent briefing. The fact that it is such a lengthy briefing and many people struggle to get through it tells us something about the nature of these schemes. If we look at the ELM outcomes on page 34—we are finally beginning to see something from the Government on what this might lead to—we see that it mentions 6 megatonnes of CO2 and just 10% of agricultural emissions. If we are trying to tackle a climate crisis, that is not nearly enough.
If we look at the response from the environmental organisations—we could go all over the place to find these, but page 49 of the Library briefing has a good little selection of responses from the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and others—we see that they, too, are disappointed. I am sorry to say to the Minister that she is disappointing both sides.
I do not have much time—I could speak for a long time because I feel passionately about this issue—but I will raise a couple of extra points relating to tenant farmers who seem to have been put in a particularly difficult position. Of course, George Dunn and the Tenant Farmers Association are very powerful advocates. They keep making the same points, and they strongly argue that farm business tenancies should be included in the Agriculture Act 2020 provisions, because they are worried that tier 2 and 3 ELMS tenants will not have an automatic right to be a part of it. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that.
I am conscious of time and I want the Minister to have a full opportunity to respond. On the points about uplands livestock farmers, if we look at the Library briefing and information provided by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, we see that the figures are terrifying. Given the amount of money available—this goes back to the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee—people will not take up these schemes if they find that implementing them costs almost as much as what they would get back from them. On the fine margins—I heard the point about grain barons in the east—many of the farms even in the east of England are also marginal without farm support, so this cuts rights across the country.
In conclusion, there is another way, and that is to be firmly committed to making, buying and selling more in Britain. That is the Labour party’s position, and I suspect it is a position with which large numbers of Members of other parties agree. That is a fundamental difference of view. We are not market fundamentalists. We do not think we can just leave it to the market and that trade deals and food will come from elsewhere. We believe that the other way is sensible for this country, for many of the reasons that we have all rehearsed today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport has argued, it is a national security issue as well. We are absolutely committed to that. If we start from that position, we can and will make the schemes work.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, as it always is under the chairmanship of my hon Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I should declare my farming interests, which are well rehearsed in this House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate. I greatly enjoyed visiting his constituency last week for a challenging and thought-provoking afternoon, when we discussed water and nutrient pollution. I thank all the farmers in the country for producing the food that we enjoy eating—at least three times a day in my case.
Farmers produce food. That is their job, and that will not change as a result of the future farming policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) put it extremely well when she said, “Food, food, food.” I am very much looking forward to encouraging the nation to join a national conversation about food in the White Paper, which is shortly to be published by the Government. There will be much more to say about that in the coming months.
The pandemic has reminded us how important food security is. Under the Agriculture Act 2020, where food definitely features right at the beginning, we have a legal responsibility to review food security every three years. Our first report, which I recommend to those present, was published just before Christmas and highlighted the resilience of our food supply chain. Our production-to-supply ratio remains high when judged against historic levels. We must not forget that the figure was about 30% in the late 19th century and about 40% just before the war. I take the challenge from the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) to commit to 60%.
I am delighting in the ancient history lesson, but can we be serious about the fact that we ought to judge production from after the war and from where we were in the 1970s and 1980s? We need to get that production up. While I respect the Minister’s views on ancient history, we need to move forward slightly.
Fair enough. This is an important issue, and the clever statisticians are always reluctant for Government to commit to an absolute figure. That is not because of any theological argument, but because we cannot stop people eating, for example, rice or bananas, and nor do we want to. The important measure to look at is food that can be produced here.
I will not, because I want to give my hon. Friend time at the end of the debate.
The figure at the moment is about 74% and that seems about right. I am committed to buying local, buying sustainable and promoting buying British wherever possible. It is important that we keep a close eye on our food security and our ratios. As hon. Members know, we are changing the way we support farmers and moving away from area-based payments. It is clear that there are worries about how this will affect food production levels, but many of the sectors where we have the greatest self-sufficiency are those that were not traditionally subsidised. We are close to 100%, for example, in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes, and for many of those successful sectors, direct payments have never really been part of the business model.
There is no reason why we cannot produce the food we need while accommodating some land use change. We know that there is not a direct correlation between the amount of land farmed and the output. For example, around 60% of our output comes from just 30% of our land, farmed by just 8% of farmers. Delivering our environmental targets will inevitably require some land use change in some places, but we need to look at that in a wider context. We have 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, so we are looking only at a small proportion being taken out of production. I associate myself with what has been said about carbon capture in permanent grassland and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who made some important comments about restorative agriculture.
In the last 20 years, the appreciation of the scale of the challenge we face on issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change has grown. Those challenges mean we must act now to establish a new system of rewards. That is why the Government have chosen not to remove the farming budget, but to repurpose it. The amount of money available is the same and I expect the number of farmers to broadly be the same in the future, though some of those farmers may be farming in a different way to the way in which they farm now. We are designing our new schemes in partnership with farmers, and to that end it was good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). It is always good to hear strong farming voices in this House.
We want to support the choices that individual farmers make on their own holdings. Farmers will be free to choose which elements of our new policies work for them. Some people may decide to embrace them extensively, but for others the schemes may be a smaller part of their business model.
I have spent the best part of 25 years in different roles in Whitehall, and I have never seen iterative policy making quite like this. We are doing it over a seven-year period, in close conjunction with the industry. Today, we have about 4,000 farmers actively testing things for the new schemes. I accept, and indeed embrace, some of the criticisms made in the PAC report about the beginnings of the policy. We will be responding to that report formally next month.
I agree that regular, annual impact assessments are a useful and positive part of the development of these policies. In many ways, I have enjoyed the cut and thrust of this debate. It is important that these policies are not set in stone. We are developing them in conjunction with farmers, as we make progress.
I know this is a time of huge change for farmers, but it has been good to see how many have embraced that change. The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, wants carrots, and I would gently say that one of the most useful carrots this year has been the extensive take-up of the countryside stewardship scheme. We have seen a 40% increase in applications, including, I should add, from my own farm. We are encouraging farmers to join that scheme as an interim, while we roll out the new scheme.
As a carrot, we have announced a 30% increase in countryside stewardship payment rates, which I hope will act as a bridge to our new schemes. Using the future farming resilience fund, we are supporting farmers through the transition. The fund awards grants to organisations that are trusted in the farming community, to help farmers work through how the policies affect them individually.
Tenant farmers are a vital part of our farming industry. For DEFRA’s agricultural reforms to succeed, tenant farmers must be able to fully engage in these schemes. On Friday, I was pleased to see my Secretary of State announce an independent tenancy working group, chaired by Baroness Rock, who has long been a champion of this sector, and dedicated to looking at ways to ensure our new schemes really work for tenant farmers. In passing, I should say that BPS has not always worked for tenant farmers and may have been one of the reasons why rents have been artificially inflated. We want to ensure these new schemes work.
This is a period of change and it is understandable that there is worry, but there is also great opportunity ahead. One year into a seven-year transition, it is clear that there is much agreement in the House with the principle of the policy. There is also agreement that food and food security are at the heart of everything we do. I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House and with our 86,000 or so farmers to make sure we get the roll-out of the policy right.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that encouraging winding-up speech. What I would like to see is substance on her words, which is a much bigger challenge and something our farming constituents in the Cotswolds and elsewhere really want to see. They face a situation where BPS is being cut by 50% over the next two or three years. They are worried not about how they are going to get to the end of it in seven years but about how they are going to survive the next year, two years or three years. That is the real worry out there.
On the substance of what my hon. Friend said, I challenged her in my speech to have an annual report to farmers on food sustainability, not a three-year report, because three years is too long. If we leave it three years, and it takes another three years to rectify the problem, that is six years gone, which is too long.
I welcome the initiatives for tenant farmers. One thing that has come out of this debate is the fragility of farming, particularly in England. I repeat the figure I gave earlier: £22,800 is the average farming profitability in England without subsidy. That means that in some areas a third of the sector does not make any profit at all without subsidy. In some parts of the sector, particularly at the small end, which I define as under 100 acres, the tenant farmers, the small owner-occupier farmers and the hill farmers are extremely vulnerable, and we need to consider them very carefully.
All in all, I have never known such unanimity as in this debate. I hope the Minister takes it back and translates it into real policy so that the farmers really know what they are supposed to be aiming at.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered food production and the Environmental Land Management Scheme.
Social Prescribing: England
I remind Members to observe social distancing and to wear masks. I will call Alexander Stafford 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 social prescribing in England.
I wish first of all to make clear to the House my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on health and the natural environment. I am delighted to be sponsoring what is, to my knowledge, the first dedicated debate in the UK Parliament on social prescribing. There is no doubt in my mind that this debate is timely, if not overdue, given that social prescribing as an effective and respected field of medicine has come to the fore in the past few years and accordingly has an important role in the future of our health system.
So what is social prescribing? Put quite simply, social prescribing embraces the need for psychosocial support to be considered alongside biomedical interventions, to take us back to a more natural way of keeping well and improving our health when things go wrong. Importantly, social prescribing is about being connected to activities in our communities to improve health and wellbeing, whether by joining a community choir or running group or volunteering at a local nature reserve.
To understand why social prescribing is crucial to the future of care, we must understand its place in the health and social care context. All Members can agree that biomedicine is brilliant, and there is no better example than the Government vaccination programme for covid-19. Biomedicine will always play a crucial role in supporting people’s health and wellbeing. However, we have also known for a long time that what determines our health is not what goes on inside hospitals and GP practices. We also know that biomedicine has limitations—for example, addiction to opiates.
Recent guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence promotes the use of exercise for pain, alongside drugs. In fact, the NHS chief pharmacist’s recent report into over-medicalisation demonstrated that one in five over-65s are in hospital not for a condition they have, but due to the medicine they take, while 10% of prescriptions dispensed address the symptom and not the cause of a person’s depression. Evidence also shows that one in five GP appointments are for non-medical needs, such as mental health, relationships, housing, loneliness, social isolation, managing a long-term health condition and debt.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am not sure if he was aware, but I was the world’s first Minister for loneliness. We produced a strategy to tackle loneliness, of which social prescribing formed a significant part. As a consequence, social prescribing was beginning to be rolled out, to the benefit of our GPs up and down the country, supported by a dedicated team of link workers, who really grasped the importance of tackling loneliness through social prescribing. Will he join me in thanking all those link workers, who get why social prescribing is important and continue to signpost people towards organisations that tackle loneliness?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for all the work she did as Minister for loneliness to address this important issue, which she continues to drive forward, including in all-party groups. She is exactly right: link workers are vital. Indeed, a big part of my speech is about them, because it is so important to give them the support they need and thank them for their great work to improve the health of our nation.
Demand for GP appointments has increased by 30% compared with pre-pandemic levels, but the ecosystem of social prescribing support is fragmented. Healthcare professionals have limited visibility of what local support is available, as directories of services are often outdated and the referral pathway to different agencies is complex. There is also significant inequality of access to nature. About one third of the population accounts for 80% of all visits taken, and 2.69 million people do not live within a 10-minute walk of a green space. People from low-income households are about 25% less likely to live within a five-minute walk of a green space. Someone from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background is nearly four times as likely as a white person to have no access to outdoor space at home. Almost 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in areas most deprived of green space.
The inequality of access to green space seen for adults in England is also seen among children and young people. Most of our children spend not nearly enough time outdoors. Unequal provision means that those at greater risk of poor physical and mental health often have the least opportunity to benefit from green space. In other words, inequality breeds greater inequality. Improving contact and connection to nature is one way to help break that cycle of inequality.
It is exciting to see the positive impact of social prescribing borne out by the evidence. When we talk about health, we should always talk about evidence. Data indicate that people who visit nature regularly feel that their lives are more worth while. There are links between a greener living environment and higher life satisfaction, including improved mental health and reduced stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Among people who have good access to nature, inequality and mental wellbeing between different social groups are vastly reduced.
People who visit nature at least once a week are almost twice as likely to report good general health. However, it is an individual’s feelings of connectedness with nature that are important for their wellbeing. When controlled for time spent outside, people with high nature connectedness were 1.7 times more likely to report that their lives were worth while, versus those with low nature connectedness. Evidence shows that living in green environments is associated with reduced mortality, and green space may mediate detrimental health effects of long-term deprivation.
Since the pandemic, 43% of adults say that visiting green spaces has been even more important for their wellbeing. The evidence is equally impressive for children, reinforcing the point that schools and other educational settings are crucial gateways, if we are to ensure that all children have contact and connection with nature, especially those who otherwise have little opportunity to access the outdoors.
We have already made great progress rolling out social prescribing across health and social care services. For the NHS, social prescribing is a relatively new model of care that improves the health and wellbeing of individuals. It builds community capacity and reduces demand for statutory services, particularly GPs—we all know the pressure GPs are under at the moment. Social prescribing sits at the heart of NHS ambitions for system change, as a practical embodiment of personalised, joined-up, preventive, community-based care that addresses the social determinants of health.
In 2019, the NHS long-term plan committed to the recruitment of 4,500 social prescribing link workers. Link workers take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing, connecting people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support. The NHS long-term plan envisions that social prescribing link workers would work alongside other roles being created in primary care, as part of multidisciplinary teams. Those teams include other personalised care roles, such as community pharmacists, mental health workers and health and wellbeing coaches.
Social prescribing is part of a wider suite of community-based interventions, including programmes around hospital discharge and higher intensity use of accident and emergency services. Together those programmes are part of an overarching shift towards greater collaboration between health services, systems, capacity and assets of wider local communities. The plan envisions that that would be funded by bringing together resources across systems to support thriving health communities.
Making that shift is now more urgent than ever. The covid-19 pandemic laid bare the devastating realities of health inequalities across our communities. It has shown that we need to do better at reaching out to marginalised communities, closing the gaps in the support available in the most deprived areas. The pandemic has also increased the urgency of finding a way to support people to stay well within their communities, reducing pressure on health and care services. Social prescribing in its broadest sense encompasses a whole ecosystem of support for people’s health and wellbeing in the community. It is a core priority for much of the voluntary community and social entrepreneur sector.
My seat of Rother Valley is a former coalmining area with deep pockets of poverty and deprivation, and many of my constituents suffer from lung conditions caused by exposure to harmful particulates in the mines. I have witnessed at first hand the poor health outcomes associated with a lack of access to high-quality green space, the mental and physical costs of social isolation from one’s community, and the price of late stage reactionary overmedication, in contrast to early preventive measures. In my experience, it is true that those at greater risk of poor physical and mental health are the most likely to benefit from green space, but the least likely to able to access it. Members of my family who work in the NHS have made me acutely aware of the pressures on the national health service from preventable conditions. I am thus determined to increase access to nature for left behind communities, and therefore to improve my constituents’ lives.
I recently announced my campaign for the creation of a Rother Valley leisure arc, stretching from Treeton dyke through Rother Valley country park via Gulliver’s Valley theme park resort, taking in the award-winning Waleswood caravan park and family favourite Aston Springs farm, to the Chesterfield canal, where I wish to see the construction of the Kiveton Park marina and the reopening of the nine-mile stretch of canal, including a Rother Valley link to the rest of the waterways system. The Rother Valley leisure arc aims to make Rother Valley the heart of tourism in South Yorkshire, bringing jobs, wealth and farming to our area. It will be a vibrant and dynamic leisure cluster, with provision for exercise and hobbies, physical and mental health, education and skills, business and employment, and tourism.
The Chesterfield canal is a crucial part of the Rother Valley leisure arc. Accordingly, I am pleased that the Canal & River Trust is focusing on the concept of blue health, which recognises the health and wellbeing associated with spending time by the water. The South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw integrated care system social prescribing pilot, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, seeks to better understand the best ways to connect residents with their local green spaces. Rotherham Titans rugby club also hosts a great social prescribing programme, which is already achieving great things.
Members and my constituents will know that I am a history buff, so it will be no surprise that I welcome the growing body of evidence about the wellbeing benefits of engaging with heritage and the historic environment. Local to Rother Valley, Heeley City farm’s community heritage team have engaged thousands of people from the Sheffield area, including many volunteers, work placements and general participants of all ages, in a variety of local heritage and wellbeing projects. In 2020, it played an important part as a community hub in Sheffield’s voluntary sector response during lockdown.
As a result of my strong belief in social prescribing, in April 2021 I founded the all-party parliamentary group on health and the natural environment to investigate the benefits that connecting with the natural environment might have on health and wellbeing. Recent sessions have focused on evidence and transforming delivery. We would welcome the Minister coming to speak at one of our sessions in the near future, if she is available. Our secretariat, provided by the National Academy for Social Prescribing, is working on fostering closer working relationships with other all-party groups that are focused on the theme of wellbeing, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch).
The National Academy for Social Prescribing, known as NASP, was established in 2019 by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who was then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to work with the NHS to accelerate the development and expansion of social prescribing activities delivered by voluntary organisations and community groups across the country. Over the past two years, NASP has worked with a wide array of partners to develop a number of ambitious and varied programmes.
One such programme is Thriving Communities, a national support programme for voluntary, community, faith and social entrepreneur groups. It works alongside social prescribing link workers to support communities impacted by covid-19 in England. Another programme is Accelerating Innovation, a partnership between NASP, the Royal Voluntary Service, NHS England and NHS Improvement that supports national voluntary organisations to develop their social prescribing ideas so that they can develop projects and approaches that have a greater impact and a wider reach, and that help to reduce health inequalities.
Furthermore, NASP has formed a Global Social Prescribing Alliance in coalition and collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the UN and the World Health Innovation Summit, with the aim of establishing a global working group dedicated to the advancement of social prescribing information, collaboration and innovation. The membership is currently 18 countries and growing. NASP is working through academic partnerships and NHS England to bring together leading researchers in the field of social prescribing to ensure that the evidence on it is accessible, useful and compelling. All of those programmes work closely with NHS England with a focus on outcomes for people, local systems and communities.
There are several areas of focus for my APPG and NASP in the coming months, in respect of forthcoming reports and policy developments. These include the implementation of the Government’s 25-year environment plan, the recently published Dasgupta review, the Environment Act 2021, the landscapes review by Julian Glover, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s cross-Whitehall committee to set the direction for the comprehensive spending review on using access to outdoor spaces to support better health outcomes. I hope that the Minister will touch on those developments, and tell us more about their impact on the expansion of social prescribing in our health system.
As is relevant for all models of care, the Minister will be pleased to hear that social prescribing provides good value for money through reductions in GP appointments and financial savings in drug prescriptions and freed-up GP salaried time. For example, poor mental health is estimated to incur an economic and social cost of £105 billion a year in England, with treatment costs expected to double in the next 20 years. As for poor physical health, the cost of obesity alone to wider society is estimated at £27 billion. However, urban green spaces support 2.1 million people to adhere to their weekly physical activity guidelines, which is worth £5.6 billion and avoids health service costs of around £1.4 billion. These are good savings; they are better for people’s health and for the Government’s wallet.
A recent assessment of the economic impact of social prescribing by NASP, which drew on the best available evidence, concludes that social prescribing can be a cost-effective intervention that reduces pressure on primary care, especially GP services. NASP’s preliminary forecasts indicate that the NHS social prescribing link worker programme could save the taxpayer more than £480 million over three years by reducing the need for GP appointments, which would cover the total cost of the programme.
There is no doubt that investment in green space is good value for money. For example, a study into the economic values of Birmingham’s city-wide Be Active programme found that approximately £23 was recouped for every £1 spent, which is a huge return on investment. The valuation of urban parks in Sheffield, my constituency of Rother Valley’s local city, showed that for every £1 spent on maintaining parks, there was a benefit of £34 in health costs saved.
The Minister will appreciate that I have some policy asks of the Government to accelerate the development of social prescribing, in order to provide direct support for our recovery from the pandemic and the Government’s levelling-up agenda. To achieve these aims, I ask the Department of Health and Social Care to focus on eight main policy asks—so not too many.
First, we must accelerate the recruitment of social prescribing link workers, so that all 4,500 are in post by 2023. Secondly, we must ensure that the newly created integrated care boards have a duty to produce specific plans in their area for implementing social prescribing. Thirdly, we must build leadership, skills and capacity in the voluntary sector, by investing in NASP’s Accelerating Innovation and Thriving Communities programmes. Fourthly, we must commit to social prescribing being at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up and health inequality agendas.
Fifthly, there must be faster and greater levels of funding into social prescribing activities and services, particularly grassroots organisations such as charities, aligned to the health needs of the population within each of the 42 new integrated care systems. Sixthly, there must be greater investment in the digital infrastructure to facilitate social prescribing. Seventhly, every social care organisation and every hospital should have a dedicated team of social prescribing link workers. Eighthly and lastly, social prescribing needs to be integrated into the everyday processes of frontline health and care staff, to change the culture whereby it is easier and more natural to prescribe a pill than to make a social prescription.
It is clear that social prescribing can improve the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our population, improve people’s lives and save money. It not only helps to manage existing conditions, but addresses underlying issues that cause poor health and wellbeing, and so helps to prevent future illnesses. It is better to prevent future bad health than to cure it.
Social prescribing supports local projects in the community and fights social ills, such as loneliness and isolation, which traditional medicines do not address. By integrating social prescription into our health and care system, we will simultaneously save taxpayer money and take the strain off the NHS, freeing up capacity for essential treatment. Social prescribing has an enormous role to play in the future of health and care in England, so I am proud to be the first parliamentarian to make the case for it to the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) for securing this debate on an important issue. I enjoyed listening to him put forward his case. He is right that health is about more than traditional medicine. We know that the social determinants of health—from our employment opportunities and social connections to the activities we do every day—play a huge role in determining our health outcomes. That has become even more evident throughout the pandemic. The Government are committed to doing everything we can to support people to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives. That is why, as our manifesto highlighted, we are committed to extending social prescribing and expanding the new National Academy for Social Prescribing.
Social prescribing is now an integral part of the NHS. The NHS long-term plan committed to having 1,000 additional social prescribing link workers in place by 2020-21—a target that was exceeded—with significantly more in the future. At least 900,000 people will be referred to social prescribing by 2023-24. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her personal tribute to link workers in this debate, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done and continues to do to combat loneliness.
We have recruited more than 1,500 new link workers, in addition to the many already employed by local authorities, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises. Link workers do incredible work. They give people time, focus on what matters to the individual and take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. They connect people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support, and help people to achieve healthier and more fulfilling lives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley explained, they also ease the pressure on the health and care system.
The Government have also made funding available for primary care networks to recruit social prescribing link workers through the additional roles reimbursement scheme. NHS England is carrying out an array of measures to set the right expectation that social prescribing should be available everywhere, which my hon. Friend called for. Those measures include producing guidance for new integrated care systems and, within primary care networks, the network contract directed enhanced service specifications.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley is aware, the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), launched the National Academy for Social Prescribing in 2019. The academy brings together the arts, health, sports, the environment and other areas of national life to promote the development of wellbeing at a national and local level. It has achieved a huge amount in a short space of time. Last year, the Government committed an additional £6 million to continue supporting the academy’s work over the next two years, including its Thriving Communities programme, which my hon. Friend highlighted.
The academy has been appointed as the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group on health and the natural environment, which my hon. Friend chairs and—as I learnt today—he set up. It is fantastic to see the work the APPG does, from exploring transformational options for the delivery of programmes that strengthen people’s connections with nature to showcasing local best practice and highlighting the latest research and evidence. As my hon. Friend has indicated, linking people to nature and the environment is an area that shows great promise in social prescribing.
That is why the Government invested £5.7 million in the cross-Government project aimed at preventing and tackling mental ill health through green social prescribing. The project will test how to increase use of and connectivity to green social prescribing services in England to improve mental health outcomes and to reduce health inequalities and demand on the health and social care system. One of the test-and-learn sites for this project was awarded to the South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw integrated care system, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley is aware. This included awarding £300,000 of grant funding to 39 different projects across South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw. The projects include wilderness activities, such as bushcraft, camping in the Peak district, care farming and conservation in Doncaster, a creative recovery charity in Barnsley and an award-winning community park in Bassetlaw. I was interested to hear the ideas he put forward for his constituency of Rother Valley.
In Nottinghamshire and other areas, water-based activities are being trialled to improve mental health and wellbeing. These include paddle boarding, kayaking and storytelling along river and canal paths. An eco-therapy programme is also running in a community allotment for people with higher needs, and therapeutic horticultural activities are planned for those discharged after an inpatient stay in a mental health ward.
In Bristol, north Somerset and south Gloucestershire, a wild swimming programme is being offered to improve the mental health of women from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. There is also work going on with the Somali community to deliver woodland and food growing activities for young people who are socially excluded and at risk of poor mental health outcomes. A local mental health trust has forged a partnership with the Wildlife Trust to deliver woodland wellbeing sessions for people in recovery at a nature reserve that borders the grounds of a hospital.
Let us not forget the important role that social prescribing already plays in helping to tackle health disparities across the country. Once again, that is an issue my hon. Friend raised during his speech. The Government remain committed to levelling-up outcomes and will publish a landmark levelling-up White Paper shortly, setting out bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunity in all parts of the UK. The aim of levelling up is to reduce the disparities between different parts of the UK. To level up effectively, we need to improve health outcomes across the country.
We are committed to reducing health disparities and the gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas. Social prescribing has an important part to play in levelling up. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley for bringing forward this important debate and for his continued support of social prescribing, both in his constituency and through national fora, as we expand it to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality social prescribing when they need it.
Question put and agreed to.
Disability Benefits Assessments
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: e-petition 593296, End reviews of PIP and ESA awards for people with lifelong illnesses, and e-petition 549906, Review the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) application process.]
I remind Members to observe social distancing. Before I call the Member to move the motion, I will make a short statement about the sub judice resolution.
I have been advised that the Government have applied to appeal the findings of the High Court on the lawfulness of the UK disability survey. Those proceedings are therefore live before the courts, under the terms of the House’s sub judice resolution. However, Mr Speaker has exercised discretion to allow reference to the issues concerned, given their national importance. Nevertheless, Members should remember that those matters are still before the courts, and they are encouraged not to discuss those legal proceedings in any detail.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered disability benefits assessments and the Government’s health and disability green paper.
It is a pleasure to be here under your stewardship, Sir Gary.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have come along today to debate this important issue, which affects many of our constituents. I thank all organisations that have supported disabled people and provided briefings for this important debate, including Z2K, Sense, Marie Curie, Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Rethink Mental Illness, the Young Women’s Trust, Scope and the Charities Aid Foundation.
I also say a special thanks to Citizens Advice Wandsworth, the South West London Law Centres and the Wandsworth food bank, which have supported people in my constituency. I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of disabled people who have been victims of the cruel and callous assessments for the employment and support allowance and the personal independence payment.
In the short time I have been an MP, I have raised the question of social security for disabled people on many occasions. The system should act as a safety net that is there to support each and every citizen in need, as envisaged by the Beveridge report of 1942, which was about strengthening the social contract for those facing hardship in our society by removing the five social ills. However, there is an ever-growing link between poverty and disability, and social security is no longer seen as a basic right.
Disabled people are usually in receipt of employment and support allowance, universal credit, disability living allowance or PIP. As is the case for ESA, disabled people claiming universal credit must undergo the work capability assessment in order to be found to have limited capability for work. PIP is designed to meet some of the extra costs of living with a disability. Since its introduction, however, almost half of those who were previously on DLA and were reassessed for PIP have either completely lost their award, or had it reduced.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We have all had constituents come to see us who have been through an assessment and been denied, and we know the distress and pain that causes them. The latest figures show that 67% of appeals to the tribunal against a PIP assessment, 65% of appeals against a DLA assessment and 54% against an ESA assessment have been successful. Does she share my view that if those were the rates for the overturning of Crown court decisions—people who were found guilty, and then found innocent—there would be an uproar? Does she agree that the Government, and all of us, need to look at why, in so many of the cases that go to the tribunal, the original decision turns out to be wrong?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely spot on; it is so important that these decisions are got right first time around. I will come on to that issue later in my speech.
The overwhelming body of evidence shows that the assessment frameworks for both ESA and PIP are not fit for purpose. They use a series of points-based, functional descriptors and a tick-box approach. PIP looks at an individual’s ability to carry out a series of everyday activities relating to daily living and mobility, and the WCA is supposed to test someone’s capability for work, based on various activities. Its main flaw is its failure to include real-world factors, and it takes no consideration of how carrying out work could affect a particular person’s health. For example, I heard from one person who was asked to touch their toes, no matter how much pain they were in or how such an activity relates to their doing work.
For more than a decade, there has been a growing mistrust of assessors as a result of the errors in reports, and many people do not feel that they are being treated fairly. Research by Demos revealed that WCA assessors assume that people are not telling the truth or are exaggerating their condition, and many people report being treated as if they are making a fraudulent application.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for bringing this important issue to the House. Like other Members, for years I have been receiving heartbreaking stories from constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn about the degrading tribunal process that they are forced to sit through just to access the disability benefits that they desperately need. One constituent told me that she had been to a tribunal on four occasions. She won each time, but while she was waiting for each decision she lost all her other benefits. That included her specially adapted car, leaving her trapped at home. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Green Paper lacks ambition on this issue, and that it is fundamentally unfair that anyone in that situation should lose their social security benefits?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely spot on. The knock-on effect of someone being turned down for the support they are entitled to leads to their losing other forms of support, as was the case with her constituent who lost their Motability vehicle.
Assessors often do not have an adequate understanding of the specific disability, impairment or health condition that is being assessed. Although it is accepted that no one can be an expert in all these conditions, it is essential that all assessors receive appropriate disability awareness training and have access to condition or impairment-specific expertise and tools. The charity Scope has rightly called for the categorisation of assessors into groups for specialisms such as mental health, learning difficulties and so on.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is making a powerful case, as she often does on issues relating to disability. I wonder whether she could comment on another aspect of the system that is broken, namely the backlog on work capability assessments. I challenged Ministers—not the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who will be responding to the debate—about that in November, and I was told that they were working flat out to resolve the problem. In December, there were still 335,500 cases, which are waiting an average of 150 days to be dealt with. I have constituents who are £128 to £340 a month short because of this, and that is having a crippling impact on their family budgets. Does she agree?
I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. I really hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will set out how the Government intend to tackle this backlog so that disabled people receive the vital support they need at the right time and do not experience such severe delays.
As I was saying, how can it be right that someone who had been assessed by a physiotherapist for their mental health condition was awarded zero points, despite providing evidence from their psychiatrist and their doctor about their condition? At an appeal tribunal, they won and were awarded 45 points, but it should never have got to that stage. I know that many of my hon. Friends who are here today have constituents who have experienced exactly the same thing.
Evidence is an essential part of the assessment process, and it is vital that assessors engage with it. They should make best use of all pre-existing evidence from experts, including healthcare professionals. At present, anyone who undergoes an assessment is not provided with a copy of their assessment report, and that should be an automatic part of the assessment process. Who knows? That could lead to better decisions being made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on securing the debate, but on everything that she has done on disability issues since she came to the House. Does she agree that we need to support calls for an independent public inquiry into the deaths of claimants, including those who have gone through the work capability and PIP assessment process? We do not know the causes or the scale of those deaths. Surely that work needs to be undertaken as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I commend her for her impeccable work on the rights of disabled people and tackling inequality. I will come on to the point that she raises, because she is absolutely right. We have long supported the call for an independent public inquiry into these deaths, because it is a scandal that that has not been addressed to date.
People should have a choice about how assessments are carried out, be it face to face or by audio. The process has to be accessible and inclusive. The Disability Benefits Consortium rightly calls for the establishment of an independent regulator of social security assessment, with the power to compel evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions and properly hold the Government to account.
Assessments are carried out by private contractors including Atos, Capita and Maximus. Last November, DWP announced that it would spend £2 billion on disability assessment contracts with private profit-making companies over the next five years. Given the millions already spent, it is clear that these private companies are not providing the best value for money. Labour has long called for all assessments to be brought back in house. That would provide for better scrutiny, accountability and value for money for the taxpayer. Does the Minister agree, and will she take action to address that?
Post assessment, the aim must be to get the decision right first time, but time and again, that has not happened. By the end of 2020 in Battersea, one in five disabled people in receipt of PIP had had their awards reduced, and one in three had their awards completely stopped. Citizens Advice Wandsworth shared the experience of someone who was assessed for both ESA and PIP within three days of each other. In their WCA, they were found to have limited capability for work as they could not walk 50 metres. However, they were awarded zero points for mobility in their PIP assessment, which concluded that they could walk 200 metres. This resulted in them losing their Motability car, so they could no longer drive to work, and they now have to claim universal credit. Surely that is not how the system should work.
With the introduction of mandatory reconsiderations, there has been a marginal improvement, but in 62% of MRs in 2021, the result was to go ahead with the initial decision. Many disabled people feel that the MR process is yet another barrier to their right to pursue an appeal to the independent tribunal. Since 2010, some 587,816 disabled people have been forced to appeal to a tribunal for their ESA. In 2020-21, 76% of PIP appeals and 74% of ESA appeals were successful and decisions were overturned at tribunal.
In the past, disabled people have had to wait long periods of time before their cases have been heard at tribunal. Given the impact of the pandemic on backlogs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned, can the Minister update us on the current waiting time and tell us the plan for addressing the backlog?
Poor decisions have come at a huge cost to the taxpayer. Between 2017 and 2019, the Government spent £120 million fighting PIP and ESA claims, and the consequences of this failing system are devastating. We all remember the case from 2017 involving Stephen Smith. He was 63 when he was found fit for work, despite having been diagnosed with numerous health conditions. After he failed his WCA, he was forced to live on just £67 a week. He died soon after, weighing just six stone. Only last month, we heard of a disabled man who was in hospital in 2019, as he was severely ill and very vulnerable to infection. The DWP refused to allow him to submit an electronic claim, forcing him to attend a jobcentre in person. He died in April 2020.
In 2019, the Government revealed that 5,690 people had died within six months of being found fit for work under the WCA in the last decade. There is no stronger indictment of a failing system than more than 5,000 people dying just months after being denied vital social security. Labour has been proud to support calls for an independent public inquiry into these deaths, because we need justice for each and every one of them.
The Department’s treatment of disabled treatment has resulted in unimaginable suffering for tens of thousands of disabled people and their loved ones. Rather than enabling disabled people to live more independently, successive Tory Governments have created a hostile environment. The long-awaited Green Paper was a missed opportunity to reshape social security and support for disabled people. I am sure there is agreement across the House that the current system is complex and simplification is needed, but the merger of payments and assessments for PIP and ESA is not the answer. They are two fundamentally different assessments requiring different information. One is means-tested income replacement, and the other is not. There is no doubt that any move towards that could lead to absurd decisions and have catastrophic consequences.
Worryingly, the Green Paper did not address the levels of social security. Cuts to universal credit, with the removal of disability premiums worth £180 a month and the removal of the work related activity component in 2017, have left some severely disabled people destitute. Last month, two severely disabled men won a legal challenge over the DWP’s failure to protect them from the cliff-edge loss of income of £60 a month following their move from legacy benefits to universal credit.
Since 2010, more than 1 million disabled people have faced sanctions. As a result, many have had to go without, skip meals, miss appointments and so forth. It has had a devastating impact. All the evidence points to the fact that sanctions against disabled people do not work, and there needs to be a permanent end to all sanctions. The Government must move towards a more holistic employment model for disabled people.
We need the right kind of social security system—one that respects the values of the Beveridge report. We need a system that we are proud of, as we are all proud of our NHS. In the past 12 years, we have watched the system diminish and demonise disabled people; that is a fact. Changing the narrative is vital to dismantling the hostile environment that has been created for them. We need to rebuild a social security system that is fair, compassionate and there for us all in our time of need. To do so, we need to ensure that the system provides people with an adequate level of income and a change of culture in the Department.
Will the Minister confirm that before she introduces her White Paper, she will engage with and consult disabled people and disabled people’s organisations? We must avoid what happened with the national disability strategy, which was ruled unlawful last month because it failed to carry out such engagement. Will she also commit to creating an inclusive, accessible application process and assessment framework that is built on compassion and genuinely co-produced with disabled people and their organisations? Finally, will the White Paper address the inadequate levels of social security and commit to considering minimum income levels for disabled people? We need urgent action to transform the social security system from one that penalises and sanctions ill and disabled people to one that supports and empowers them to live independently.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I greatly credit the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for calling this debate on such an important topic.
I welcome many of the comments in the Green Paper because they echo my experience as a constituency MP in Watford and, I am sure, the experiences of many others around the House. One of the key parts of the paper is on the need for greater flexibility and removing the rigidity in the system, especially around assessments. I have worked in this space for many years. Twenty years ago I was writing about the digital divide and working with charities on online accessibility, and I saw at first hand the impact of barriers. When barriers are removed, enabling people to live a fulfilled life and to fulfil their ambitions—and especially when people with disabilities are given opportunities to live their lives fully—it makes a difference not just to them, but to society. That is at the heart of what I read in this Green Paper; it is about an ambition to ensure that we look after people in the right way, and do not base assessments on how good they are at filling out a form.
A challenge that I have seen over many years when it comes to the state interacting with individuals is that it comes down to a lot of check boxes and form filling. If someone is very good at that, they can get through, but if they cannot get through, they are stuck. I see in the Green Paper—I hope that the Government will take this forward in the White Paper—the idea of putting a person at the heart of the process, and, irrespective of their disability, enabling them to live a full life.
In my constituency of Watford, I am particularly proud of the number of amazing organisations that work with charities, and the charities that work with people with disabilities. A few weeks ago, I was pleased to invite the Minister to Watford Workshop, where she saw people working in a fantastic space—very much a normal working environment—in which they have full-time jobs, and are supported and encouraged to live full lives. I hope that she will reflect on that in her comments later, but I think what she saw were happy people, living normal lives, getting on, and having the opportunity to meet others.
There are organisations in my constituency such as the Electric Umbrella, which uses music and creativity to engage with people. I have even—perhaps embarrassingly —played “Wonderwall” on the guitar there, during a royal visit. I will tell that story on another occasion, when we have more time. Watford Mencap and DRUM— Disability Recreation Unity Movement—do amazing work, and Playskill and the Bobath Centre do incredible work to support local organisations and people.
Shopmobility is based in the Intu centre, which is one of the big shopping malls in Watford. I spent two sessions volunteering there. The people who came there feeling that there was a bit of stigma about needing to use an electric vehicle to get around the shopping centre were put at ease. They were able to see that getting extra support is not something to be embarrassed or feel stigma about; it enables them to live full lives.
Time is short, so I will wrap up by saying that I hope that when the White Paper is produced, the Government listen to Members across the Benches and to constituents, and put in place the changes needed to ensure that the system supports everyone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing this important debate.
The Green Paper’s commitment to reforming assessments is welcome. Every MP knows of awful problems with them. At the start of the Parliament, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions agreed on an inquiry on the issue. That was put on hold while face-to-face assessments were suspended, but we are now taking evidence. We want disabled people to be at the heart of the inquiry, so we have launched a survey of personal experiences of assessments, to which we have so far had more than 3,500 responses. The survey is on the Committee’s website, including in an easy-read version, and we would welcome further responses.
A key problem is that disabled people just do not trust DWP, and the Department keeps making things worse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea mentioned, last week the Department lost the judicial review brought by disabled people regarding the national disability strategy consultation. The Department’s defence in court was that it had not set out to consult disabled people properly and therefore was not guilty of not having done so. As you have reminded us, Sir Gary, the Department is now, absurdly, appealing against that defeat. The Green Paper consultation was launched after the summer recess began. Calls from disabled people’s organisations to extend the deadline were rejected. The Department also rejected the call of its own social security advisory committee for a protocol for engaging with disabled people to try to overcome the problems.
In September 2020, the Department received from the National Centre for Social Research a report that it had commissioned on the uses of health and disability benefits. Some 120 people were interviewed for that research and were told, in a letter approved by the Department, that the resulting report would be published.
The Government have a protocol on social research, adopted in 2015, which requires the publication of all such research within 12 weeks of receipt. The Secretary of State confirmed to the Select Committee that the protocol applied to that research, but told us that, nevertheless, she was not going to publish it. The Committee agreed, unanimously, that it should be published. We asked the Department again and made it clear that if it was not published, we would use our powers to order NatCen to provide us with a copy.
I am pleased that NatCen has complied with our order; the Committee now has that report. We will meet tomorrow morning, and my view is that we should publish it. Ministers seem to think that their interests are best served by hiding and covering up, but every botched attempt means that disabled people trust them even less. I hope that this Minister will usher in a new openness.
Our inquiry has already heard, extensively, about problems with assessors who lack basic understanding, assessment reports that seem to relate to a different person, and forms that cannot be read by the assistive technology that blind people use. The Department has been very slow to make sensible changes. In 2018, the previous Work and Pensions Committee produced—unanimously, on a cross-party basis—a series of recommendations. Some of those that were accepted have still not been implemented. Dr Paul Litchfield, the former independent assessor of the work capability assessment, told us in December:
“Then you look at things seven years down the road and as far as I can see things have not been taken forward.”
We have already heard many sensible points in our inquiry, and I very much hope that the Department will accept and implement the recommendations that will be made in our report later this year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this important debate.
One of my constituents in North East Fife is a young man with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and autism, who has been refused PIP. Due to those disabilities, he has been struggling to gather the evidence needed to make an appeal. He is overwhelmed by the requirements placed on him, and is already struggling with simple tasks. In his own words, he would rather die than put himself through this process again. That is clearly a broken system. The disability Green Paper acknowledges that
“some people continue to find assessments difficult and stressful”,
but that does not begin to fully describe the distress felt by my constituent, and clearly by so many others.
The Green Paper is, however, a step in the right direction. I welcome, for example, proposals for the audio recording of assessments by default. That has long been called for by disability rights groups. In the context of immense distrust in the system, people need to know that what they have told their assessor has been accurately recorded. However, as it stands, the Green Paper does not commit the DWP to a timeline by which that will be implemented. It also does not commit to making it easier for people to access the written reports made about them. Transparency is vital if trust is to be restored to the system. I invite the Minister to address that in her response.
The Green Paper still presents missed opportunities. It acknowledges that it is vital for work coaches to have an understanding of the medical problems that their clients experience, but does not say the same of healthcare professionals involved in the assessment process. Why would we not want assessors to understand what they are assessing? It would increase trust in the process if claimants felt they had been understood. It would increase the number of decisions that are right first time, and would decrease the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on mandatory reconsiderations and appeals. To me, that is simply a win-win, and I hope that the Minister agrees.
The Green Paper also fails to address DWP’s approach to new illnesses, or to illnesses that are less understood due to the relapsing and remitting nature of their symptoms. That includes diseases such as myalgic encephalomyelitis, multiple sclerosis and now, of course, long covid. Long covid is currently a diagnosis of exclusion—has an individual had a positive covid test, and are they experiencing symptoms that cannot otherwise be explained? There are some 150 possible symptoms, of which the most prevalent is fatigue, but they can present in any combination in different people. It is not yet recognised as an occupational disease, and there is no coherent strategy from the DWP for supporting sufferers.
I ask the Minister to consider a few key points. The first is evidence of diagnosis. Diagnosis relies on a positive test, but those who continue to suffer symptoms from covid caught in the first wave will have never had a test result. How can they prove their illness? The second is guidance for businesses. The Green Paper sets out that the Government’s intention is to stop disabled people from falling out of work, but if we are to prevent long covid sufferers from falling out of work, action has to be taken now. The third relates to the broader point about relapsing-remitting diseases in which fatigue is a primary symptom. The Government must give proper guidance to assessors and work coaches about how best to assist people with those illnesses.
There is one final missing element in the Green Paper: it does not consider the adequacy of social security payments. Put simply, it is more expensive to be disabled or to be the parent of a disabled child. PIP might be a start, for those who can get it, but research released before the pandemic showed that even after receiving that payment, disabled adults face average extra costs of nearly £600 per month. PIP is not enough. The system is failing disabled people. I ask the Minister to commit to reforms that place disabled people at the heart of the social security system, and to urgently address the specific issues raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this really important debate and for her powerful opening words.
In June last year, I held a virtual roundtable with disabled constituents and organisations from Vauxhall, which the Minister’s predecessor attended. At that meeting, my disabled constituents powerfully relayed a range of experiences of navigating the benefit system. Their testimony has certainly stayed with me. Listening to them speak, it was clear to me that the system is not fit for purpose and that disabled people simply do not trust the DWP to understand their lived experience. They spoke of a welfare system that was too focused on what disabled people cannot do, and not on what they can do. They said that the system was accusatory and uncompassionate, and the application process too difficult to navigate. They made it clear that they did not feel that the assessments were based on their needs; instead, the assessments felt like exams that had the power to alter their life.
At that meeting, the Minister’s predecessor said that he understood the need for change, but when I followed up in writing to pass on a number of suggestions from my Vauxhall constituents, I received no response. Warm words are not enough; disabled people need action. Ministers need to grasp how important these problems are for disabled people, and how complicated it is for them to navigate the benefit system.
Shamefully, disability is often a barrier to economic empowerment, because so many parts of our society remain fundamentally inaccessible. The result is that 42% of families that need disability benefits are in poverty. Many of them belong to the poorest and most vulnerable groups in our society. However, the PIP statistics from October 2020 for my constituency of Vauxhall show that 26% of claimants had their welfare entitlement reduced, and a further 32% had their applications dismissed altogether. At a time of hardship and pandemic, when so many disabled people have faced difficulties and have had to go without essential care and support, those numbers are staggering. They represent disabled people being abandoned by the DWP when they needed assistance the most. They also symbolise a benefit system that is broken.
I am encouraged to hear that the Government will propose concrete changes in a White Paper that is based on the responses to the Green Paper. However, given the many delays and disappointments that my disabled constituents have experienced at the hands of this Government, I can understand why they doubt that those changes will ever come. Will the Minister guarantee that further proposals in this area will be co-produced with disabled people who use the benefit system? Will she guarantee that the system will provide people with a stable income that is sufficient to enable them to proactively empower themselves; that it will deliver equality by offering disabled people more independence, choice and control; and, crucially, that it will treat people on social security with dignity, fairness and respect at all times? By delivering on that, the Minister could finally start to rebuild disabled people’s broken trust in this Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I want to speak in this debate on behalf of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, who, in common with others across the UK who go through disability benefits assessment, find the experience extremely stressful. That is significant, as we know that poverty levels are consistently higher for disabled people. The latest figures show that 32% of disabled people live in poverty; with the cost of living crisis, that figure is likely to be higher now. In my constituency, 42% of families who rely on disability benefits are living in poverty. That is shameful. There can be no doubt that there is a deep mistrust between disabled people and the DWP due to the disability assessment process, which has been described as “traumatic” and “dehumanising”.
70% of disabled people feel that their benefits assessor did not understand their condition. Under this system, there is no way to make sure that an individual is assessed by someone who understands their condition. That might help explain why, since 2018, seven out of 10 tribunals dealing with mandatory reconsiderations of benefits have overturned the decision that was reached. In the past, I have heard various Government Ministers insist that this shows that the appeal system is working for claimants; it instead shows that assessments are not being conducted properly. In addition, it shows that seven in 10 claimants are put through the unnecessary stress and trauma caused by the appeal process.
Many people are incorrectly assessed and do not appeal. I know that from experiences in my constituency. Many people simply do not appeal as they feel so broken and defeated by the system. That means that they are deprived of the level of support that they need—a disgraceful indictment of the system. What of the cost of putting right decisions that are simply wrong and cause so much distress? Millions of pounds are wasted on fixing wrong decisions; £120 million was spent by the UK Government fighting disability benefit claims for PIP and ESA between 2017 and 2019.
In Scotland, the SNP Government have brought forward a new, simplified and compassionate adult disability payment system, which focuses on dignity, fairness and respect. It has built in from the very start a fast-tracking system for those with terminal conditions, following the judgment of clinicians. Those who are unable to work due to disability must be supported. Those who are disabled but can work must have the support they need in order to work. The Scottish Government aim to halve the disability employment gap by 2038, and leave behind the stigma too often felt by those who live with a disability. I hope that the Minister will use the person-centred system rolled out by the Scottish Government as a template from which the UK Government can learn.
The UK Government must follow Scotland’s lead, because the Scottish Government have prioritised making significant changes to how disabled people in Scotland experience accessing disability assistance; the system treats everyone with fairness and respect. If the system across the UK is not fixed, then Scotland’s system will put the system in the rest of the UK to shame.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this really important debate. It was in 1987, while I was a Bar student, that I first came across these types of cases. In those days, very few cases ended up in the social security tribunal. Most people were able to get their benefits after an administrative paper review. However, a number of years ago, when the Conservative Government came in, they abolished the practice of doctors assessing whether people were eligible for benefits. That was replaced by private contractors using staff who were not medically qualified. As a result, many people ended up having to go to appeal to get their benefits. The Government should think about that, and look at it in their Green Paper.
Some years ago, the Government changed the rules regarding the disability living allowance, and converted it to PIP. Many people who used to receive DLA then had to be reconsidered for PIP. The criteria for PIP were much harsher and more stringent. As a result, many disabled people lost out. I want to concentrate on those people who have been very unwell for many years. Every few years they have to go through the reassessment process, which is an incredibly debilitating, stressful and anxious time for them. I was recently contacted by constituents who suffer from ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that over time can cause some of the bones in the spine to fuse. They have been called back time and again to be reassessed, when everybody knows their condition is only going to get worse.
Another couple contacted me. The husband received a lifetime disability living allowance award 18 years ago. He is unable to walk and is completely dependent on others for his needs, yet he has to go through a stressful and difficult reassessment process for PIP. I would like the Minister to enlighten us. When a person is so incapacitated that a lifetime award is appropriate and it is recognised that they will not get better, why do the Government think it reasonable for that person repeatedly to endure reassessment?
Another constituent with cerebral palsy had, before PIP was introduced, received DLA since she was 16. Her illness is only going to get worse; the brain damage is irreversible and is not going to change, yet she has to get reassessed again and again. Why do the Government insist on reassessment for lifelong conditions, when they know that that is a waste of money and energy, and is very cruel? The reviews mean that people are subjected to repeated interviews with people who are not medical experts.
We have a system where people who are blind, paraplegic or have Down’s syndrome are put through reassessment, and forced to provide information about their disability; information that the Government already have and cannot possibly change. We have seen that the system that assesses them has proved to be a disaster; with lost applications and delay, it is not fit for purpose. None of that is mentioned in the Green Paper.
I urge the Minister to consider the following point. Lifetime awards, such as those we had with DLA, are a genuinely useful part of our welfare system. They are sensible responses to the reality that some people with disabilities will never get better. They ensure that they have to go to an assessment only once. I urge the Minister to consider the policies that have caused an enormous amount of suffering to our disabled citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), who is a trailblazer and history maker. I am grateful to her for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to express our solidarity with people with disabilities.
I was elected to this House in April 2019 and, like many colleagues, I have spent many hours working and supporting residents in their engagement with the Department for Work and Pensions, and it has not always been easy. In fact, more often than not, many of my constituents have been pushed to the brink. I and other colleagues are exasperated by the failure to get answers and leadership from the Government. Every Member here will have stories of widespread dither and delay.
Disability campaigners have long voiced concerns about benefit assessment processes. In February 2018, a Work and Pensions Committee report found that failings in the end-to-end processes for both PIP and ESA had contributed to a lack of trust in both of those benefits, and undermined confidence among claimants, including my constituents in Newport West. The very helpful House of Commons Library report made it clear that the DWP Committee report made a series of recommendations, covering, among other things, the recording of assessments; the supply and use of evidence; the clarity of communications; guidance in relation to home assessments; and the role of companions. Can the Minister provide an update on those specific recommendations? If that cannot happen here, I would be grateful for a written update.
Like many in Newport West and, I suspect, across the country, I am concerned about the fact that the Government have failed to consult properly disabled people and the organisations that support them. Those non-governmental organisations have excellent, practical ideas for sorting out the current issues, and I ask the Minister to work with them going forward.
We know the impact that covid has had over the past 18 months. Serious questions remain about how adequate the funding is and how serious the Government are about standing up and delivering for disabled people. Will the Minister focus specifically on the impact on severely disabled people, in particular those on legacy benefits, and on how their needs tie into the Government’s health and disability Green Paper?
According to Scope’s report, “The Disability Price Tag”, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual “UK Poverty” report, being disabled puts people at higher risk of poverty: 31% of the 13 million people with disabilities in the UK live in poverty. The assessment processes do not work. Disabled people have been among the hardest hit over the past two years. There remains no strategy to properly improve the support on offer to disabled people. We have much to do. I hope that the Government start to listen and learn.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing this debate.
I will raise two cases of my constituents’ Kafkaesque experiences of disability benefits assessment. Susan had a work-related accident in 2019. She had an initial operation that left her severely disabled, virtually housebound and in a great deal of pain, unable to walk or to use a wheelchair. After claiming the new-style employment and support allowance in January 2020, she had a telephone assessment in July, followed by a recommendation that she had a further face-to-face medical examination—but medicals were suspended at the time, due to the coronavirus pandemic. By the time she was called for a face-to-face medical, the 365 days of the new-style ESA had expired.
Now, after months and months of waiting to obtain a decision relating to her work capability assessment, no decision has been made—or, it seems, will ever be made —about Susan’s eligibility for the ESA support group. A great deal of medical evidence has been handed to the DWP, providing detail as to the extent of her disability, on which they could have and could still make a decision. The DWP could also use as evidence its own face-to-face medical of late 2019 for her PIP, the outcome of which was the award of the higher rate of the mobility component, as well as an award for care needs.
I have made representations to the DWP and, following my letter of May ’21 to the complaints team, I understand that the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments was asked to reassess its position, but it has still failed to provide recommendations on Susan’s eligibility. There remains no report on which the DWP could make a decision and, without a decision, she has been left in the iniquitous position of being denied the right of appeal. Ironically, she would have had the right if the support group had initially been refused. Based on the evidence, she would have been in a very good position to succeed in an appeal. I implore the Minister to intervene to resolve Susan’s claim.
The other case is that of Aaron Merharban, a 21-year-old young man who suffered from deafness, anxiety and epilepsy, from which he died on 15 June 2019. His family firmly believe that that was brought on by his earlier experiences of the inhumane assessment process, just two days before he was due to attend a medical for a personal independence payment.
Aaron had been receiving DLA for some time. He had qualified for that without any issues, but he was made to apply for PIP. His claim for PIP was refused, as was his subsequent appeal. His mother recounted to me that the treatment Aaron endured through that process—at the initial medical, and in particular at the subsequent tribunal of February 2019—traumatised him to the extent that he was absolutely terrified of going to the next medical he was called to. Understandably, his mother is convinced that that was a major factor in bringing on the seizure that caused his death. Devastatingly, Aaron died alone at his home. Had he been awarded PIP to help pay for the care that he needed, that situation might well have been avoided.
Heartbreaking cases such as those leave me utterly despairing about the way in which this Government treat our fellow citizens. The way in which a society looks after the most in need says all we need to know about it. If anything is clear about the system of disability benefits assessments, it is that it is an outright damning indictment of Tory Britain.
I am grateful, Sir Gary, for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this really important debate on an issue that is very close to my heart, having worked for many years alongside people in receipt of social security benefits, offering advice and support. Like other hon. Members, I heard heartbreaking stories.
I worked alongside Citizens Advice, which continues to provide invaluable support and advice to people in my constituency of Cynon Valley, where the number of people in receipt of social security benefits is unfortunately very high indeed. We suffer high levels of deprivation and poverty. We had one of the highest rates—the third highest rate, actually—of deaths from covid. In fact, some research that I recently commissioned from the Bevan Foundation in Wales revealed that Cynon Valley has the highest rate of economic inactivity, not just in Wales but in the whole of the United Kingdom.
That is largely attributable to the industrial legacy, but the sharp reduction that occurred during the covid pandemic makes it clear that the pandemic has taken a significant toll on the health and physical and mental wellbeing of people in my constituency, so it is essential that we have an adequate, easily accessible and supportive safety net for people. Sadly, as we have heard this afternoon, the experiences of far too many people show that that is not the case.
“Dehumanising”, “stigmatising”, “degrading”, “complicated”, “drawn out”, “unfair” and “a complete lack of faith and trust in the process”—these are words that we hear time and time again to describe the social security claims process. It is essential that people’s experiences and experts’ views play a pivotal role and determine the reform of the assessment process, as others have said.
When the Government published the Green Paper, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who is the shadow Minister for disabled people, said:
“Disabled people and their families deserve much more than this repeatedly delayed and piecemeal announcement.”
Campaigners have highlighted the fact that the current process is not getting assessments right, with evidence showing that almost three quarters of people do not get the right benefit decision first time around. Indeed, DWP’s own recent statistics have shown, as others have said, that 67% of PIP appeals at tribunal are overturned in the applicant’s favour. In my constituency of Cynon Valley, Citizens Advice appeals for ESA, universal credit and PIP have a 94% success rate. Clearly, something is wrong with the system.
I will also briefly refer to the outsourcing of the delivery of health and disability benefits to private companies, which is a significant cause for concern. Charities such as CAB and Disability Rights UK, as well as the Public and Commercial Services Union, have made that clear. It cannot be right that private firms, which have no prior experience in this sector and are driven by profit, deliver these services at a huge cost to the public purse.
There are genuine concerns about the proposals for part of the Government’s plan to cut costs. Disability Rights UK has expressed a clear concern about the repeated stress that the Green Paper makes on affordability. Others have mentioned the low benefit rates, which create hardship and poverty, and also the fact that the Green Paper does not address the dehumanising impact that sanctions have on people.
We look forward to the final report by the Select Committee, but I hope that the Minister will today pledge to listen—indeed, not only to listen, but to co-produce any reform that is required with disabled people and other people in receipt of health and disability benefits. We need a system that provides a proper safety net for people, supporting their independence and helping them to lead fulfilling lives, so that they can reach their full potential with dignity and respect.
I am grateful, Sir Gary, for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
I also thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for setting the scene so very well on a very important issue. I am sure that she will not mind my saying this, but her disability has never prevented her from bringing forward cases in this House, and I would say that for many of us she is an inspiration in the way in which she deals with her life for the benefit of all. I thank her for that and say well done to her.
As my party’s health spokesperson, it is important for me to be here; I always give a Northern Ireland perspective on how issues impact on my constituents. I do it in every debate I attend; I think that hon. Members, right hon. Members and Ministers probably expect it.
In July last year, the Department for Work and Pensions released its Green Paper on health and disability. First, may I say that I welcome the positive things that have come from the Green Paper? It has allowed the extension of special terminal illness rules, which is a much-needed step in the right direction. There was also an extension on the continued use of audio-visual assessments, which certainly makes the process more accessible for claimants as well.
The DWP was given extra time to look at evidence and make decisions, ensuring that all those eligible received what they need. These are steps in the right direction, and we need to have them in place. The hon. Member for Battersea has raised issues that I would like to discuss. First, there are accessibility issues for benefit assessments. A recent study showed that 27% of disabled adults across the UK have never used the internet. When it comes to assessments, I think we have to recognise that. One of my staff works full time helping my constituents to complete their benefit forms and says that, very often, in an audio-visual assessment, it is hard for consultants to get a real feel of how badly the claimant is suffering, making it less likely for them to make a successful claim. Perhaps the Minister can respond on that.
As of August 2021, in Northern Ireland there were 161,000 PIP claims. The overall award rate is 64%. Some 75% of DLA-reassessed claims were granted an award of PIP. and 79% of those claims were at an enhanced rate. I think there is a certain level of positivity, but there are those who do not get there and who, perhaps, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, are overawed by the process and just give up. We need to try and reach out to those people.
The Green Paper also refers to PIP and ESA costing £8 billion in the early ’80s, rising to £31 billion in 2021 and probably £40 billion in the next five years. It states that Ministers want to take steps to make the benefits system more affordable. I am not quite sure what that means. Does that mean that they are cutting back on the number of applicants, or that people who justify receipt of the benefit do not get it? I hope the Minister can clarify that point.
One factor crucial to me is the protection of the disabled in terms of employment. The hon. Member for Battersea is a wonderful representation of how a disability should not impact what someone wants to do with their future. There are 8.4 million people in the UK who have a disability of some kind and 4.4 million are in employment. When looking at these figures it must be remembered that they scope from minimal disabilities to the most severe. Much to my dismay and that of others, employment-related suggestions are concentrated around the disabled person rather than changing the attitudes of the employer. The employer should understand what it means to have a disabled person in their workplace, and should be working to meet that goal.
It is imperative that disabled people are a priority for the Government, both in benefit assessments and in the Green Paper. They are often left behind in society and the Green Paper provides a way to reverse that. Their concerns must be listened to, not only by us, but by our constituents and by those who will be directly impacted by the Government’s Green Paper.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for introducing this important debate.
The UK Government are failing disabled people, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the rising cost of living crisis. Some 42% of families who rely on disability benefits are in poverty, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that 49% of all those living in poverty in the UK are either disabled people or live in a household containing a disabled person. According to the Disability Benefits Consortium, the financial situation of 78% of disabled claimants has worsened during the pandemic.
The long overdue national disability strategy was an underwhelming wish list, with few real commitments. It failed properly to take into account disabled people’s experience. Last week, the High Court found the strategy’s consultation process unlawful, due to its inadequate and inaccessible attempt at engagement with disabled people. The Green Paper was long overdue, but did little to convince disabled people’s organisations and disability charities that the UK Government have their best interests at heart. The Green Paper has failed to address benefit sanctions, the payment cap within Access to Work and the accessibility of the UK Government’s kickstart scheme and, worryingly, it considers merging benefits assessments to cut costs.
The DWP disability benefits assessment is an ineffective, deeply stressful and often traumatic process for disabled people. That would fairly sum up what many Members have said today. The assessment process often impedes rather than facilitates access to vital financial support. On average, more than 12,000 disabled people successfully overturn wrong PIP decisions every month. From 2017 to 2019, 2,500 people in my constituency appealed the outcome of their assessment and 18% had the outcome overturned. That figure was relatively low, which meant that people had to continue fighting for benefits they were entitled to by going on to a tribunal, causing more stress. Having an appropriate professional with relevant knowledge and understanding of a disabled person’s condition or impairment is vital to getting the right decision the first time around. Survey data shows that 70% of disabled people felt that their benefit assessor did not understand their condition.
Z2K, which I met this morning, has given me examples. I do not want to waste too much time, but they are important. One person said:
“I repeated several times how much pain I was in which was visible. They still asked me to do physical tests, leaving me in tears and in pain”.
“When I received the assessor’s report, I cried, because it reflected a perfectly healthy person, not someone who cannot clean their house or hold down a full-time job”.
One Scope person said:
“I find it deeply dehumanising.”
I will stop there because it is distressing to read these accounts.
The UK Government must end punitive disability assessments to build on the positive temporary changes seen during covid, such as removing conditionality and sanctions for disabled claimants, as well as the need for face-to-face assessments. Claimants must be able to choose the method of assessment best suited to them and what makes them most comfortable. Disability organisations such as Sense have called for the DWP to retain the option of offering applicants the option of telephone and video calls and non-in-person assessments.
The Green Paper’s proposals for a new approach to sanctions are at odds with the Tory Government’s new Way to Work campaign, which is sure to push many, including disabled people, on universal credit into a corner and see sanctions rise. The Government must permanently end benefits sanctions for disabled people and those who are unwell. It is particularly cruel and does nothing but hurt those most in need.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) outlined briefly the Scottish Government’s approach to disability assessments. I will not repeat what she said, but I stress that the whole system in Scotland in based on dignity, fairness and respect. I think that should be rolled out right across the UK.
I have a few asks of the Minister. How will she ensure the White Paper on health and disability benefits properly consults disabled people, beyond an inaccessible lifestyle questionnaire, and does not repeat the Department’s failure of engagement seen in the Green Paper and national disability strategy? Will she permanently end benefit sanctions for disabled people and those who are unwell? Will she confirm that the UK Government’s Way to Work campaign will not push disabled people on universal credit into a corner and see sanctions rise? Will she fight for the cut of £20 in universal credit uplift to be reversed and for that money to be extended to people who are on legacy benefits who did not get it? That is another court case we are waiting for a result on.
Will the Minister consider following Scotland’s lead and create a person-centred approach that removes the burden from the claimant of providing supporting information and considers a wider array of evidence outside one-off assessments? Will she take steps to ensure that assessors carrying out disability assessments have the appropriate knowledge of the claimant’s condition or disability—basic stuff—and have proper disability sensitivity training?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing this important debate and thank her for all her work in this area. She powerfully put forward why the assessment system is not working and the devastating impact that has on disabled people.
Many Members have outlined serious constituent concerns. That includes those so powerfully put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), and I hope the Minister will look into the cases he raised. There are numerous concerns about the health and disability Green Paper, including, as many Members said, about the lack of proper consultation and co-production with disabled people. Having spoken to disabled people across the country, a running theme has been the tokenism with which the consultation has been undertaken. They asked me, “Why is the DWP so reluctant to engage with those who have been through the assessment process?”
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) outlined, it is deeply concerning that the Department has not taken onboard the recommendations of the independent Social Security Advisory Committee about the way it involves disabled people in the design and evaluation of policies that affect them. The committee recommended co-production with disabled people. The Green Paper’s consultation has, sadly, fallen short of that. Worse still, the DWP has not undertaken any proactive engagement with disabled people and their organisations—the experts by experience who have been through this process and would enhance this paper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) talked eloquently about how she had had a roundtable with the former Minister, and powerfully said how that had stayed with her and why co-production is absolutely key to building the trust of disabled people. What possible justification does the Minister have for not doing that? The Government need to learn from last week’s court judgment, which ruled that the national disabilities strategy consultation was unlawful. As many Members have said, a defence of “not set out to consult” fails to build trust with disabled people. The DWP must ensure that future engagement is far more robust and must urgently publish a plan for consulting with disabled people on the White Paper. It should allocate enough Government time for debate, ensuring that robust discourse can take place.
The next area that many Members mentioned is the adequacy of the benefits system. Even before the pandemic, disabled people were struggling to survive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) said, the number of disabled people living in poverty has risen by over a million since 2010. According to new analysis from the New Economics Foundation, single parents, pensioners and families with one or more disabled people are more likely to be the hardest hit by the rise in energy bills.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) said, people are worried that this Green Paper could be the start of a cost-cutting exercise. The Government must show that it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) articulated the problems and unfairness when people were moved from DLA to PIP. The House of Commons Library statistics show that, of the 1.5 million disabled people who were previously in receipt of DLA and who were reassessed for PIP, nearly half have seen their entitlement reduced or disallowed completely. While the Government might attempt to claim that that is positive, the high levels of mandatory reconsiderations and appeals tell another story.
We have a system that all too often places disabled people in extreme financial hardship. We know that the DWP has data on this. The Prime Minister committed to releasing the NatCen research it commissioned on the adequacy of benefits. What is the delay? Or is this something else he forgot? I welcome the fact that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, will see that research. I really hope it can be published, but as he rightly said, it is disappointing that the Government must always be pushed into doing these things.
The other area Members focused on was employment. There is no mention of the kind of work that disabled people have. Are these good or sustainable jobs? Do people get good incomes, or are they on unstable, zero-hours contracts with poverty wages? Sadly, evidence has shown that disabled people tend to be in lower-paid and unstable work, yet there is no acknowledgment of that in the Green Paper. Why does it put forward only a consultation on disability employment and pay gap reporting? The Minister could do that tomorrow. Will she? Perhaps she can give an answer in her response.
The Green Paper talks a lot about sickness management, but there is nothing on improving statutory sick pay. We need to support people who need short periods off work for sickness, so that they can return stronger and without fear of financial hardship.
Absolutely. I completely agree with the hon. Member and I think that is really important. I was just coming on to that point.
Will the guidelines the Government are going to produce be fit for purpose? Surely the Minister should recognise now that co-producing these with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations is the best way of ensuring that they work and deliver a more diverse workplace where the talents of disabled people are fully realised.
Disabled people have said that they often struggle to access their rights in the workplace and that employers do not always follow guidance. It is hard for disabled people to challenge that, and the legal process is expensive, especially for those who are not in trade unions. Where is the support for disabled people to ensure that they can access tribunals to hold their employers to account? I ask the Minister: why not provide additional support to disabled people’s organisations and charities and to trades unions, which offer vital support?
To conclude, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea once again for securing this vital debate, and other Members for taking part. I thank the many disabled people’s organisations, charities and trade unions that work tirelessly to support disabled people. As all Opposition Members have said, co-production is key. The Minister should start listening to disabled people, who are experts by experience.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for creating this opportunity for debate on a very important subject. We all believe in a compassionate welfare system. We have heard welcome contributions from all parts of the United Kingdom, and there are many parties represented.
More than one in five people in the United Kingdom are disabled. That is more than 14 million people. As the Minister for Disabled People, it is my priority to ensure that disabled people and people with health conditions are supported to achieve their potential and participate fully in everyday life. We know that disabled people and people with health conditions face many challenges to living independently and realising their goals.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Very briefly, she will have heard about the inhumanity of the assessments system this afternoon, and she will know that Wales suffers acutely, in that we have the highest level of disability and poverty in the UK. She will also have heard about the new system being introduced in Scotland, which will bring in a humane system of assessments. Will she commit in the White Paper to considering the devolution of the administration of welfare benefits to the Welsh Government?
I do not think that is likely to be in the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman might have heard that it is not our intention to further devolve welfare to the Welsh Government. None the less, I look forward to more conversations on that with him and with colleagues in the Welsh Government. I take a great interest in devolution affairs in the Department and will be able to have those conversations, just as I do with colleagues in the Scottish Government. I note what SNP Members have said today, which I will come to shortly.
Last year we published the health and disability Green Paper—the main subject of today’s debate—and the national disability strategy, which set out a wide-ranging set of practical actions to improve the lives of disabled people and affirmed our commitment to put disabled people at the heart of policy making. Support for the British Sign Language Bill, which was debated last Friday, is the latest example of such action. The health and disability Green Paper explored what changes we can make to the system, for three reasons—so that we better enable independent living, improve employment outcomes and improve the experience of people using the DWP’s services.
Both the national strategy and the Green Paper were informed by the views of disabled people, who told us in enormous numbers about their experiences and their priorities for change. Although it is not the main subject of today’s debate, I can confirm that we are disappointed at the judgment on the UK disability survey and intend to appeal. Of course, the Chamber will be aware that the court dismissed the claimants’ claims that the Secretary of State had been subject to a duty to consult.
We remain focused on delivering the contents of the strategy, which is broad and important. Ensuring that everyone has the same opportunity for a fulfilling working life is a key part of levelling up the country, on which I am sure I agree with the Chair of the Select Committee.
As was said in the debate, the grounds on which the Government resisted that case was that they were not properly consulting people in the first place. That is surely a hopeless position for the Government to be in. They should consult people properly from the start.
We certainly do have confidence in our consultation and our listening. I will not go into further detail on the strategy because there is so much else that I want to respond to today.
We have made progress, including significant progress towards our commitment to see an additional 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) explained, supported employment is very significant within that, but there is much more still to do, and I welcome the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that employers also need to rise and play their part in supporting disabled people or people with ill health in the workplace.
There is also more to do to improve people’s experiences of our services and to build their trust in the system. I have heard the comments made today, and that is why our aim in the Green Paper was to improve the experience of disabled people and people with health conditions by listening, learning and improving. We want to make our services easier to access and our processes simpler where we can. We want to make improvements that will help build people’s trust and explore ways to offer more and better support for the people who need it most.
Turning to the economy, which is important for the context of this debate, the last two years have been really tough. However, because of our focus on getting people into work, we had the highest level of employment that this country had ever seen when covid hit, and we have succeeded in supporting jobs and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. The economy continues to rebound. With around 1.2 million vacancies currently available, including in many sectors vital for our recovery, we want to get people into jobs that they can do right now. The jobs market presents huge opportunities for all jobseekers. I want to ensure that those opportunities and the world of work are accessible and inclusive for disabled people and those with health conditions.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) mentioned the Way to Work campaign. I can reassure her that for those who are unable to take up employment due to their health conditions or personal circumstances, we tailor their requirements to their capability and situation to ensure that all that we ask of them is realistic and achievable.
We understand the pressures that people are facing with the cost of living, and we will continue to listen to people’s concerns, as we have done throughout the pandemic. That is why we are providing support of around £12 billion this year and next to help families with the cost of living.
Many important points were made during the debate about the assessment system and the benefits system. The benefits system considers the impact that a health condition or disability has on an individual’s ability to work and carry out day-to-day activities. As all hon. Members know, decisions are based on an assessment of an individual’s functional ability, not their diagnosed health conditions. Claimants are of course encouraged at the outset of their claim to provide all evidence that is relevant to their case, including medical evidence supplied by their GP or other professionals such as support workers, carers or community mental health nurses. We recognise that attending a health assessment can be a stressful experience, which is why, whenever we are able to assess somebody solely on the available paper evidence, we do so.
It is of course important that the benefits system is fair to both benefit recipients and taxpayers. We think that our health assessments are a fair and robust approach to managing the gateway to benefits, with our decisions based on evidence and objective criteria.
I want to acknowledge a point that has been made by a number of hon. Members before I give way to the hon. Lady who secured the debate. That is the point about transparency, which was raised by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and others today. Transparency is a key principle in our Green Paper, and will be very important going forward.
We are talking about a Green Paper. The point of a Green Paper is to improve the system, so we should continue the debate that we are having.
We are committed to ensuring that people get a good service from our assessment providers. On training, all assessors are of course subject to ongoing quality checks and an audit process, so they all have access to specific training and guidance on a wide range of clinical conditions. To the Labour Members who want us to end the use of private providers, I simply confirm that we intend to continue to use providers.
I now turn to some of the statistics that have been used in the debate.
I am terribly sorry, but I now need to make progress to cover as many of the points that have been raised as I can.
Since October 2013, 3.2 million completed work capability assessments for ESA have taken place. Just 3% of those have gone on to complete an appeal against a fit-for-work decision, and 2% have been overturned at a tribunal hearing. Since PIP was introduced, 4.6 million initial decisions following an assessment have been made; 9% have been appealed and 5% overturned at a tribunal hearing. It is important to set that broader context around appeals and tribunals.
Although we know that most people who claim health and disability benefits have a positive experience—indeed, people themselves tell us that—we recognise that that is not always the case, and we are working hard to improve the assessment system for our claimants. We are committed to assessing people as quickly as possible, so that they get the benefits to which they are entitled. As several hon. Members have rightly said, we want to get backlogs down. Managing journey times for claimants is a priority for the Department. That is why we are using a blend of phone, video and face-to-face assessments to support customers and deliver a more efficient and user-centred service. We are increasing case manager and assessment provider health professional resource, and we are prioritising new claims.
I will briefly touch on the very sad points made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald). He asked me to look at some specific cases; he will appreciate that there are boundaries to my powers to do so, but I can tell him that of course we want to do all we can to ensure that people get the right support as quickly as possible. We also have processes in the Department for identifying possible improvements from serious cases to prevent such things happening in the future. Of course, it is incredibly sad and tragic whenever any person dies, and I convey my condolences to his constituent’s family.
During the pandemic, we introduced a series of easements to help disabled people and people with health conditions to access our services. We made changes to ESA to help people who had covid, or had been advised to self-isolate, to access the benefit more quickly.
I will move on to some of the key points in the Green Paper and provide some updates to the House. We announced our intention to replace the current six-month eligibility rule for the special rules for terminal illness with a 12-month end-of-life approach. That is extremely important and there will be more details before the House soon on various parts of that implementation.
Our health transformation programme is integrating the services that deliver personal independence payment assessments and work capability assessments into a single service supported by a single digital platform. I note the example provided by the hon. Member for Battersea of a constituent who felt that they had had a particularly disjointed service from those two. We recognise the need to go further and rightly, therefore, consulted on several initiatives in the Green Paper to change the application and assessment process for the better, guided by the three priorities that I already mentioned.
We announced our intention to test a service that provides support for the most in need to help them to navigate the benefits system and other Government services. We will be setting out more detail in the White Paper. I note the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) about severe disability. We announced our plans to test a new severe disability group for those with severe and lifelong conditions. Again, in the White Paper, I will be able to provide further details of the work on that.
The Green Paper also looked at how we might separate the assessment for financial support from employment considerations, encouraging people to take up employment support, leading to better employment and independent living outcomes. Again, we will be beginning various tests of an employment and health discussion over the next couple of months regarding that.
We received more than 4,500 responses to the Green Paper proposals. We are very grateful to all those who fed in their views. Listening to disabled people is critical. We are now analysing the responses, along with the views expressed to us by people who attended one of the more than 40 consultation events that took place over that period. That included the first meeting with our newly founded ethnic minority forum, where we heard from people from ethnic minority backgrounds about their real lived experiences of the benefits system. As I say, we will be able to bring forward a great number of updates in the White Paper later this year. I continue to work closely with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and many of the charities also mentioned today. There are several areas of work where I hope to co-produce the outcomes with them.
I reiterate my and the Government’s commitment to improving the lives of disabled people. I am proud of the progress we have made so far. We have put forward some important reforms to go further and build trust and to ensure that disabled people have every opportunity and support that is needed.
I express my warm thanks and appreciation to the hon. Members who have contributed to what I believe is a very important debate. This has to be an ongoing dialogue because, sadly, I feel slightly disappointed in the Minister’s response. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Newport West (Ruth Jones), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), along with incredibly powerful interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).
The Minister did not truly address the issue around private contractors. We have spent billions in funding private companies making profit out of poor, sad and distressing experiences for ill and disabled people and really putting profit before health. That is unacceptable and, frankly, quite disgraceful. The Minister did not address whether she would agree to an independent inquiry into the deaths of so many ill and disabled people. This is a national scandal and in any other environment an inquiry would happen, so it should be happening now for ill and disabled people, because for far too long we have been treated as an afterthought. It must end now. Finally, when the Minister brings forward her White Paper, I hope for her and her Government’s sake that they finally begin to take the lives of disabled people seriously.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered disability benefits assessments and the Government’s health and disability green paper.
Hadrian’s Wall: Newcastle’s West End
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Hadrian’s Wall in Newcastle’s West End.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I like to champion Newcastle as the home of the first industrial revolution and as a hub of today’s green industrial revolution. However, there is another facet to our great, vibrant city that is less well known: Roman Newcastle. As a child, one of my favourite shows was “Star Trek”. I loved the phrase, “Space: the final frontier.” I was born in Wallsend, but I did not realise that in Roman times the final frontier was not space, but Newcastle, which marked the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire.
This year, we celebrate Hadrian’s Wall’s 1,900th birthday, and we need to celebrate all the wall. Hadrian’s Wall tends to conjure up images of the wonderful Northumbrian countryside, but the wall is and was an urban wall, too. It runs through the wonderful, vibrant, multicultural, urban west end of Newcastle, but not everyone knows that. Many tourists are actually directed away from the wall by the Hadrian’s Wall National Trails path and other trails and tours that follow the wall, such as those of the Ramblers Association and the National Cycle Network. That is not right. It is not right that the west end of Newcastle should be missed out of our national Roman heritage.
We must remember that the wall was built by an invading and colonising army. Hadrian himself said that it was to keep his empire intact—a duty that he felt was imposed on him by divine instruction. We do not have a record of what the indigenous peoples of the north thought, but the wall must have divided families and communities, as walls that are constructed to keep people out always do. While we celebrate the heritage and history of the wall, we do not celebrate Rome’s hierarchical slave society. I am glad to say that Newcastle does not seek to emulate that particular aspect of our heritage, being a long-standing centre of the struggle for social justice. However, our Roman heritage is deep within us.
Our city was named for the new Norman castle that stands on the site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius—Aelius was Hadrian’s family name, so it was “Hadrian’s bridge”. We can be relatively sure that some of the stones from the wall were recycled into that castle. Indeed, many buildings—particularly churches, which were the first major stone buildings built after the Roman withdrawal—undoubtedly have stones from Hadrian’s Wall within them.
There are still significant traces of the wall in my constituency. Just last year, 3 metres of some of the oldest parts of the whole wall were found in the city centre during routine drain maintenance. The remains of Milecastle 4 can be found at Newcastle Arts Centre, less than 100 m away from my constituency office, which is also in the city centre. Yet every day, tens of thousands of tourists pass by without knowing how close they are to the Roman wall.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic case for Hadrian’s Wall—not the “Roman wall”; there are others—in the west end of Newcastle. Talking about all of the wall for this 1,900th anniversary is so important. I know that today is about being inclusive of all parts of the wall, so I hope she agrees with the idea developed in Wallsend in my constituency, where I live and she was born. In the planned redevelopment of the Segedunum Roman fort, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and North Tyneside Council, are keen to explore redirecting the trail through the 80 metres of wall foundations that were repaired by the Romans and a reconstructed part of the wall that people can climb. Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Board includes in its 10-year investment programme the establishment of stopping points to highlight the wall in unexpected places—
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for making those important points, and pay tribute to the work that she has done as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hadrian’s Wall. I am obviously focusing on my constituency, but this debate is about celebrating the wall where it really is, promoting it, and ensuring that people can engage with it and see it. The idea of climbing on the wall is fantastic, yes. We need support to show the wall as it really was, which is as it really is today.
Benwell and Scotswood in my constituency has the most visible remains of the wall in Newcastle Central—indeed, the “well” in Benwell actually means “wall”. Residents have bits in their gardens, as the Channel 4 series “The Great British Dig: History in Your Back Garden” showed. People literally stumble over a remnant of the wall when leaving a service station or an Indian restaurant on the West Road. Benwell was the site of the temple of Antenociticus—the Geordie god who was only worshipped locally, by Romans and locals alike. Also in Benwell is the Condercum fort—the name means “fair view point”—which was surrounded by an extensive vicus housing a thriving community, and the only surviving vallum crossing along the whole wall. In Denton, there are remains of a Roman fort and settlement that predate Hadrian’s Wall.
The forts at Newcastle and Benwell were thriving economic and commercial hubs with communities around them. Units stationed there from different parts of western Europe included soldiers and civilians from Spain, Belgium, Syria, Romania and north Africa. Bill Griffiths, a member of the Hadrian’s Wall management plan board, tells me that it was the most diverse place in England at the time. Today, Newcastle’s West Road is also vibrant and has many facilities that Roman troops would have sought: diverse and fast food, traded goods from all over the world, and excellent barbers.
In Roman times, Benwell fort housed the better paid cavalry and benefited economically from that. By contrast, today the area next to the wall is one of the most economically deprived in the city and the country. Benwell and Scotswood, and Elswick—where the wall also runs, but with less visible remnants—have some of the highest levels of multiple deprivation in England, as well as a problem that was no doubt also visible in Roman times: litter. This is caused in part by the numerous fast food outlets, the absence of an effective “polluter pays” policy for plastics and the lack of proper funding for public services. Newcastle City Council has lost half its central Government funding since 2010.
Perhaps that is the reason that the National Trails Hadrian’s Wall path does not go through the west end of Newcastle. There may have been a snobbish elitism that felt that semi-detached housing and a contemporary high street were not suitable for tourism. Perhaps there were concerns that neighbourhoods with high levels of immigrants and second-generation immigrant populations did not present the image of England that organisations wanted to promote. I hope that that is not the case—but I do not know. As local councillor Rob Higgins, who remembers when the trail came to Newcastle two decades ago, puts it: “We were never consulted.”
Instead, the trail takes people along the banks of the river. Perhaps those organisations thought that was prettier—the Tyne is gorgeous, Sir Gary—but it is not where the wall went. The wall has inspired many flights of fancy, as readers—and viewers—of “A Game of Thrones” will know, but should not our national trail stick to the truth? Tourists miss out on what Hadrian’s Wall was in Roman times and what it is today.
Geordie historian David Olusoga, in his excellent documentary “Black and British”, highlighted how textbooks’ traditional depictions of Romans lack any diversity. Dr Rob Collins, senior lecturer in archaeology at Newcastle University, said:
“In the last few decades, modern Benwell has reached the level of cultural and ethnic diversity that Roman Benwell had.”
Just as there was the temple of Antenociticus in Benwell, there are now mosques, churches and temples of different faiths along the West Road.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her speech. One of the things that we all grow up with in Newcastle and the north-east is a real sense of connection to our history and the impact of the Romans. The road that leads from her constituency to mine, the West Road, is indeed the most Roman of roads and is incredibly straight. Along it runs the wall and the route that she would like to see preserved. I absolutely agree that there are so many communities along the wall. The walk follows the beautiful riverside, but that is rather detached from the reality and from the communities that have grown up, lived and breathed within that wall. We are all privileged to be aware of that real living history, but unfortunately visitors do not always get that full experience.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for putting that so eloquently. She is absolutely right, we grow up with the wall as part of our communities—a presence as it were—and the road is such a Roman road. It is not right that that is not better known and promoted more widely, which is what I want the Minister to address in his response. To add a thought from my noble Friend Baroness Quin, who chairs Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums:
“Newcastle is so often described as a Victorian Industrial City yet like London it is has been an important settlement continuously since Roman times”.
We want to see that continuity of history marked.
Some may be thinking, “Does it really matter?” There are many more important issues—Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and Afghanistan, and that is without even mentioning partygate. I will mention that the current edition of the New York Magazine has Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former adviser, saying that the Prime Minister thought of himself as a Roman emperor, but I will resist the temptation to make comparisons with Roman parties.
This debate is important because we are the stories we tell ourselves. We need to own our history and the rightful place of communities in it. We know that in Newcastle. The St James’ Heritage and Environment Group, based in my constituency, is filming the wall in modern Newcastle along its real route, involving local schools, emphasising the connections between Roman Newcastle and Newcastle now. Iles Tours, also based in Newcastle, will be walking the real route. The 1,900 celebrations are a great opportunity to represent the wall as it was then and is now, and to move away from the history of exclusion and elitism. We need to celebrate Hadrian’s Wall in the west end. We need to promote all the wall—it is after all wor wall.
I know that the Minister values English culture. I am sure that that includes northern culture and history. I hope, therefore, that he is supportive of promoting all the wall, and of my four asks.
Ignoring Newcastle’s west end must stop. Can the Minister promise that his Department will not fund or otherwise support activities or representations of the wall that do not recognise its real route through the west end of Newcastle?
Will the Minister work with the Department for Education and cultural bodies to support engagement with local schools and organisations to promote the true route of Hadrian’s Wall, and to develop materials to educate people about both the diversity of Roman Newcastle and the parallels with contemporary Newcastle? That could include plaques or panels where the remains are, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon).
Overall responsibility for the literally misguided trail lies with Natural England, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA, however, says that decisions on the routes are a matter for the trail partnership. Will the Minister work with DEFRA to educate the trail partnership on the importance of historical and geographical accuracy and level up the wall to its true path?
Will he consider funding additional archaeological investigations, and others, into the route of the wall through the west end of Newcastle—for example, through Summerhill Square and along the Elswick and Westgate Roads? Finally, and perhaps a bit cheekily, another Newcastle icon has a fast-approaching birthday. Will the Minister ensure that the Tyne bridge gets painted for its 100th anniversary?
It would be very easy, wouldn’t it? Thank you, Sir Gary. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship again. My sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for introducing this important debate today, and to the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) for their contributions and their passion, which I very much appreciate.
I should say straight away—I will come back to this towards the end of my speech—I absolutely hear the asks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. I will answer some of them directly during this speech, but some sit with other Departments. I am sure she will appreciate that I cannot promise, today, to give answers on behalf of another Department, but I am more than happy to facilitate introductions and/or discussions, as appropriate, because it sounds as if there are a few things that need to be rearranged or sorted out.
As the Minister responsible for heritage, I am genuinely heartened to see the passion and vigour for our nation’s history that today’s debate has evoked. I welcome the aim of raising awareness, overall, about Hadrian’s Wall locally, nationally, and, indeed, internationally. I thank the hon. Members present for doing just that. It is a heritage landscape of truly global significance. It is recognised as a world heritage site and attracts visitors from around the world. It is also, rightly, a source of local pride for the hon. Members’ constituents. Of course, Hadrian’s Wall is one of the largest and most complex UK world heritage sites, extending over 150 miles from South Shields to the Cumbrian coast.
The benefits of Hadrian’s Wall directly impact about 1 million people who live in rural and urban communities along its length. The cultural and heritage interests that the wall brings extend far beyond the story of Rome’s greatest frontier—or final frontier, as I think the hon. Lady said—including the border and coastal landscapes of Hadrian’s Wall country, the raiders and, of course, Christian heritage.
The beauty of Hadrian’s Wall is that it provides a broad range of opportunities for local residents and visitors alike to deepen their understanding of that great heritage landscape. As the hon. Lady articulated, there are many educational benefits to the wall. It is often referred to in schools to teach children about Roman history and the Roman occupation of Britain as a key part of our heritage.
Of course, as the hon. Lady also mentioned, the wall is also significant for the visitor economy and tourism, which bring a significant amount of money into the area. I think she also mentioned things like walking tours, which again are really important; indeed, they are a growing part of our visitor economy.
I know the hon. Lady’s passion for all things related to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. When I heard that she had secured a debate in Westminster Hall today, I just assumed that it would be on football. Nevertheless, she is truly passionate about all things DDCMS and I have heard her speak before about all these issues, strongly representing her part of the country.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the celebration of the wall’s 1,900th year this year. I am really pleased to see such a focus on these celebrations being embedded in the local communities, with a whole programme of events that will bring communities together and showcase the significance of this wonderful site. Many stakeholders, including Historic England, will provide significant funding.
The hon. Lady put a great emphasis, too, on accurate education and reporting, and on the value that the wall brings to her particular area. The west end of Newcastle in particular is crucial to this festival’s development this year. As she said, the area is one of the most culturally diverse parts of the wall today. Indeed, I have heard her before rightly raising the importance of such issues as the role of African soldiers who were garrisoned on the wall during Roman occupation. I think that was back in a Black History Month debate back in 2020. Today, she again told us about the importance of accurate history and ensuring that we teach history accurately.
Much of our most cherished heritage, including Hadrian’s Wall, lies on agricultural land, of course, and the majority of the wall is on privately owned land. Agricultural and environmental schemes represent the main source of funding for the conservation and maintenance of most parts of the wall. My Department and Historic England are working with DEFRA to ensure that heritage right along the wall is protected and promoted, through successor EU schemes known collectively as the environment land management schemes. Those schemes will improve many aspects of the local environment, including water quality, biodiversity, air quality, food management and climate change.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for his remarks. He raised an issue that I was not aware of. There is some funding available through successor EU schemes for rural areas of the wall, but is there funding available for those parts of the wall in urban areas, such as the service station or the Indian restaurant that might happen to have a bit of the wall on their grounds, in the same way?
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments. I will come on to a couple of aspects of that issue in a moment, but there are multiple funds available, including the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and we are also working with Historic England on a variety of initiatives. I am sure that she and her colleagues have engaged with those organisations in the past. They have a variety of funds. Of course, any potential bidders must put in a bid and explain why they need support. However, I have found that Historic England teams and National Lottery Heritage Fund teams are always willing to work with hon. Members and other stakeholders, not only to identify funds, but to work with them to strengthen their bid in some cases, perhaps if an initial bid for funding does not work. I encourage her to look at that as well.
I will return to some of the specific and very important points that the hon. Lady made. She raised concerns about Hadrian’s Wall path not following the actual route of the wall, particularly in the west end of the city, but also in other areas.
I understand that this issue has been at least partially addressed, or that there has been an attempt to address it, through a walker’s guide to the alternative route, which allows potential walkers to see the beauty of the wall itself and encourages people to follow the route through the west end and towards Wallsend. The guide also provides an explanation and interpretation of what can be seen and appreciated along the walk.
I know that the hon. Lady is asking for a rerouting of the trail. As she acknowledged, overall responsibility for that lies with Natural England and the trail partners, sponsored by DEFRA. Anyone suggesting a realignment of the route must first make an evidence-based case to the National Trail Partnership and DEFRA. I know that she understands that, but I would be happy to talk to my colleagues at DEFRA, make sure that they are aware of the debate today, and ask them to revisit that issue, as she requests. As a DDCMS Minister or a Heritage Minister, I cannot make promises on behalf of another Department, but I understand the case that she is making and, as a point of principle, it is important that we educate and inform people about our history accurately, or as accurately as possible.
Funding from the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal is looking at better signage along Hadrian’s Wall—a point raised by hon. Members today. Although this work is in its early stages, the route of the wall through Tyneside and a potential link between the fort at Wallsend and Arbeia via the Tyne foot tunnel could be considered as part of the work as well as other potential rerouting. Again, I would be happy to raise that on behalf of colleagues.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central has spoken eloquently, as always, and passionately about the significance of the wall. She has rightly highlighted its relevance as an archaeological and educational property and its continued importance as a living heritage attraction and a crown jewel of the region’s visitor economy. She is in good company in this regard and I thank her for securing today’s debate. I also thank colleagues who have contributed and raised the importance of our absolute national treasure, Hadrian’s Wall.
I can tell that the Minister is coming to a conclusion. I am grateful for his words of support. I asked about collaboration with the Department for Education and the archaeological issue. I know he is not the Minister directly responsible for some of this, but will he promise to write to me to address those issues as well?
Yes. The hon. Lady has raised many issues about the importance of the wall. I would be happy to write to her with further information and detail. Archaeological and heritage support is a particular role for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England. On the educational aspect, my initial reaction is that she has raised valid points. Again, I cannot make promises on behalf of other Departments, but I am happy to write to them and raise those comments. I look forward to continuing the dialogue and visiting the wall again across all its length very shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
Waste Industry: Criminality and Regulation
[Relevant document: e-petition 582702, Review the Regulation of Odour Management and Landfill Sites.]
Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing.
Before I call Aaron Bell, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings between Mathew Richards and the Environment Agency. The Speaker has agreed to exercise the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings as they concern issues of national importance. I am aware that Members may wish to refer to criminal legal proceedings during the course of this debate to illustrate concerns relating to illegal waste activities. All Members should be mindful of those cases that remain contested or may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should refrain from making references to any active court cases. This is particularly so in respect of criminal matters where discussion of the cases is likely to be prejudicial to any forthcoming hearings or trials. The sub judice resolution has not been waived in relation to any live criminal cases connected to Walleys Quarry.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered criminality within and regulation of the waste industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the many Members attending today for their time and engagement on this important topic. I have a lot to say, but will try to leave space for everybody else. I also welcome the Minister to her place. I welcome the engagement we have had since she took up her role late last year. I thank her Department for supporting that engagement. Her recent visit was incredibly well received in Newcastle; I am grateful that she took the time to understand the nature of the problem I have in Walleys Quarry, and to hear personally from affected members of the community, including schoolchildren.
The key point I am here to make is that the current nature and scale of waste crime in this country is beyond the capacity of the Environment Agency as a regulator. The regulatory regime is no longer fit for purpose for two main reasons: the changing nature of the crimes being committed and the failure of the Environment Agency to keep pace and act with sufficient robustness and force against them. It has sadly become a regulator that is no longer feared, but is mocked, with criminals able to carry out offences under its nose.
Let us be clear: waste crime is not victimless. It threatens the environment and human health, and undermines investment, growth and jobs within the legal waste and resources sector. For the 2018-19 financial year, the Environmental Services Association estimated the cost of waste crime to be £924 million in England, and it will be more than £1 billion by now. Waste crime significantly reduces the viability and competitive advantage of legitimate businesses, which are being undercut by criminals. That creates unfair competition and ultimately burdens the taxpayer or the landowner who has to step in when criminals walk away leaving abandoned and toxic sites.
As the House knows, I have repeatedly raised the issue of Walleys Quarry. We have an infamous smelly problem on our doorstep in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It has made it all the way to the Court of Appeal—and perhaps even to the Supreme Court—in the case of Richards v. Environment Agency, which you referred to, Sir Gary, in your precursory statement. I do not wish to rehash the full story again. It is on the record and the Minister knows it well by now.
I will briefly mention that, since the last time I spoke about this matter in the House, the hydrogen sulphide emissions have this year risen back up to levels not seen since May of last year, when they were at their peak. Residents are reporting—I have smelled it myself—that the stink is well and truly back, and very much present in their day-to-day lives. It is an ongoing problem, making some vulnerable people ill, affecting people’s mental health, and making thousands miserable and affecting their quality of life.
The borough council is now concerned that the Posi-Shell capping, which was mandated last year, has failed and there are now increasing fugitive emissions from the site. Together with the county council, it believes that the EA’s normal regulatory approach has run out of road and is seeking a new approach. I believe that the Minister should have on her desk a letter from Councillor Alan White, the leader of Staffordshire County Council, making exactly that point and asking to meet her to discuss the matter. I hope she will be able to accommodate that.
I want to focus on how Walleys Quarry shows the flaws in the current regulatory environment. As a precursor, I will briefly tell hon. Members the story of a company called Atlantic Waste. Over the winter of 2003-04, the Environment Agency received many complaints from local residents about odour coming from King’s Cliffe, a waste site near Peterborough run by Atlantic Waste. The agency was concerned about inappropriate deposits and treatment at the site, and decided to investigate. That investigation revealed that several hundred thousand tonnes of waste had been deposited above agreed levels, and the height of the waste threatened to make the landfill unstable.
Instead of complying with that investigation, Atlantic Waste’s chief executive, Adrian Kirby, and its marketing director, Adam Share, did some investigating of their own. They hired a detective agency, Active Investigation Services, under the guise of concerns about break-ins. That detective agency accepted Atlantic’s proposal to tap phones and hack into computers. It hacked into residents’ computers by sending them emails with attachments purporting to contain the results of tests undertaken on the landfill.
When the police began investigating that agency, they found a complex web of staff, associates and clients involved in illegal activities. That detective agency had fitted devices to telegraph poles and roadside junction boxes all over the UK, and listened in to more than 1,000 calls. Following that investigation, Adam Share and Adrian Kirby were arrested. Each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cause modification of computer equipment and conspiracy to intercept communications unlawfully. Adrian Kirby received six months in jail; Adam Share received three.
A handful of years later, Adam Share, now a convicted criminal, was appointed to RED Industries Ltd. Under Mr Share’s control, RED Industries took over Walleys Quarry landfill, in Silverdale in my constituency, the very same landfill I have brought to the attention of the House over and over again. It is incomprehensible that a man with that history would ever be allowed to operate a waste site, yet that is the bizarre and troubling world in which we find ourselves. That would not be allowed in the football business, where there is a decent, fit and proper person test. Yet in the waste industry, it seems that nothing could be done to prevent a man with a proven disregard for the law, for the regulator and for residents from assuming responsibility for an environmental permit.
In a letter to me dated 6 May 2021, Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the EA, confirmed that, in the case of an application to transfer the permit, the regulations require that the EA consider
“whether the prospective new owner is likely to comply with the permit conditions”.
In considering that, it may take into account management systems, technical competence, compliance history, financial competence and any “relevant” convictions, which they are allowed to take into account. That does not include spent convictions but, even if Mr Share’s conviction had not been at that point spent, it was not apparently relevant, despite the EA itself being a victim of his previous crime.
We must have a better fit and proper person test if we are to avoid criminals entering the waste industry. The rehabilitation of offenders is a noble goal, but it cannot override good sense and the public interest. People with a track record of disregarding the regulator cannot be allowed to simply bide their time and re-enter the industry a few years on.
Walleys Quarry has also taught me a lesson about the problem of perverse incentives in the current regulatory regime. Landfill tax was introduced very successfully by the Conservative Government in 1996 to disincentivise landfill and encourage the switch to more sustainable waste management. It has worked: the amount of waste going to landfill has decreased by over 50%, and household recycling has increased by over 70%. However, the consequence of the incentives that the landfill tax creates has been to increase the attractiveness of the waste industry to organised crime, and we know that there are very few barriers to entry in that business.
Landfill tax fraud often consists of falsifying paperwork relating to the classification of waste in order to pay less or zero tax—for example, labelling active waste as inactive, or hazardous waste as non-hazardous. Organised crime groups and repeat offenders can deliberately and routinely evade significant amounts of landfill tax by misdescribing waste. To illustrate the problem, from April 2021, the rate for inactive waste is only £3.10 per tonne and the standard rate is £96.70 per tonne. That differential of nearly £100 per tonne results in enormous profits for the businesses involved. Businesses that routinely mislabel waste can rack up millions of pounds of illegitimate profits, robbing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of an estimated £120 million a year. The regulatory regime is inadequate in the face of such incentives.
Compounding the problem, there appears to be insufficient scrutiny applied to the operations and accounts of those companies that regularly declare high levels of inert—that is, the £3.10 a tonne—landfilling. This is not really an economic crime: fraudulent misdescription can have significant impacts on the environment, wildlife and communities. Major air quality incidents can be caused by misdescribed waste containing plasterboard or other high-sulphate waste entering landfills that lack the specialist measures required. Hazardous waste that is misdescribed as non-hazardous could have a very significant impact on the health of people and the local environment.
That has a direct bearing on the situation at Walleys Quarry. In evidence presented as part of the recent Court of Appeal case Richards v. the Environment Agency, a representative of the EA explained that the increased level of hydrogen sulphide—the eggy smell—coming from Walleys Quarry landfill was most likely the result of gypsum-containing high-sulphate waste being deposited in that landfill, contrary to the permit. That can have occurred only as a result of some part of the waste chain mislabelling that waste, or the waste not being properly separated from other waste. There is either fraud or negligence somewhere in the chain.
Several people have contacted me to make specific allegations about illegal activities at Walleys Quarry landfill. I will, of course, keep them all anonymous, and I am aware that we need to follow due process because there is an ongoing criminal investigation into the allegations. However, I am keen to put on the record some of the longest-standing, best-evidenced allegations, some of which I and the Environment Agency have been aware of for nearly 12 months. The EA informs me that any investigation might take multiple years, and I feel that my constituents deserve to know the true scale and nature of the problems that have been reported to me.
In February last year, I was contacted by an anonymous individual who alleged that the current operator was using the site to bury hazardous waste outside its agreed permit. I was told that that activity increased dramatically during lockdown, a period during which the EA ceased many of its normal activities. Employees who would have been involved in this activity were named, but I will not name them here. According to the anonymous source, the order to bury that hazardous waste came directly from Mr Adam Share, who is the company’s chairman and owner; from Mr Nigel Bowen, the company’s CEO; and from Mr Jon Clewes, the technical operations director. There have been other, less specific allegations from multiple other sources. Many whistleblowers have come to me. I have passed all the allegations on to the Environment Agency.
The House may be aware that on 20 January this year, I raised concerns about so-called lawfare in a debate in the Chamber led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). I referred to attempts by The Guardian to publish an article about Walleys Quarry. I have been aware since November 2021 that it has been attempting to publish a story about the true scale of the issues at Walleys Quarry in my constituency, based on insider testimony from whistleblowers and backed up by emails from within the company. It has thus far been prevented from publishing by legal threats made by RED Industries against the newspaper.
With the permission of Rachel Salvidge, a journalist who has had the courage to pursue the story in the public interest, I will read the allegations that she has been seeking to publish:
“Hazardous waste, including arsenic, rat poison and zinc, has been tipped at a Newcastle-under-Lyme landfill, which is now a subject of a criminal investigation.
The Guardian has seen internal emails discussing the practice at Red Industries, the operator of Walleys Quarry Landfill. A whistleblower, a former senior executive at Red, has alleged widespread illegal behaviour at the firm, and has accused the regulator, the Environment Agency, of being ‘asleep at the wheel’.”
“the whistleblower has provided the Guardian with emails which appear to show that hazardous material is routinely dumped at Walleys to save the company money.
In October 2019 Red’s compliance officer emailed colleagues about a shipment of cavity wax from a car manufacturer: ‘Is this for ATM or do we have another route in mind?’ This cavity wax is hazardous and organic, and should be shipped overseas to a company called ATM in Holland, which breaks it down into safer waste, but this process is expensive. In the emails, Red’s group commercial manager replies ‘Walleys TFS’.
According to the whistleblower, this is an internal code for sending hazardous waste to Walleys that should be safely shipped overseas. As a result, the former senior executive said the cavity wax was secretly dumped at the landfill. Another email refers to ‘everyone’s favourite Walleys TFS route’ for the cavity wax.
The manufacturer of this cavity wax warns the material is ‘toxic in contact with skin’ and ‘toxic if inhaled’. Dr Cecilia MacLeod, an expert in contaminated land from the University of Greenwich, said exposure to components in the wax ‘can cause issues with development and can also cause dermatitis and breathing difficulties’.”
The article continues:
“In July 2020 the group commercial manager emailed colleagues about a waste shipment of spent bullets containing hazardous levels of arsenic and zinc. ‘What do you reckon to this shit show of a material—sounds like a wash and Walleys TFS to me’—again, the whistleblower says, using the internal code ‘Walleys TFS’ to divert the hazardous waste to Walleys landfill.
Another email chain discusses a large shipment of rat poison. A Red employee asked ‘Are you able to accept this to landfill, or would it not be suitable?’ Their manager responded ‘Work your majik’, and the shipment was sent to Walleys landfill, the former senior executive said. The rodenticide is highly toxic as it can be fatal if swallowed, breathed in or if it comes into contact with skin.”
“A former Red employee told The Guardian ‘We used to take advantage of the fact that the EA were stupid. It’s not difficult. When the EA came to inspect we didn’t worry, we just made sure that all the stickers looked nice. They weren’t chemists, so you could always hide things.’
Only solid waste is permitted at Walleys landfill, but The Guardian has seen evidence that Red has also been tipping hazardous paint. In July 2020 a Red compliance officer emailed colleagues about a ‘paint route’. The shipment was ‘coming as haz and they are priced £200/tonne...we haven’t got the money for any TFS’.
The former senior executive told The Guardian, ‘This material is hazardous so Walleys would not be permitted to accept it, but in reality this is where the paint tins are going.’ The manufacturer of this paint warns: ‘This product is classified as dangerous... Exposure to component solvent vapour concentrations...may result in...respiratory system irritation and adverse effects on the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.’
A former Red subcontractor has also told the Guardian how paint was concealed in other legitimate material: ‘They’d mix it with cement to try and thicken it up...and load it into a skip and tip it like that.’
MacLeod described the pollutants as a ‘horrible cocktail’ and said that Red might think that mixing paint with cement would stabilise and solidify it, ‘but not all the volatile organic compounds get locked up...they’re still there and you will have respiratory problems if you take these things in’.
A former senior executive at Red sent some of these emails to the Environment Agency in May 2021, along with testimony of Red’s alleged lawbreaking. In December, the EA announced a criminal investigation into Red.”
I thank Rachel Salvidge for providing me with that information.
Investigations of the public record show examples of staff at RED Industries demanding that the wording of compliance assessment report forms issued by the EA be changed, and the EA acquiescing. To paraphrase my constituent Dr Michael Salt, a nuclear scientist who has volunteered a significant amount of time to the “Stop the Stink” campaign, “If I said the same to the Office for Nuclear Regulation, they’d have something to say about it.”
The Environment Agency is a regulator with no teeth that inspires no fear and in which I cannot have confidence. There are clearly serious failures here, for which the Environment Agency must account. In the light of these revelations, I must ask that the operator’s permit be suspended while the allegations are fully investigated. The EA’s current approach has not worked if the only explanation it can find for why we are, once again, seeing exceedances of the World Health Organisation odour annoyance limits is the cold weather. If there are such serious issues with its handling of such a sensitive case, how can anyone have confidence that it is handling more routine issues appropriately?
Another area that the Walleys Quarry experience has taught me needs reform is the bonds that permitted operators must hold. They are staggeringly insufficient in the eventuality that an operator walks away from a landfill or goes bust. I am aware that many constituents are joining a class action against Walleys Quarry. If it is successful, it would almost certainly make the company go bust, and there are not sufficient bonds to account for that. Surely, walking away from its responsibilities should not be a “get out of jail free” card. The bonds need to reflect the actual risks involved.
The cost of doing bad business is not high enough. The fines when people are found to have breached the rules are too mild to be a proper deterrent. I refer to some other recent cases as examples. In November 2019, a company director was fined £1,272 for abandoning a Shropshire waste site. Clearing the site cost £45,000. In July 2021, a man was fined £1,000 for dumping waste in south-west London, plus £500 costs and a £100 victim surcharge. The clear-up and associated costs to the landowner totalled in excess of £100,000. Those are simply not sufficient deterrents.
On funding for the regulator, I note the recent articles on the front page of The Guardian, but I have personally been repeatedly assured by the EA that there is no issue relating to costs or resources in the regulation of Walleys Quarry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making such a strong case on behalf of his constituents who have been affected by this case. On a broader point, one of the challenges that the Environment Agency faces is being able to collect and collate the right information to bring an effective prosecution or take action against offenders. I can think of a similar case with different circumstances in my constituency, where there have been those kinds of challenges. What would he ask the Minister to do to support the Environment Agency in bringing together the right information in such cases to challenge them?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clearly, the Environment Agency needs more powers. I have reassured my constituents that there is no financial pressure, but I am not convinced that more money would necessarily solve the severe cultural problem within the Environment Agency. It does not need more money if it is too weak to use it. I accept that it has perhaps been subject to the same legal threats as The Guardian, campaigners and myself, but, as a regulator, it must be stronger and act in the public interest. If funding is the problem, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must address it.
Finally, I expected to come here to push for other policies, but I am pleased to note the recent significant consultations launched last month by DEFRA on the carriers, brokers and dealers regime and on developing a central digital waste tracking service, which would address concerns that there is no comprehensive way of tracking waste. I would like to briefly touch on other types of waste crime, but I will let others speak more about them. At the lowest level, something that is rife in everyone’s constituencies is fly-tipping. Recently in Newcastle-under-Lyme, there has been fly-tipping off Watermills Road in Chesterton, but I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who I understand wants to speak about that.
Another area is illegal waste dumps. I know that other hon. Members might want to pick up on that, but I must put on the record my concern about how these are being policed by the Environment Agency, too. For the past decade, constituents in the north-west of my constituency have had to suffer through an organised illegal waste dump at Doddlespool farm. Fleets of lorries have travelled from far afield to drop their loads of waste at the site to avoid paying the landfill tax. The lorries have blocked roads. There have been fires, rat infestations, and waste has spilled out, potentially contaminating watercourses and the food chain.
The EA took court action in 2017. The landowner was required to remove the waste or face further court action. He was also hit with a £6,100 court bill—again, inadequate—yet the waste has not been removed five years on. I cannot comment further on the present situation due to sub judice rules, but it is evident that the fine was not a serious enough punishment to make the landowner change his ways. I am conscious that I have taken a long time. In conclusion, we need to look thoroughly at the problems within the current regulatory regime and at the scale of criminality in the sector, and I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing the debate. He has summed up the situation well.
I have been involved trying to expose this issue for the last 10 years, along with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). Everyone knows what is going on. They know about the lack of regulation, the low threshold for getting into the industry and the involvement of organised crime. HMRC itself in its tax gap report recognises that some 22% of landfill tax is not being paid, although it actually put a profit warning on that. The Environment Agency knows not only what has been lost in tax revenues, but that the clean-up costs will fall on the taxpayer. Everyone knows that the matter involves organised crime. I have raised it for the last 10 years, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will allude to that as well. We have explained all this to the Government, but there seems to be inaction in respect of getting the agencies together.
The Environment Agency is not capable of addressing the matter. It may be good at cuddling newts and protecting forests, but it is not good at having an enforcement attitude. HMRC is frankly a disgrace, and I will give an example of why I say that. I got involved in the matter because of a company in the north-east called Niramax. I only had to look at the directors of the company to see something was wrong. Organised criminals—one of them is in prison for murder, and the police told me that his associates had convictions and were involved in a whole host of organised crime—suddenly got involved in waste management. They bought a landfill site in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, which I know he will talk about, and one or two in the north-east. They then set out to undercut legitimate businesses. Talking to people in the waste industry, there is no way they could pick up that waste for the amounts they charged.
It ended up with Operation Nosedive, which HMRC instigated in 2014. HMRC raided the premises and claimed £78 million was to be reclaimed. That was suddenly halted in 2020. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and I asked why it had been halted and we were told, “No, no. You can’t look into this because it is HMRC.” The National Audit Office has done a very good investigation that showed HMRC spent six years and £3.5 million of public money, but there were no convictions and there was no outcome.
Everyone knows what the problem is, but there has got to be action. I say to the Minister, I do not want more initiatives about fly-tipping and this, that and the other; I want co-ordinated action between the agencies that have the powers to crack down on this.
The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has made half the case, from my point of view.
In my constituency, over 10 years ago, a company called City Plant took over an existing site. It broke the rules time and time again throughout the first five years, and eventually ended up in the court. It got a slap on the wrist, and broke the rules time and time again thereafter. It still seems that City Plant is up to its old tricks. Residents today report a mix of materials being brought on to the site, which is not what has been agreed and is a repeat of other examples. They report noxious odours across the entire area and the destruction of their enjoyment of life, because of the pursuit of illegal profits.
As the right hon. Member said, the people benefitting from the weakness of the Environment Agency are not small-time crooks. They are hardened criminals at the heart of the criminal underworld. He mentioned Niramax, which we have already heard about. The majority shareholder he referred to, Neil Elliott, is serving 15 years for murder. An associate, Shaun Morfitt, previously a part-owner of Niramax, is currently serving 18 years for drug trafficking offences and, prior to that, served over six years for a vicious machete attack. These are the sort of people we are dealing with.
Tax evasion in this industry is enormously costly. The right hon. Member gave the figure of £78 million, but I think the expected bill went up to £158 million. Some 14 individuals were arrested, yet the outcome was nothing but a few thousand pounds paid over. We need to know why this has happened, and why the state has no teeth in the protection of the lives of ordinary people and the collection of proper taxes from these criminals in these unpleasant industries.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate. I thank him for performing his duty to his constituents in the way he has fought this campaign. I am sure that they are very pleased that he has a good grasp of the issue, and I congratulate him on that.
As I always do in these debates, I want to quickly give a Northern Ireland perspective on the criminality and what is happening to us back home. In my constituency of Strangford, not a week passes without illegal waste management and waste disposal activities taking place, whether it be deliberate misdescription of waste, illegal dumping, waste burning or fly-tipping. They are incredibly important issues for me.
Just last week in DEFRA questions, the Minister kindly responded to a question on fly-tipping, which I thank her for. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs concluded that there were 306 illegal waste sites, using £600,000 of taxpayer’s money. As other hon. Members have illustrated, this is an industry where loads of money seems to be changing hands and there are advantages for those involved.
DAERA also stated that 16,000 tonnes of waste tyres were discovered, 30% of which were sent to unknown destinations. Some 22.5% of Northern Ireland’s waste crime fines were for illegal dumping. Local councils, which have a responsibility, say the lack of scrutiny around people paying fines is due to disruptions from the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has created lots of issues for us all. As we are now coming out of the pandemic, perhaps things will improve. I hope the Minister can indicate that to us. Criminality in our waste industry must addressed through further regulation, and we cannot expect any improvement without it. It is time to disrupt illegal activities by arresting suspected waste criminals and bringing them to justice. I look to the Minister to outline the steps that will be taken.
The comments made today show that there is still more work to be done. The Minister gave a commitment to work with the devolved institutions last Thursday, and I am hopeful that more can be done. There is always more we can do to tackle this issue, and the figures given today support that claim. There is no reason for anyone in today’s society to damage the landscape and ruin some of the most precious beauty spots we have across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this vital debate secured by my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell). He has made a strong and clear case for the need for more action to tackle the blight of criminal activity in the waste industry. This appalling activity is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk across the country.
In my constituency, I have been fighting for a lasting solution to one such waste crime, which had the potential to be a national disaster. Yet, as the site in question is being cleared, up and down the country unscrupulous criminals are filling warehouses or plots of land next to residential properties and littering our countryside with waste that presents a real threat to the health and safety of surrounding communities.
I wrote to the Prime Minister and multiple Departments last year to highlight the urgency of clearing a site that has been a significant risk in Stoke-on-Trent Central since 2014, and I am delighted that my campaign has resulted in clearing the Twyford House site of an excess of 30,000 tonnes of illegal and combustible commercial waste. I thank the Minister for her support in making that happen, so that the danger that has been there since 2014 can finally be removed.
My hon. Friend’s tireless work to tackle the environmental disaster at Walleys Quarry landfill is an example to us all. Although the quarry is in his constituency, the consequences of the activities at that site are suffered by my constituents too, and I have also been persistently raising their concerns with the Environment Agency and Ministers. The pace of progress to resolve the problem has been a frustration to us all. Does the Minister agree that there is a clear need for the separation of regulation and enforcement authorities?
The current approach to the regulation of more than 180,000 waste carriers, brokers and dealers is leading to record levels of crime, which may well spike later this year when the increased cost of red diesel will mean many looking to cut corners to make savings, for example through the use of exemptions codes. It is a sad fact that waste crime is more lucrative on the basis of risk-to-reward ratios than human trafficking or drug dealing.
This is not a victimless crime. Public health and public safety are dependent on stopping the serious waste industry criminals. We must have better regulation and tougher sentences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate and for his speedy gallop through the problem, as well as his relentless campaigning on Walleys Quarry.
People up and down the country take pride in their towns and streets. However, fly-tipping is an illegal and unacceptable antisocial act that continues to blight communities across the country. In my constituency, fly-tipping takes place daily and costs the local authority thousands of pounds every year to remove the waste. Local residents will often contribute to the crime unknowingly, paying what they believe to be a reputable waste disposal business in good faith, only for their items to be disposed of by being illegally dumped.
I am pleased to report that Darlington Borough Council, Conservative-led since 2019, has been delivering for local people. I take this opportunity to praise it for its hard work. It has been taking action on the issue of fly-tipping and working hard to tackle a problem that had been neglected by the previous Labour administration, but more can be done. So much depends on local people reporting incidents of fly-tipping or reporting those involved.
We should also be looking at simple but effective deterrents, such as the installation of bollards to prevent vehicles from driving down alleyways, to stop them dumping waste. I am pleased that the Government have recognised the problem posed by fly-tipping and have provided local authorities with enhanced enforcement powers to tackle this crime. I am also delighted that the Government have empowered local authorities that are also waste collection authorities to search and seize vehicles. I can report that vehicles have been seized in Darlington in the last year where they have been suspected of involvement in illegal fly-tipping.
The removal of waste is a commonplace everyday task that many of us deal with. People should not have to be fearful of being taken advantage of by criminals or having their towns blighted by illegally dumped waste. While I am pleased to see the Government taking action to empower local authorities to deal with this issue, more still needs to be done. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to what more can be done to encourage a culture of actual enforcement and proper prosecution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) securing a debate on this important issue. Waste industry crime is extremely serious. The cases that have been referred to today from around the country are causing untold misery for people, particularly when there are public health issues or issues for farmers. It is costing the taxpayer around £1 billion a year.
In my patch of Stroud we have a wonderful waste management company called Smith’s. Its reach as an organisation is so strong that it actually does much to combat poor environmental practices, supporting thousands of businesses in the south-west—it deals with festivals and all sorts of things. We know that this work can be done really well. However, the true scale of waste crime is difficult to quantify. The Environment Agency estimates that 18% of all waste—enough to fill Wembley Stadium—is illegally managed, so we want to see greater action and enforcement.
In Stroud, around 900 instances of fly-tipping are cleared locally per annum. I have reported this myself, and Stroud District Council does a good job of responding, labelling and making sure that it is pulling in this horrid waste dumping. However, that should not fall on the council. We need education, penalties and deterrents. The front page of our local paper, Stroud News and Journal, recently referred to an unlicensed waste collector causing additional difficulties. I realise that this is happening to local authorities around the country, but this particular chap received a court fine of over £1,400 from Cheltenham magistrates court. I thank Stroud District Council and the police for dealing with that, but also the papers for showing that court actions are going ahead and people are being punished.
I want to thank my rural crime team in the police for all that they do to help farmers. Farmers are often at the sharp end of dealing with horrible fly-tipping. They are usually already struggling for cash, so it is a difficult thing for them to deal with. I am grateful to the Minister for all that she does; I know that she is very committed to this issue. I am grateful to all colleagues today for describing such a range of problems that fall under the banner of waste crime. It is clear, listening to colleagues, that our Government bodies are struggling here. I look forward to learning more about improvements in legislation, regulation and enforcement for this nasty and expensive public health hazard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I commend my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for securing this important debate and for his continued work standing up not just for the people of Silverdale but for those in wider north Staffordshire who are affected by Walleys Quarry. I want to highlight the great work of another neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) in starting to clear the Twyford House site in Etruria of 30,000 tonnes of commercial and illegal waste.
This is a serious issue. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) when he talks about fly-tipping. It is blighting Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, whether that be in Goldenhill and Sandyford, Burslem Park estate or the alleyways of Tunstall. The scumbags who continue to litter in our local area need to be brought to heel. We need to make sure that they are sent out in high-vis chain gangs, litter picking and cleaning up their community. It is simply unacceptable that those people who obey the law, do the right thing and love the local area that they live in should have to suffer because of a mindless minority of morons.
Sadly, the blight of the waste industry is continuing to spread. The latest case in north Staffordshire involves the landfill on Porthill Road in Longport. It is affecting the constituents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke in particular, and locals are already having to deal with the disgraceful way in which Price and Kensington Teapot Works has been allowed to rot by its rogue landlord. In nearby Burslem, people recently saw a key part of mother town heritage, the Leopard pub, go up in flames, and now residents are having to live with the disgusting smells coming from the landfill on Porthill Road in Longport.
Staffordshire Waste Recycling Centre Ltd is digging up Stoke-on-Trent’s past at the landfill, seemingly digging for materials. It has never had permission to do that, yet the company has now applied for retrospective planning permission to work on the landfill—something that I and the residents of Longport, Middleport, Dale Hall, Burslem and the surrounding area are absolutely opposed to. I will shortly be making clear my objection to that application in a letter to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for their support on Walleys Quarry. I have received complaints about this landfill from my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said in the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) last week, and I want him and his constituents to know that I stand with them.
I could not be more grateful to my hon. Friend. This is why we are a tour de force in north Staffordshire, walking around at every opportunity like some sort of north Staffordshire mafia, which I am proud to be a part of.
The company has also repeatedly breached its permit at the neighbouring site, where it does have permission to operate. Many incidents were reported at the site in 2021, including four in the run-up to Christmas. A site visit by the Environment Agency on 21 January 2022 found multiple breaches of permits, including the storage of too much hazardous waste on the site, as well as the storage of scrap metal, which the permit does not allow.
I am encouraged to have learned from the Environment Agency that it will carry out further inspections this week and has engaged with the company to get it to sort out its operation. The Environment Agency and Stoke-on-Trent City Council will also have a joint meeting on Thursday to discuss the problems at the site. I look forward to receiving an update early next week on the outcome of those investigations and the meeting.
When the people who run waste sites fail to keep them safe and manage them in a way that is inconsiderate to their neighbours, it has a huge impact on people’s physical and mental wellbeing, as well as the feel-good factor of a place that we proudly call home. We need to make sure that these companies can be properly controlled and brought to heel when they do wrong.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I commend the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for securing this really important debate.
It is clear from everything that has been said by Members across the Chamber that illegally dumped waste is a massive scourge that is blighting communities across the UK, with huge environmental, social and economic cost. Indeed, as our Justice Secretary and chair of Scotland’s serious organised crime taskforce, Keith Brown, said recently, this is not a victimless crime. Waste crime causes pollution and increases public health risks. It places enormous strain on legitimate operators, and serious and organised waste criminals have a considerable impact on the economy of all the nations of the UK.
Every year in Scotland, 250 million easily visible items are dropped as litter, and an estimated 26,000 tonnes of material is fly-tipped. According to research by Zero Waste Scotland, at least £53 million of public money is spent on addressing that.
I am going to talk about a co-ordinated approach that all four nations of the UK can take to address those sorts of issues. I will also go on to mention a programme aired by BBC Scotland last night, “Disclosure Scotland”. I highly recommend that all Members look at it, because it focused on waste criminals heading over the border to Scotland, which is the exact opposite of what the right hon. Gentleman said. Of the £53 million I mentioned, I believe that it costs Scottish councils £11 million to remove waste from council-owned land alone.
A high proportion of individuals and organisations involved in illegal waste dumping are also associated with other organised crime, including violence, drugs, weapons and money laundering. Last night’s episode of “Disclosure Scotland”, which can be found on iPlayer—it is entitled, aptly enough, “Dirty Business”—exposed the scale and severity of that waste criminality. It highlighted a wide range of illegal activities, from man with a van fly-tipping and waste being burnt in a drum, to much larger-scale operations such as enormous illegal landfills and, increasingly, abandoned lorry trailers overflowing with waste that is simply left to rot.
The programme showed investigations by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, including on a site where a criminal gang had buried large amounts of waste, which released harmful gases and liquids as the deposit degraded. Some of that waste was brought from outwith Scotland by the gang and is believed to include hazardous clinical waste from hospitals. The programme revealed that threats and intimidation have been made against landowners who refuse to allow waste to be buried on their land; others spoken to by the BBC were too scared to go on the record.
I believe that the majority of viewers—and, indeed, those listening to this debate—will have been shocked by those activities. They show that waste criminality goes far beyond small-scale fly-tipping. That is why Scotland’s serious and organised crime taskforce, chaired by the Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown, has made waste crime a top priority. The Scottish Government and their partners on the taskforce will use every means at their disposal to stop such illegal practices and ensure that those who dump waste illegally are held accountable. Although offenders risk criminal convictions, fines of up to £40,000 and/or imprisonment for 12 months, only a fraction of those responsible are prosecuted.
As we have heard today, criminals operate across borders and with similar methods. Collaboration and intelligence sharing across the UK is extremely important. The joint unit for waste crime, established in 2020, already brings together law enforcement and environmental protection agencies from across the UK. The Scottish National party wants to see that built upon via the introduction of mandatory electronic waste tracking and a UK-wide database of registered brokers—another recommendation of the independent review—which will make it easier to find these culprits and ensure they are brought to justice. I am sure the Minister will speak about that shortly.
Viewers of last night’s programme will have been completely shocked by the huge amounts of waste revealed —waste that, for far too many of us, is out of sight, out of mind. Across the UK, particularly since the UK has been prevented from exporting much of its waste by other countries quite rightly tightening their rules on imported waste, we are starting to drown in waste. It is essential that we find means of dealing with it much more effectively.
Scotland has committed to building a circular economy, meaning that we reduce demand for raw materials. We want to support and make the system fairer for those operating legally whose businesses are being drastically undercut by criminals. We support the UK Government’s plans to introduce waste monitoring. The consultation on the proposals to ensure that they work for Scotland will be of great importance to us. We certainly look forward to the outcomes, with our preferred outcome being for mandatory electronic monitoring. It is imperative that we work together to root out waste crime and bring perpetrators to justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again this afternoon, Sir Gary. I am very grateful to lead for the Opposition in this debate, and I would like to acknowledge the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) for calling it.
At the outset, I pay tribute to all the campaigners in north Staffordshire working to stop the stink at Walleys Quarry in Silverdale. I think of people such as Helen Vincent, Dr Michael Salt, Dr Scott at Silverdale Practice, Nat and Angela Wint, Graham Eagles and Steve Meakin, Councillor Amelia Rout and Councillor Sue Moffat. I also think of William Cross, Sian Rooney, Tom Currie, Lauren Currie, Dr Ian Sinha and, of course, Rebecca Currie and youth Matthew. Those people and many more, such as Adri and Colette Hartveld, want to be able to lead their lives, raise their families and breathe the air around them in safety.
I know from my visit to Silverdale and the discussions I have had with local residents how much stress, concern and fear is caused by the hydrogen sulphide emissions emitted from the site, as well as the effect that waste-related issues have on people’s lives. I want to acknowledge all the other campaigners who care and want change desperately.
I also acknowledge the tireless and passionate work of local councillors in that community. On my visit, I was joined by a number of councillors, including Andy Fox-Hewitt, Dave Jones, Gill Williams, John Williams and Adam Jogee, who works in my team. The issues there are real and harmful, and the Government need to act now. If the Minister will not take my word for it, I ask her to reflect on the fact that in just one week in June 2021, the Environment Agency received 1,207 complaints from residents across Silverdale, Clayton, Westlands and the wider Newcastle-under-Lyme area. That strength of feeling surely speaks for itself.
As pointed out by Commons Library staff in their helpful briefing ahead of this debate, the true scale of waste crime is difficult to quantify, but it is
“estimated that 18% of all waste is illegally managed, equating to approximately 34Mt (megatonnes). This is the equivalent of enough waste to fill Wembley Stadium 30 times.”
That is a shocking statistic and it must prompt the Government to act.
The impact of waste crime is widespread, with adverse effects on individuals, businesses, public services, the environment and the economy. Indeed, the Environment Agency’s 2021 report stated that waste crime costs the economy in England an estimated £1 billion a year—a 55% increase since its last estimate in 2015. The problem is real. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the work of the joint unit for waste crime, which has been mentioned. It would be helpful to know the scale and frequency of engagement between agencies and with the devolved Administrations, the reach and scope of the unit’s current work, and any plans for the coming period.
Fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping blights communities across England, and this Government have to get a grip nationally and locally when it comes to ensuring that local government has the resources it needs to keep our communities green, clean and waste free—an ambition that many residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme want and deserve.
I am grateful to colleagues in both Houses of Parliament in recent weeks and months for raising waste-related issues through a range of written parliamentary questions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), the noble Baroness Jones of Whitchurch in the other place, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has spoken eloquently in today’s debate. Indeed, in June 2021 my right hon. Friend asked about
“the adequacy of the Environment Agency’s surveillance powers”.
In response, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said that there had been no assessment of the adequacy of those powers. I ask the current Minister whether that remains the case. That is in addition to the questions asked of the Minister and DEFRA by Government Members.
It is clear from what is happening in communities such as Newcastle-under-Lyme that waste has a huge impact on the lives of many people across the country. In the last 10 days, the Government have set out two new consultations in relation to tackling crime. I wish those consultations well, but, more importantly, we want to see swift action. I would like the Minister to address in her closing remarks the approach to landfill and incineration, because we need an open and honest discussion about how we tackle waste, and we need to know where the Minister is on these issues. The scourge of waste crime across England is a task that we must all work together to address. I look forward to working with the Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and all colleagues to address these issues, and to protect and clean these green and pleasant lands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on securing this debate and on the determined way in which he has championed this issue in the House. Indeed, all the neighbouring Stoke MPs have really got to grips with waste in their area.
As soon as I became a Minister, it was clear to me that Newcastle-under-Lyme was top of the list of places I should visit. I thank my hon. Friend and members of his community, including Dr Salt and others, for welcoming me and talking so frankly about the impact that Walleys has had on their lives. They were also constructive about how we move forward to reduce landfill and ensure that people can live their lives in the areas that they choose to be in, without being blighted by its effects.
My hon. Friend has always taken care to articulate the views of his residents. The Environment Agency continues to bring about the work needed for a long-term solution at Walleys Quarry, and both he and I will watch the situation closely. The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) referred to the large number of issues reported last year, and we have seen a spike on one of the monitors up to those sorts of levels again recently. I reassure my hon. Friend’s constituents that I get those weekly reports and examine them in detail, because it is important that we are rigorous in ensuring that where we need to challenge, we have the right data. That goes to the points made by all hon. Members, including my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), about ensuring that we have the correct data so that people can proceed to enforcement and so on, because they can challenge on the basis of accuracy.
I do not disagree with that, but does the Minister not find it remarkable that in 26 years of the landfill tax, HMRC has not had a single successful prosecution in connection with it? The only initiative that I am aware of is Operation Nosedive, where HMRC spent six years looking at it and £3.5 million of public money, and got nowhere. This is not about new regulations; it is about using the tools we have already got.
This is indeed about using tools. The right hon. Gentleman refers to an operation by HMRC. Obviously, I am not the Minister responsible for that, but I am sure he can take Operation Nosedive up with them. [Interruption.] Indeed, but he makes a cogent point. As several Members have said, this issue has been described as being akin to the narcotics industry. It is that insidious. It blights people’s lives and, as we have heard, raises considerable sums of money illegally in so doing. I therefore agree with everybody that we need firmer action, and I will continue to ensure that we look at that.
I am aware that the Environment Agency recently launched an investigation into the allegations of criminal activity at Walleys Quarry. I welcome any investigation where allegations of waste crime have been made, and I am sure the Environment Agency will investigate this thoroughly, knowing that we are all watching. I appreciate the importance of the investigation to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and his constituents. I am sure that he will appreciate that I would not want to inadvertently say something that would jeopardise it in any way, but my door is always open to him, as he knows.
The Government are determined to tackle waste crime, because it makes life a misery for all our constituents. Whether it is fly-tipping on country lanes—as my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) alluded to—litter in our towns or pollution from waste sites, waste crime and poor-performing waste sites undermine legitimate businesses, deprive the public purse of tax income, harm the environment and communities, and in the worst cases directly threaten health. Councils are now spending £1 billion of taxpayers’ money cleaning up after this, so it affects all of us.
We have already taken action to introduce new powers to stop illegal waste sites posing a risk, which include the ability to lock up sites and force rogue operators to clean up their waste. More widely, we have given the EA an extra £60 million to tackle waste crime since 2014, on top of the wider grant-in-aid funding that it receives from DEFRA. I would just like to offer a correction: at orals last week I said on the Floor of the House that this funding was given to the EA “in 2019—I think”. In fact, it was given in 2014, and I am happy to correct the record.
We have also set up the joint unit for waste crime to disrupt serious and organised waste crime and reduce its impact. The unit involves the National Crime Agency, HMRC, the EA and the police. We set it up about six months ago, and there were more than 30 arrests in the first 24 days, so action is being taken. The landmark Environment Act 2021 does even more, giving agencies enhanced powers to gain evidence and enter sites. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said that they are using the powers they have to seize cars and vehicles, because life needs to be made difficult for these people. Powers are there; they need to be used. We need to encourage our councils, and to that end we are bringing out best practice for councils so that they know how best to gather evidence and so on, so that prosecutions are likely to be more successful.
We will go further. The two consultations mentioned earlier outline the next steps to tackle waste crime and to support people and businesses to manage waste correctly. Electronic waste tracking ends the old-fashioned paper-based approach and gives us a modern, connected future. We will be able to track waste movements, understanding exactly who moves waste and to where. That will give us powerful new abilities to audit waste movements and to ensure that waste is disposed of correctly.
Along with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I am sick of talking to Governments that have, over the past 10 years, trotted out the same nonsense every time. We need action. I can tell the Minister a lot of ways to get around electronic tracking. These people are very sophisticated, and if we do not have an enforcement attitude at HMRC and other agencies, we are frankly wasting our time.
We will have digital tracking, extended producer responsibility, consistent collection and a carriers, brokers and dealers licensing regime to regulate the people involved in waste. That goes to the comments that have been made about appropriate people running these companies. In 2019, the Government expanded the list of convictions to be taken into account when assessing permit applications to include offences relating to organised crime and violent or threatening behaviour, as well as offences relating to fraud and tax. That was only in 2019, which I believe was after the matters mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. We need those measures, and through the new consultations we hope to build a regulatory framework that is more powerful and can hold people to account.
In Darlington, more can be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud noted that there are also good firms out there. It is important that the regulations help those good firms to carry on and deliver for us. We are bearing down on firms that act illegally, and we are doing more to crack down on this crime. We will continue to apply increased pressure. We hope that the waste carrier reforms and digital tracking will be in place by 2023-24, as long as the IT development and transition needs of businesses have been met.
It is important that people understand that the whole suite of measures, such as extended producer responsibility, will help to address issues such as mattress mountains. It also takes the will of us all, whether businesses or individuals, to check who is taking our waste away; it takes councils using the measures that we are giving them to enforce further; and it takes me ensuring that I am listening and that we are working towards more rigorous enforcement.
By tackling waste crime and poor performance in the waste industry, not only do we prevent harm and the blight on people’s lives and the environment, but we ensure that resources are properly recycled or recovered and fed back into the economy. In the long term, the Government are committed to minimising the impact of environmental waste by reducing the amount of waste created and managing it safely. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for her offer to work together on this. I take the issue as seriously as every Member here does, and I will work with all hon. Members to continue to address it.
I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate, which has been a good one. I am pleased to have got so much on the record, using parliamentary privilege at some points. I thank all three Stoke Members for the support they have given me on Walleys Quarry. I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for bringing to bear their experience in this place and their long experience with the Environment Agency. I cannot name-check everyone, but I thank everyone who has contributed. So much has been raised today that it feels as though we should have a Backbench Business debate on the subject, or even a Select Committee inquiry. I will send the Hansard for this debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I also thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). This has been a non-partisan exercise; it is not party political. I am grateful that she, too, visited Silverdale. She name-checked many of the heroes of the Stop the Stink campaign, and a lot of her councillors. In the interests of balance, I thank Simon Tagg, Derrick Huckfield, Andy Fear, Andy Parker, Mark Holland, Gill Heesom, Graham Hutton, James Salisbury and Paul Northcott—all councillors who have supported their residents, and me, in this case.
Most of all, I thank the Minister for what she said, which I am encouraged by. I thank her Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), and the Minister’s officials. They have been particularly helpful in getting access to the public register for private investigators who have been looking at what is going on at Walleys Quarry. I am grateful for everything that the Government are doing, but there is an issue with the attitude at the Environment Agency. The Minister has heard me say that before—she has heard many people say that today—and I know that she will use her good offices to try to change it.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).