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Westminster Hall

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 February 2022

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

India-UK Trade Negotiations

Before we begin, I remind Members of the House of Commons Commission’s guidance to observe social distancing and wear masks when not speaking.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered India and UK trade negotiations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, I think for the first time. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, on which I sit, and Madam Deputy Speaker for allowing us to have this very important debate. I declare my interest as co-chairman of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group—the other co-chairman, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), is also present. This is an important time: trade talks between the UK and India have already begun. There is a tremendous opportunity, which I will go into in some detail.

Of course, we have the opportunity to negotiate a trade deal with India—our friends—because we have left the European Union; we now trade and negotiate as a free trading nation. We must embrace the opportunities that that gives us. Colleagues from across the House will, no doubt, also go into the detail of those opportunities, including in services, particularly for the City of London, legal services—India, after all, has the same basic legal system as we have—manufacturing, and Scotch whiskies and Irish whiskeys, which face huge tariff barriers in India at the moment. Those must form part of our successful negotiations.

We have this opportunity because we have a long-term friendship with India. The European Union has been trying to do a deal with India since 1997, but without success. The United States of America has been trying to do a deal with India, but without success. We should therefore not underestimate the difficulties that we may face. Over the weekend we had the good news that our potential membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, which is worth trillions of pounds, is moving forward. The trade opportunities with India are enormous, and clearly a free trade agreement will support the Government’s strategy of developing the status of the United Kingdom—global Britain—as an independent trading nation.

We are seeking trade and investment opportunities. We champion free trade—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will allude to that particular issue in his speech. We have already negotiated a long-term arrangement with India—co-operation has been taking place over the last year—but now, free trade is the key to our success.

India is a dynamic, fast-growing economy at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. Our bilateral trading relationship is already quite significant, and we should not underestimate that—£23.3 billion in 2019. A free trade agreement could strengthen that, and could potentially increase exports by £16.7 billion by 2035. That is a goal that we must secure. We can also enhance the already existing trading relationships, which are considerable, and give the UK access to a market with long and short-term benefits. A free trade agreement has to work not only for the United Kingdom but, obviously, for India.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the significant benefits of a free trade agreement between India and the United Kingdom is access to a market that is increasingly prosperous? Over recent years, millions of people in India have been lifted out of poverty because of economic growth and prosperity. That is fantastic news for India, and it also creates a great opportunity for businesses based in the UK to increase their trading with India.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. India has a young population, full of entrepreneurs and people who want to succeed, and with a growing and establishing middle class and, indeed, upper class. The potential for a wide range of exports gives us many opportunities to draw on for the overall benefit of this country.

UK consumers, producers and businesses will all gain from a free trade agreement. We must maintain our high environmental standards on labour, food safety and animal welfare in any free trade agreement, not just with India but across all our different agreements. It is also important to protect the NHS when we negotiate, as we do not want it to be compromised in any shape or form. We want to secure the best possible agreement, and the potential interim agreement could deliver early benefits. I look forward to the Minister alluding to that agreement, as well as to the strategic opportunities I have mentioned.

We share a common set of values. India is the world’s largest democracy and has long maintained its support for international co-operation and democratic Government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, there have been huge advances over the past few years in the economy of India, the rights of Indians to work, and for villages across India to gain benefits from its trading position.

We work together in various multilateral fora, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the Commonwealth. In May 2021 we committed to an enhanced trade partnership, which could double trade by 2030, strengthening our relationship and invigorating our respective economies. That is part of a 2030 road map that covers the full spectrum of our relationship with India.

We have strong cultural links. Some 1.5 million British nationals are of Indian origin. I see one or two here in the Chamber, which demonstrates the role that the British Indian population plays. We support over half a million jobs in each other’s economies, so an agreement would further develop that deep-seated relationship. It would also help put global Britain at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region—one of our key strategies—which now represents 40% of global GDP and has most of the world’s fastest growing economies. As they expand, it is key that we have access to their markets.

An agreement with India would complement our other commitments, such as those to Australia and New Zealand, and the ongoing negotiations with the other 11 members of the CPTPP. Tilting towards the Indo-Pacific would diversify UK trade, make our supply chains more resilient and make us less vulnerable—particularly on a day like today—to political and economic shocks around the globe. It would also cement our position as a world leader in free trade and strengthen democracies around the world, which can only be a gain for India and for us.

I will not go through the many benefits of free trade agreements, as I know a number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. But let us be clear: reducing barriers will make trade easier and cheaper for UK exporters, as well as improve choice for UK consumers.

In 2019, India imported £5.35 billion-worth of goods from the UK, of which £5.24 billion was in lines subject to tariffs. That gives a feel for how much opportunity exists. Removing those tariffs would enable us to double our exports to India. India’s middle class, which I mentioned earlier, is expected to double from 30 million people in 2019 to 60 million by 2030, reaching nearly 250 million in 2050. If that is not an opportunity, I do not know what is.

We will have huge opportunities to sell high-quality iconic brands and products. Removing tariffs and giving greater clarity on legal certainty would support our UK businesses, such as those in the automotive, agrifood, machinery and pharmaceutical industries, to name but a few. That would also mean our manufacturers saving costs by getting cheaper parts for products, while our consumers in the UK would benefit from the variety and affordability of different products.

The opportunities for UK services and investment are huge. At the moment, they amount to £3.2 billion. The fact that the expanding services sector in India is expected to reach 54% of its economy demonstrates the opportunity for us as a trusted partnership.

My hon. Friend is making a strong point about how reducing barriers to entry will increase trading opportunities with India. Does he agree, however, that it is the job of the Department for International Trade to do not only trade policy but trade promotion? The Tradeshow Access Programme and other good innovations are required to support British businesses that are seeking to take advantage of opportunities. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of what goes on in his closing speech.

My hon. Friend is a former Trade Minister who knows such things all too well. Those go hand in hand—it is no good having a free trade agreement if we do nothing with it. Indeed, before we get to the free trade agreement, we have to use the opportunities we have in the diaspora here and all the other opportunities for trade.

There is also a great opportunity in the digital sector. The Government of India aim to have a $1 trillion online economy by 2025. We expect internet penetration in India to hit 50%—or 622 million users—so the free trade agreement represents a huge opportunity for businesses in the UK, such as those in tech, artificial intelligence and cyber-security.

A trade agreement will not only build on our relationship but give young Indians the opportunity to come to this country to study—to get their degrees, master’s degrees and PhDs—and to return to India to use the knowledge that they have gained in friendship with the UK and to expand India’s economy even more. We already have excellent educational co-operation, in particular with our higher education facilities, but I want to see us do better. I want us to get back to the position where the UK is where India chooses to send its young people to for study. We have slipped behind in recent years, and myths have developed about caps on numbers. Those are problems to resolve—we know that—but nevertheless we want to return to the position whereby we are the place of choice.

Indian-owned businesses in the UK employ more than 95,000 people. Some 29,200 are employed in the west midlands alone—at least one west midlands MP, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), is present—with 20,700 in London and 10,700 in Wales. Indian investment alone created 15,000 new jobs in the past three years. That demonstrates our opportunities to expand. Furthermore, India’s import requirements are set to be worth £1.38 trillion in 2035, which gives us an opportunity—if we can reduce the high tariff barriers—to utilise our capability to provide a high level of services and good-quality goods.

The tariffs paid on exports to India total £49 million a year. The tariffs for automotive manufacturers stand at 125%, so a trade agreement would obviously benefit them. In 2019, 9,900 UK businesses exported goods to India, 98% of which were small or medium-sized enterprises. That demonstrates that it is not only big companies but small companies that could gain.

We are a global leader on climate action, and the Government are obviously maintaining our high standards of environmental protection within trade agreements. An agreement with India could represent a huge opportunity for our world-leading renewable energy industry. The Government of India recognise the need to transition towards renewable gas and plan to install 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by the end of this year. Our expertise can help them to achieve that and to remove their dependence on coal and other fossil fuels. Although we already have a productive trading relationship, it would also help us to bounce back from the pandemic and to invigorate trade and investment services.

The reality is that our negotiation stance needs to be clear and above board, and we need to be clear that India was the UK’s 15th largest trading partner in 2020. As I have said, trade was worth £23.3 billion and our exports worth £8.5 billion in 2019. That makes India the 10th largest export destination for the UK. Outside of the EU, that clearly provides us with a huge opportunity. Imports were worth £14.8 billion in 2019, which was 2.1% of our imports, making India the UK’s fifth single largest import supplier. India is now the fifth largest economy in the world and the third biggest investor in the UK. We have slipped down the list on investment in India, and we need to put that right as we go forward. We were the third biggest investor in India, but I think we are now fifth or perhaps even sixth. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.38 billion people back in 2020, which amounts to 18% of the world’s population. I am throwing out a lot of stats, because we need to understand the huge benefit that can result from having a free trade agreement with India.

Obviously, under covid, both our economy and India’s economy contracted, but as they expand we will have an opportunity to get involved in further investment in India. At the moment, India is projected to overtake Germany and become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, and it could leapfrog Japan to become the third largest by 2050. The opportunity there is huge, and India has obviously been the engine of global growth over recent years, with its economy growing by 7% a year. If we could grow our economy by 7%,- wouldn’t we bite people’s hands off to achieve it? Clearly, that is going to be the position. I have mentioned India’s middle-class market, which is growing fast and which is a huge opportunity for us overall.

With a free trade agreement with India, we can obviously support jobs across the UK. If our exports to India grow, we can grow our businesses, and SMEs will grow as a direct result. In 2019, something like 1,000 Indian-owned local business units were operating in the UK, so clearly the opportunities are there and the demand for imported goods and services will grow as we use the living bridge between the United Kingdom and India.

Obviously, the success of exports to India will depend on how well the world economy goes and how our relationship grows with it. As I understand it, the second round of negotiations is due to take place between 7 March and 18 March, with a shared ambition to conclude negotiations by the end of this year. I wish those negotiations well, and I hope the Minister will be able to update us on the position when he responds to the debate.

Looking at the various parts of our economy, there are huge benefits right across the UK to having a trade agreement with India. One of our hugest exports is Scotch whisky. That has a huge impact. Those of our Scottish friends who are present—the hon. Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes)—know that they will gain as a result of a global Britain free trade agreement. If they were to engage in foolish behaviour and leave the United Kingdom, they would lose that free trade agreement and once again face tariffs of 150%. Indeed, the export of Irish whiskey is a vital part of the Irish economy and will clearly be—

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I think he has given me this opportunity before gets himself into a bit of a hole. First, he had a pop at independence, only to then turn it into saying how successful Ireland is. I am grateful to him for that, but I thought I would give him the opportunity at least to try a glass of water, if not some whisky.

I take issue with one or two of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. He spoke cleverly about what the UK can do for India, when the reality is clearly the reverse: we have imported fantastic, highly educated doctors, nurses and IT people.

He talked about whisky; I hope he does not intend for India to become a land of alcoholics. I would like to share an example from my youth of India’s innovation: instead of importing Coca-Cola, it made its own version, Thums Up. It is a very innovative country. I would like to correct the record slightly: our parents and grandparents would not forgive us if we did not say that they were also highly educated and innovative.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. Clearly, the living bridge, as I have described it, of citizens of Indian origin in the UK is not only highly educated, but has the opportunity to build that relationship still further. Equally, there is a potential opportunity for people of UK origin to study at universities and other educational institutions in India. I look forward to those important exchanges taking place.

There is clearly a huge opportunity for us to go forward. The opportunities that arise from a potential free trade agreement are legion. To come back to whisky and the huge 150% tariff, with respect to the right hon. Lady, India manufactures its own whisky, which is a good product but clearly no substitute for that from global Britain. Negotiating that tariff down will be a prize and a huge advantage for our exports to India. It is a premium product that is well respected by the middle classes across the piece, and very welcome.

I will not trouble colleagues further because I know others want to contribute. The opportunities are huge, and it is up to us to grasp that nettle. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to the debate, including the opportunities, our negotiating position, how negotiations are going and how much progress we have made. If we bring off this free trade agreement, it will be a feather in the Government’s cap. More importantly, it will be a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom and India to cement our long-term relationship.

There are five Members seeking to catch my eye. I do not intend to introduce a formal time limit, but I think everyone can do the maths. I want to get to the Front Benches no later than 10.30 am. If we look at around seven minutes each, everyone will get a fair lick of the sauce bottle.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, although not for the first time. Thank you for calling me to speak on this very important matter. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate, which I know is of great interest to his constituents as well as my own. I feel a little sorry for myself that I missed the opportunity to lead the debate; however, he made a good opening.

Trade with India has long been a British obsession and I am delighted that now, 421 years on from the founding of the East India Company, it is a little less one-sided. As the chair of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group, I should declare an interest in this debate. However, my connection is even deeper, as I am not only a British citizen but also a son of India. It is one of my most fervent beliefs that India and the UK are natural friends and allies, with shared values and complementary skills and strengths. A deep and strong alliance is both possible and desirable.

Prime Minister Modi has made it very clear that he views Britain as India’s natural ally. India is bursting with opportunity from which both the UK and India can benefit. There is a massive and growing middle class, a highly educated workforce and demand for services. The future can have so much more to offer than the past. There are nearly twice as many English speakers in India as in Britain, and that number is expected to increase over the coming decade. It could double—triple; numbers are high.

In India there is a connection to Britain that extends beyond the similar legal system, parliamentary democracy and cricket—it is deeper. We may have chosen to stifle trade with Europe and thumb our noses at our nearer neighbours, ending the opportunities that India had to invest in the UK as a jumping-off point into Europe, but that is not all that we have to offer. We must offer something different, but perhaps we should try to avoid further reducing our competitiveness. A free trade agreement may be this Government’s stated aim, but I urge them to seek wins that build into an FTA, not look for a hole-in-one. Education and legal services are ripe for a sector-specific deal. Defence and security would not just be a boost to British design and manufacturing, but have the opportunity to support an Indo-Pacific “tilt” strategy. The Australia submarine deal shows that we have a sector brimming with talent, in demand around the world. Let us compete in space, cyber and aviation. The UK built the first jet airliner. Let us again sell them around the world, and fill Airbus planes with Indian students coming to British universities for a world-class education.

As we heard, in the past we have missed some opportunities. Britain did not stay on top of competing with other countries. Still, British universities and the British education system are popular among Indian students. We should look seriously at how we can further engage that relationship. On that point, I want to commend the excellent work of British universities in attracting Indian students despite the hard work of our Prime Minister’s predecessors to dissuade as many students as possible from coming to the UK. We must accept that it was our failure, not a lack of interest among students back in India. It should not be seen as a criticism, but as a policy matter we must look at how we can improve those relations further to bring those students into the country.

The new post-study visa is a good step, and the numbers from UCAS last week show that it is having the right impact. There is no doubt, then, of the value of an FTA for the UK and India, but experts I have spoken to think it will not be possible to secure one in the next decade or more. Instead, we should seek to nail down the wins that we can now, and work towards an FTA. That should not be for an election stunt but for the long-term success of the British economy.

I also urge the Government to take international promises seriously. This Government have been blamed, time and time again, for interesting interpretations of trade regulations and agreements with the EU. We risk further serious international reputational damage if we are seen to renege on trade deals that we have written and agreed. We can show how serious we are by respecting and taking full advantage of deals already in existence and in the pipeline. I look forward to seeing the sector deal for fruit ripen and the medical technology deal birthed in good health. Two countries, both alike in dignity, can put aside ancient grudge and break new ground with an ambitious deal for civil hands in both nations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important debate. It is also good to see many members of the Indo-British APPG. I serve as its secretary, so I wish to declare that interest. I am also grateful to both its co-chairs, the hon. Member for Harrow East and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who do a lot of work to keep the APPG going, and also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).

I will start by talking about the Manchester India Partnership, which covers the Greater Manchester region, including my constituency of Stockport in south Manchester. It was set up in 2018 and has won several awards. Its main objectives are to link academic institutions, businesses and public sector organisations across Greater Manchester and India. Those are excellent objectives. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating Shehla Hasan, who has been appointed the new executive director for the Manchester India Partnership.

It is good to see the Mayor, Andy Burnham, and the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester working with the Manchester India Partnership to attract investment into Greater Manchester, but also to attract investment from British businesses, organisations and academic institutions into organisations across India. It should be highlighted that Greater Manchester is the first UK city region to sign a memorandum of understanding with the regional Government of the Indian state of Maharashtra. That was recently signed between Mayor Andy Burnham and a Minister from Maharashtra, and should be celebrated.

As MP for Stockport, I want to see more investment from Indian businesses in my constituency into Greater Manchester, and vice versa. I also hope that when the Minister speaks, he will support the Manchester India Partnership and outline how the Government will support not only regional partnerships—such as the Manchester India Partnership—and the UK India Business Council, but also the initiative in the west midlands.

I believe that this debate is about trade, but I also want to mention the lack of air connectivity between Manchester and India. Manchester airport is the third-largest airport in the UK and serves people from the north of England, Scotland, and even Wales. Some 537,000 people of Indian ethnicity live within a two-hour drive of it. It is not good—unhelpful, even—that Manchester airport currently has no direct flights to major Indian cities. It used to have links to Mumbai and Delhi, but because of the pandemic those infrequent links, which were weekly, have stopped. I hope that the Government will do something about that. The large, vibrant Indian community in Greater Manchester and the north-west region have been calling for direct air links from Manchester to major Indian cities and, as a bare minimum, direct links to Mumbai—the trading hub of India—and the capital, New Delhi. It is a long time coming, and I hope the Government will do something about that.

Having spoken to them recently, I know that Manchester Airports Group are very keen to start routes to India. I hope there is a commitment today from the Minister that the Government will deliver that. Direct air links will deliver better connectivity for families, businesses and academic institutions. My good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, mentioned the large number of Indian students who study in the UK, as well as businesses and people visiting on vacations. These are people who are choosing to spend their time and money here and we should make it easier for them.

Moving on to the student community, the UK has an excellent educational offer; we attract students from around the world and that is a very good thing. However, I am disappointed that the Government did not do enough at the height of the pandemic to support overseas students. Some struggled badly, and more should have been done. Some students faced extremely serious hardships, struggling to feed themselves and facing issues with rent and landlords. Several organisations, up and down the country, did a lot to support those overseas students and I am very grateful to them. I particularly thank the Indian Association Manchester: Dr Gajanan and Councillor Vimal Choksi went above and beyond to support students, some of whom were in desperate situations, and I am grateful to them for that. I think the Government should have done more, and going forward, if we are going to attract foreign students—which is a good thing—we should make sure that we are able to support them better in the case of a lockdown, in the case of a pandemic.

Over 53,000 students of Indian heritage studied in the UK last year. I believe the figure for the next academic year is close to 84,000—and that is just students from the Republic of India. That shows the growing number of students coming from India to the UK. I hope that part of the free trade agreement provides better support for those students. Over the weekend there have been some media reports about élite Indian universities setting up campuses in the UK; I hope that the Minister will outline how the Government will support that. We want the best and the brightest, and we also want to encourage the exchange of knowledge, ideas and people between those institutions.

I will finish with two points. Climate change is a very serious issue; India and the UK can do so much together to combat climate change and preserve our natural environment. I saw a report recently that India has increased its solar power capacity by more than elevenfold in the last five years; that is just one example of things that are going on in India. The UK and India could lead on green technology and renewable sources, but we need the vision and the investment.

When we talk about trade, we should do so on an equal footing and on collaborative terms. It is all well and good for the Government to say that they want to pursue a free trade agreement with India, but when recently South Africa and India made a joint proposal for a time-limited, temporary waiver of the World Trade Organisation agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights in order to allow the production of vaccines, medical equipment and medicines to fight the pandemic, the UK Government were part of a small minority that blocked the proposal. Personally, as a British Member of Parliament, I think that is shameful. On the one hand, the Government are saying that they want a free trade agreement on equal terms, while on the other they are blocking a proposal that would enable low and middle-income countries to vaccinate their populations. While we in more advanced economies talk about the second dose, the third dose or the booster dose, around 80% of people on the continent of Africa have not even had their first dose. President Biden’s Administration were with the UK in blocking the TRIPS waiver. However, they reversed their position and said that they were wrong, and that they would support the proposal from India and South Africa. I am sorry to end on a negative note, but the Government have clearly failed on that. They say one thing on the free trade agreement, but do not support a very reasonable proposal for low and middle-income countries.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate.

It has been interesting and, in many ways, encouraging to hear the enthusiasm that Members across the House have for increasing links with the Republic of India. While some from my party and my part of the world can only support increasing trade, commerce and understanding between democratic peoples, I am one of the few discordant voices in this debate. I have to ask whether that is truly appropriate at this moment, especially while my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, remains arbitrarily detained in a maximum security prison.

Having served as a member of the Defence Committee for five years, I am under no illusions as to the importance of maintaining good relations with India. It remains the largest democracy in a region where it can sometimes seem that anti-democratic voices have the upper hand. However, being a member of the Committee also meant I had more time than most to read last year’s integrated review and that I was fortunate enough to meet many of the people who wrote it.

The fine balance between interests and values is a major theme throughout the review and is something that we should continue to reflect on. On page 17, the review states:

“In the years ahead we will need to manage inevitable tensions and trade-offs: between our openness and the need to safeguard our people, economy and way of life through measures that increase our security and resilience; between competing and cooperating with other states, sometimes at the same time; and between our short-term commercial interests and our values.”

What about our Prime Minister? We know that he is, of course, a man of his word. In his introduction, he says that,

“By 2030, we will be deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values.”

I would like to linger on the last word: values.

My constituent Jagtar Singh Johal was shopping with his newlywed wife in Jalandhar city on 4 November 2017 when he was suddenly assailed by persons in plain clothes who did not identify themselves. They bundled him into a van before speeding off, leaving his new wife distraught at the side of the road. It was not until he got to Bagha Purana police station that he realised those people were law enforcement. However, if that realisation made him think he would be dealt with humanely, he was wrong.

Jagtar alleges that from 5 to 9 November, the police interrogated and tortured him, including by means of electric shock to his genitalia, forcing his limbs into painful positions and depriving him of sleep. That torture is probably what contributed to Jagtar signing a confession and making a video confession that later appeared on prominent Indian news sites, both of which he subsequently retracted.

I have spoken about Jagtar’s case on many occasions in the House and I will continue to do so until he is released. Due to the time constraints we have today, we will have to gloss over almost five years in captivity, a move to a maximum security prison and the gradual realisation from all working on this case that we were dealing with arbitrary detention.

In my Westminster Hall debate last year on Jagtar’s case, I unfortunately did not hear any justification from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as to why it did not consider Jagtar’s detention to be arbitrary. However, I fully intend to make the FCDO justify that decision whenever I can. We should ask ourselves if we consider the treatment of Jagtar to be consistent with the pursuance of shared values in the UK’s foreign and trade policy.

My constant refrain during Jagtar’s detention has been for transparency, due process and the rule of law to be what the Republic of India is judged on by both the citizens of that mighty country and the FCDO. The integrated review quite clearly states that,

“we will increase our efforts to protect open societies and democratic values where they are being undermined”.

There is more than enough in this one case for me to ask all Members present, including the Minister, at what price do we pursue this deal? At what point is it incumbent on the UK as a state that seeks to protect open societies and democratic values to act when they are demonstrably not being adhered to? While it is, of course, for the people of the Republic of India to decide how they are governed, it is for us as democratically elected parliamentarians to decide how we sign free trade deals with them.

I hope I have made it clear that, although the benefits of free trade and cultural exchange are undeniable, they should not be pursued at any price. They should certainly not be placed above the wellbeing of individual UK citizens such as Jagtar Singh Johal.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). I too put on record my support for Jagtar Singh Johal, who is a son of the Rock. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing and opening this important debate.

As chair of the Scotch whisky all-party parliamentary group, I understand the importance of securing a good trade deal with India, especially for the Scotch whisky sector. The industry breathed a huge sigh of relief at the removal of tariffs for Scotch whisky in the United States. However, it only came after significant effort on the part of the APPG, the Scotch Whisky Association and countless industry stakeholders. The industry continues to face yet another barrier at this time in India, where Scotch whisky faces an eye-watering 150% tariff.

India is the world’s largest whisky market, which provides huge potential for the entire Scotch whisky industry. However, the fact that Scotch exported to India is subjected to that 150% tariff is a massive blow to the sector. Because of the steep tariff, Scottish produce makes up only 2% of India’s whisky market. Despite only making up this very small percentage share of the market, the value of Scotch whisky sales continues to rise. Whisky sales rose from less than £60 million in 2011 to more than £150 million in 2019. Just imagine the opportunities for what is, I would argue, our greatest export brand if the 150% tariff were reduced. The Scotch whisky industry could rise to its true potential in India.

A reduction in the tariff on Scotch whisky would grow single malt exports by £1.2 billion over the next five years and create 1,300 jobs. In my Glaswegian constituency, I am privileged to have a bottling hall, a maturation warehouse and a number of cooperages. There is clearly an argument that this investment has an impact on jobs, not just in rural parts of Scotland, but in urban constituencies like my own.

India is already the third largest market by volume. The reduction of tariffs could push it to second place, behind only the United States of America. It would see an increase of £3.4 billion in revenue to the Indian Government. There is a huge potential for the market to grow if tariffs were reduced. In 2019, Scotland only constituted 6.5% of the UK’s overall trade with India, compared to London at 21%, the south-east of England at 14% and the north-west of England at 9%. There is clearly an opportunity for Scotch whisky, if only it were not hindered by these incredibly high tariffs.

The whisky market in India is a wholly untapped, golden opportunity for Scottish distilleries. Scotch whisky plays a crucial role in the success of Scotland’s food and drink sector and our economy, but the industry has been dealt a triple whammy recently, with the economic impact of tariffs—particularly in the USA—as well as Brexit and the pandemic. Going forward, we need to see continued and intensified support for the industry. One step could be to address the extortionate tariffs in India. I hope that my good friend the Minister, and the Government, will address this in conjunction with the APPG, so that together we can support Scotch.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing the debate in a consistent, helpful way. I am pleased to follow the contributions of the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire knows that I have supported him in the campaign that he has consistently been involved with over the years and in every one of his debates, and I support him here today in urging the Minister to do something. It may not be too late for that plea to the Minister and to the Government to do something to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, who has been very wrongly maligned, intimidated, tortured and injured, and his family.

Holding each other accountable to a higher standard is a hallmark of any good relationship. Ours with India should be no different, which is why what the hon. Gentleman said is so important. There has been colonial and historical contact, and that has drawn us together over the years. I see—we all see—India as a friend and the close relationship between the UK and India is well known. A long history of international co-operation and trade has been central to much of that. Our trading relationship is significant and, therefore, I believe we need to have a relationship that draws on our concerns in this country. I will lay out some reasons for that.

The UK is the third biggest investor in India, and in 2020 India became the second largest investor in the UK. Our relationship is growing from both sides and that is important. During the covid-19 pandemic, trade with India secured vital personal protective equipment for our frontline workers, and helped to secure the production and roll-out of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on such a mammoth scale. The history and our relationship over the last 100 years—especially over the last two—have been significant and important.

It goes without saying that the UK-India relationship is mutually beneficial, and that underscores why a trade deal with India is and should be such a priority. However, in trade negotiations we should not ignore the values central to a good relationship for the sake of a better trade deal. The close relationship between the two countries necessitates that our Government and our Ministers raise the issue of human rights concerns in negotiations with India. Will the Minister confirm that the issues are constantly raised with India? I am quite sure that the answer will be yes, but will the Minister confirm that in Hansard, so that we have it to refer to for the future?

I am sad and sorry to say this, but in recent years India has seen escalating violations of freedom of religion or belief. Churches and Christian schools were targeted during the Christmas season just past. Bibles were set on fire, services were disrupted, a statue of Jesus was torn down and the crowd shouted, “Death to missionaries”. Really? In this modern world? We have this relationship with India, but the Indian Government have not acted on those issues. In 2013, the Open Doors world watch list ranked India as 31st in the global list of the top 50 countries where Christians faced the highest level of persecution worldwide. Last month, in its latest world watch list, Open Doors ranked India in 10th position; it has risen from 31st to 10th. The research sounds the alarm on the escalation of freedom of religion or belief violations in the country—not just against Christians, but against other faiths and beliefs too. I will quickly speak of them.

Lynchings and hate speech targeting Muslims in India have repeatedly made headlines. In December last year, there were open calls for genocide against Muslims at a Hindu Mahasabha party conference. That should never happen at any Government conference or any party conference. The marginalisation of Muslim women was evidenced last month when schools and colleges in the Indian state of Karnataka banned the Muslim headscarf. Indeed, Malala Yousafzai has since responded to colleges forcing Muslim girls

“to choose between studies and the hijab”—

in short, to choose between their right to education and their right to freedom of religion or belief. That must stop. Can the Minister give some indication of how we are encouraging India to do just that?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has touched on that. I discussed the issue in a meeting with the Prime Minister. Thankfully, there was an undertaking that he would raise the issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree and accept that a lot of the behaviour stems directly from Prime Minister Modi and the various thugs in his party who think that such behaviour and intolerance towards people of a different faith is somehow normal? We need to send a very strong message from London to the Indian Government that we will not accept such behaviour and that we will raise it during the negotiations.

I agree that there is an onus on Prime Minister Modi to speak out. Unfortunately, we have not seen much evidence of that. If he speaks out, there should be a reaction, and those who listen to him might respond in a positive fashion, but that has been lacking so far. However, I hope that we can have such a response.

I believe that there is hope and I want to reflect on that as well. Human rights provisions in international trade deals have become the norm since the early 1990s. More than 75% of the world’s Governments now participate in preferential trade agreements with human rights provisions, and we should participate as well. European Union international trade agreements include human rights clauses and a general obligation to uphold human rights as set out in the UN universal declaration of human rights, so what are we doing to make sure that that is upheld?

Leaving the European Union has enabled us—I say this with great respect to colleagues on my left-hand side, the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for West Dunbartonshire—to pursue an independent trade policy. It is vital, however, that we do not drop human rights provisions in that endeavour and that we appropriately use free trade agreements to pursue our broader international objectives.

The UK has a history of defending human rights across the world and is a leader in protecting the fundamental right of freedom of religion or belief. I recognise the good work that our Government have done on these issues, but there are occasions when we have to speak up in a gentle but firm fashion to say that things are not right. The right to freedom of religion or belief is a gateway right and a strong indicator of the future trajectory of the human rights landscape in a country. That is where the focus must be in India, so we seek that change. Religious or belief minorities are often the first groups to be targeted before other rights are eroded, so the right to freedom of religion or belief is well placed to be an indicator of human rights provision in a trade deal with India. I am confident that the Minister’s response will endorse our concerns and deal with how we can make things better.

I am mindful of the time, so I will conclude by urging the Government to ensure that human rights provisions are included in the text of future trade deals with India, that those provisions include robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, that the right to freedom of religion or belief is part of that framework, and that the Prime Minister of India takes the lead on this issue. If we hope to nurture a sincere relationship with India—I hope we do; I want us to—Government silence on the matter cannot be tolerated.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important debate and on his dramatic entrance; it is always good to get off to a start like that.

There has rightly been a lot of talk about the opportunities for friendship, trade and progressive agreements with India. Those matters should be at the forefront of our minds when we talk about engaging with any other country. It is also important, as we have heard from hon. Members around the Chamber, to make sure that when we talk about friendship and being good friends, we are open and honest and call out the things that are not acceptable. I intend to do that in my comments.

The hon. Member for Harrow East talked about the difficulties in gaining a trade agreement with India. The EU has 445 million people, the US has 331 million and the UK 68 million, so there will be difficulties in gaining agreements, and standards must not be sacrificed to get those things across the line. I welcome his comments on protecting the NHS. I hope he will work with me to make sure that the Government pay close attention to not including things such as investor-state dispute mechanisms that could undermine the NHS in future trade deals.

The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) is no longer in her seat, but when we talk about being open, we have to be clear about what the situation is in India. Two thirds of Indian people live in poverty. We have to realise that not everybody there is wealthy. Nearly 70% of people live on under $2 a day. That leaves the situation open to worker exploitation. In any trade deal, we must be mindful of that situation.

Hon. Members have talked, quite rightly, about honouring agreements. That is absolutely essential. This Government must reverse some of the precedents that have been set over recent months. They have to show that they are willing to understand and undertake the conditions of international law; if they do that, they will have the moral authority to hold others to those conditions.

It is absolutely right to point out human rights issues in India. I will come on to some of the opportunities in a moment, but I will pause on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) about his constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been held for four years without charge. There are many other concerns, including the filing of criminal charges against students, journalists and private citizens in response to speeches seen as critical of the Government. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, in 1995 the EU agreed that every new trade deal would take human rights as an essential criterion. Will the Minister uphold the same principle, or will he let these things slide, as the Foreign Secretary did with the principles in the deals with Turkey, Singapore and Vietnam? The Minister should tell us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) highlighted an enormous opportunity to fix a long-held barrier to exports for Scotch whisky. The punishing 150% tariffs applied to this premium Scottish export have been in place for far too long. The UK Government have been tardy, to say the least, in addressing that. We have seen no urgency from the UK Government to rectify the situation until now.

As we have heard, India is the world’s largest whisky market, and yet the quality produce from Scotland makes up only 2% of that market. Despite that, because of the vigorous marketing of high-end product by the Scotch whisky industry, the value of whisky sales has risen from less than £60 million in 2011 to more than £150 million in 2019. There is clearly a demand and an appetite for whisky in India. A reduction in that tariff would grow single malt exports by £1.2 billion in the next five years and could create 1,300 jobs, but that depends on serious action on tariffs. Could the Minister tell us what efforts are being made to remove the 150% tariff, or what reduction to it is being sought? That should not be a secret. It is not a negotiation issue; it should be something that is simply dealt with.

We have heard mentions—too few mentions—from hon. Members of climate change. This is an absolutely pivotal issue that should be at the front of our discussions. There are export opportunities for the Scottish renewable energy manufacturing sector if the conditions are put in place. The Indian Government plan to install 175 GW of renewable energy capacity this year, and they are aiming for further capacity developments over the coming decades. Currently, however, wind turbine components made in the UK are subject to import tariffs of 15% in India. Scotland has the world’s largest research group of renewable energy experts: more than 700 scientists, engineers and more. That is an opportunity.

Part of the “build back better” slogan has to be good, well-paid, unionised jobs in the UK. The UK can be a world leader in green technology and technology transfer, and it can lead from the front on renewable energy. Does the hon. Member agree that as part of the free trade agreements that the UK signs with other nations, we should encourage those nations to sign up to the principles of renewable energy? Does he also agree that we should use those agreements to increase industrial capacity in the UK and produce good, well-paid, unionised jobs that support our constituents up and down the country?

Absolutely; I am in complete agreement about those opportunities. It is important to underline that climate change was not solved at COP26; some good agreements were reached there, but it is clear that a lot more needs to be done. All those things need to be taken into account when it comes to a trade deal. India and the UK have considerable and long-standing social, cultural and economic ties. India is a rising world power, and it is impossible and impractical to ignore the south Asian giant. However, as I have said, friendly progress should be made with eyes open to the issues that exist.

None of the proposed trade deals, including this one with India, can make up for the trade disaster that is Brexit. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Brexit will lead to a reduction of 4% in UK GDP. The hon. Member for Harrow East talked about coming back from covid. By comparison, the OBR estimates that covid will only cause a 2% fall, so Brexit is likely to have twice the impact.

According to predictions by the National Audit Office, all the FTAs—those with Australia and the US, and the CPTPP—will increase the UK’s GDP by between 0.33% at best and 0.17% at worst. Brexit has already cost the Scottish economy around £4 billion and could slash Scotland’s GDP by up to £9 billion by 2030.

There are other issues, but lack of time prevents the full exposition of them all. This is a wide-ranging subject and an enormous debate, given the sheer size, scope and industry of India and the opportunities that might be opened up there. However, there are some key points that I want to touch on, so that the Minister can respond to them. These are important things.

In India, produce—rice, in particular—is grown using pesticides that are currently banned from use in the UK. Can the Minister confirm that such produce will never be imported for sale in UK shops? What concerns has he raised with his team and colleagues about microbial resistance, and will he confirm that any FTA will commit to addressing the very real concerns about it? Will he commit to ensuring that there is a robust chapter in any FTA within the legal services text that takes into account the unique nature of Scottish law?

I put those questions to the Minister. I know, and he knows, that he will be asked many more questions about this wide-ranging subject in the coming weeks and months. However, several of the questions I have asked demand an answer—not least those about his ambition for the reduction in tariffs such as 150% on Scotch whisky and 15% on renewable parts, but also those relating to human rights commitments, the protection of UK standards on pesticides and genetic modification, and ensuring that we get an open and honest trade deal that protects the human rights of those involved with it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I find myself in the most uncomfortable position of having to praise my neighbour, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for his speech; for the first time in a long time, I agreed with more than 50% of what he said.

The hon. Gentleman and the Backbench Business Committee have done the House a service in giving us the opportunity to begin scrutiny of a trade agreement. I hope that the contributions by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will serve to jog the Minister’s memory about the need to improve scrutiny arrangements for the trade deals that this country begins to enter into. In particular, I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Harrow East underlined the need to maintain environmental, animal welfare, food and safety standards, and to ensure that there is no retreat on protecting the national health service.

At the outset, let me state clearly that the official Opposition welcome and support the opening of free trade agreement negotiations with India. Given how underwhelming the Government’s record on trade has been of late, the signing of a comprehensive free trade agreement with India that could unlock significant export opportunities for British businesses and help to create significant numbers of new jobs in the UK would be very welcome. However, very few in the business community seem to have much confidence in the Government being able to negotiate any time soon the comprehensive free trade agreement that the Prime Minister has promised us all. There are increasing whispers that Ministers are focusing only on what would be billed as an interim agreement. I hope that turns out not to be true, but that apparent loss of nerve and ambition would be disappointing.

Given that Ministers have negotiated a trade agreement with Japan that, according to the Government’s own figures, is set to benefit their exporters four times more than ours; that provisions on labour and human rights have been dropped from many of the roll-over deals—a point made by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—and that a deal with Australia is set to deliver a £100 million hit to British farmers, fishing and food firms, Ministers should not be surprised by the growing scepticism about whether they will be able to put together a genuinely exciting free trade deal with India.

I am afraid that the story of the last 10 years of Britain’s trade with India has been underwhelming. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest, who is no longer in his place, made a pointed intervention on the hon. Member for Harrow East about the Tradeshow Access Programme, no doubt with that in mind. Figures from the House of Commons Library demonstrate that British exports to India dropped by 3% in the years between 2010 and 2019. Canada saw a 62% increase in trade with India over that time, and the French saw a 58% increase over the same period. Every other country in the G7 saw faster growth in their trade with India. There was also an average increase in trade with India across the European Union, without the EU-India free trade agreement having been made. Even Italy performed better than the UK.

After that decade of disappointment, it is high time that Ministers gave Indian markets some serious attention. It is no surprise that as far back as 2018, the Indian Government, through the High Commission here, were asking when Ministers were going to get their act together on trade with India.

Action by the previous Prime Minister on visas, of the sort alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, or the failure to support India’s call for a temporary trade-related intellectual property rights waiver, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport underlined, only add to the concern about whether Ministers are genuinely serious about engaging properly with their counterparts in India. To complement free trade agreement discussions, a strategy to boost exports to India is now needed. That can be built on if and when any agreement with India is achieved.

I hope the Minister will be able to explain, as the hon. Member for Wyre Forest asked, what extra support is being provided to firms that have the potential to export to India but are not yet doing so. If France, Germany, Italy and the EU more generally can all perform better without an FTA in terms of growth in their exports to India, Ministers need to be doing more to help British exporters. How many trade missions are planned to India in the next 12 months? Are extra staff going to be deployed to support export growth in India? How are Ministers going to improve the online help to businesses that want to export to India? I am told that it is weaker than that of our rivals.

India is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, and it is set to become the world’s third biggest economy by 2050. Given that India has a population of almost 1.4 billion people and a growing middle class, a trade deal would increase British business access to a huge consumer base and, according to the CBI, potentially boost wages in the UK by some £3 billion by 2035. Got right, an ambitious free trade agreement could bolster bilateral economic growth and, given India’s regional significance, boost growth and trade with its near neighbours, too.

An agreement that sees the removal of key duties and tariffs is particularly important. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East stressed, exports of Scottish whisky and of cars, which face duties of 150% and 125% respectively, are important.

The Times of London reports today that in 2020, UK companies exported pesticides containing 12,240 tonnes of seven different chemicals that are banned in the UK. Does the shadow Minister agree not only that that is morally wrong, but that it highlights the Government’s double standards on exports?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why we need to ensure that there is no weakening of standards as Ministers, perhaps desperate to make up for the shortfalls in the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU, seek to rush to agree trade deals with other countries.

Ministers ought to be able to make fast progress on Scottish whisky tariffs. The Government of India are keen to tackle smuggling, counterfeiting and the loss of tax revenue, so the UK Government are pushing at an open door regarding Scotch whisky tariffs. The financial sector is emerging as a vibrant and dynamic area of growth in the Indian economy, but India ranks only 30th as an export destination for UK financial services. Figures suggest that Britain exported about £3.8 billion of services to India, with financial services making up less than 10% of that total.

An ambitious agreement on services could support and complement India’s economic development. Indeed, given the UK’s strong comparative advantage in high-value services such as digital finance, a deal that does not support real growth in services exports would be very disappointing. Again, on tech, the UK and India are among the world’s leaders in the development of new technologies. An FTA could help to develop business co-operation in advanced research and manufacturing capacity, in green energy capacity in particular, as well as in artificial intelligence.

For many small businesses, improving customs arrangements to reduce bureaucratic delays and red tape is key. An FTA should include reaffirming commitments to implement the WTO’s trade facilitation agreement, to ensure that there are commitments on the timely release of goods and express shipments, and a mutual recognition of authorised economic operator schemes. On the point of mutual recognition, a comprehensive and ambitious FTA, of the type promised by the Prime Minister, should also include progress on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and more robust regulatory dialogues.

Trade agreements are not a zero-sum game; there are trade-offs. One reason why better scrutiny of trade deals is needed is to ensure that there is proper debate about those trade-offs and the context of trade deals being done—a point underlined by the hon. Member for Strangford. One obvious issue in that regard concerns visas. The Secretary of State confirmed that nothing is off the table, and a multiplicity of sources confirm India’s continuing interest, and indeed priority, in a substantial easing of visa restrictions into the UK.

While the UK was a member of the European Union, it was the fly in the ointment of a trade deal with the Republic of India, over two specific issues: whisky tariffs, and the fact that the UK Government did not want a more liberal visa position. Is the reality that now they cannot get cheap labour from Europe, they are looking for even cheaper labour from India?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall underlined the concern we heard from many sources about the more illiberal regime on visas that was introduced by the previous Prime Minister. It is worth asking the Minister if he plans to allow, as under the Australia deal, a significant increase in access to the UK for Indian nationals. What will Britain’s ask be in return, regarding easier movement between the UK and India for UK professionals?

What is the Minister planning for ceramics? That is a key industry, which is hugely important in many specific parts of the UK, such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South, and which is facing ever-growing competition from India. To what extent is the Minister factoring into the negotiations the needs of the ceramics industry?

One of the criteria that the Opposition will use to judge the Secretary of State’s negotiating skills is the extent to which the deal boosts development, improves equality of opportunity, and tackles poverty. Just as we believe that every community in the UK should benefit from the trade deals that Britain signs, every community in India should benefit from a UK-India free trade agreement. That is why we want to see chapters on labour and human rights—important points underlined in interventions from the hon. Members for Strangford and for West Dunbartonshire. We welcome the opening of negotiations, but we will monitor their progress very carefully.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for raising this important topic and for sharing his passionate belief in the importance of closer ties between Britain and India. I also thank Members from across the House for their broad support for the notion of a trade agreement with India. Although we do not have much time left, I shall do what I can to cover as much as possible.

The Government fundamentally believe in the power of free trade and free markets as unrivalled forces for good in the world, which is why we are pulling out all the stops to champion this great cause globally. We are using free trade around the world to forge new bonds of prosperity with nations worldwide, unlocking fresh growth for businesses of all kinds and sizes based across our United Kingdom. We are positioning Britain at the heart of a rapidly changing global trading system, in which the greatest opportunities lie in emerging markets and the fast-growing economies of the east, and the free trade deals that we are signing with our partners are key to that endeavour.

As has been mentioned, we have already signed deals with 70 countries plus the EU, covering trade worth £772 billion in 2020, and there is more to come. We have already gone above and beyond existing EU agreements with some of the world’s most advanced economies, such as Japan, and we have secured new deals with Australia and New Zealand, but we are just getting started.

To witness the fantastic potential of the global Britain that we are building, we need look no further than the deal that we are discussing today: the free trade agreement that we are negotiating with India. This deal promises to be a game changer for our economic partnership with the world’s largest democracy, opening the door for British businesses to a vast and fast-diversifying market of almost 1.4 billion people—larger than the population of the EU and US combined. The deal is bringing us closer to an economic superpower that, despite covid, was worth more than £2 trillion in 2020 and is on course to become the world’s third largest domestic market by 2050. As the world’s spending power shifts eastward, giving global Britain a greater stake in the Indo-Pacific is crucial, because it is a part of the world that represents over 40% of global GDP and contains the growth of tomorrow.

As has already been said, Britain and India share a trade partnership that was worth almost £24 billion in 2019—energised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East says, by the living bridge of people and ideas that flow between our nations. We already share close business ties, including nearly half a million jobs across our economies, according to the Confederation of British Industry. Our financial markets are interconnected, with 35 Indian companies listed on the London stock exchange, and our firms partner one another in driving change across a range of fields, from finance to manufacturing, and from tech to transport.

There are innovative businesses such as the Indian firm Intas Pharmaceuticals, which has its headquarters in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and near that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. There are many other such businesses across London, but we know that our nations could and should be doing far more together. That is why we want to strengthen the partnership with India further and faster, building on the bedrock of shared values, common law, institutions and, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) said, cricket.

What do shared values mean, when a UK citizen born in this country—a full UK citizen with a full UK passport—can be arbitrarily detained by an ally?

I will address the points made by the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in a moment, but I want to make some progress on trade, which we are also here to discuss.

As part of the road map signed by both Prime Ministers last year, we have set the ambition of doubling our trade with India by 2030, as has been said. That provides a clear framework for our bilateral relationship in future. As part of the road map, we committed to deepening the economic relationship through an enhanced trade partnership, an ETP.

I was delighted to play a role in driving forward that partnership, which is already helping to increase opportunities for British businesses in India by tackling market access barriers, for example, allowing our apples to be imported into India once again—some say, for the first time in 50 years. The partnership has also secured improved access for British medical devices, as noted by Members; committed us to agreeing on mutual recognition of educational qualifications, as requested by the Labour Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Harrow West; and is exploring how we can increase our trade and co-operation in legal services, as raised by the SNP Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).

Major restrictions such as high tariffs, however, still hold us back, so a free trade deal between Britain and India holds the key to unlocking our enormous untapped trading potential. An ambitious deal could bring huge economic benefits, boosting Britain’s GDP by up to £6 billion by 2035 and delivering a triple bonus of higher wages, lower prices and greater choice for British consumers. We could slash taxes on British exports, such as whisky, whether from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or even England—

I will make some progress. Whisky and cars, from across our nation, face import duties of 150% and 125%, respectively, in the Indian market. A trade deal could give British businesses a first-mover advantage over American and European firms in India, positioning our exporters—as said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier)—at the front of the queue to meet the expanding demand for world-class goods and services from India’s tens of millions of middle-class consumers.

Increasing trade-led growth could benefit Scotland by up to £220 million, Wales by more than £120 million and Northern Ireland by £70 million, while delivering tens of millions pounds-worth of growth across every English county, including counties in the west midlands, where a deal could bring a boost of up to £300 million, providing fresh opportunities for firms that do business with India, such as Aceleron Energy in Worcestershire and Fortress Security in Wolverhampton. Opening the door to further trade-led growth for firms in the south-east could see a boost to their collective economy of about £430 million in the long run. Such companies include manufacturer He-Man Dual Controls based in Hampshire—not in my constituency—and Larchfield Aerospace in Kent.

The trade deal has the potential to benefit SMEs, which account for 80% of British trade in goods to India in 2020. Smaller firms are disproportionately hindered by costly trade barriers and, as a result, they stand to benefit the most from a deal that cuts red tape and reduces administrative burdens.

Any agreement will be a future-facing deal, expanding the business we do with India in cutting-edge sectors that are shaping the global economy, pushing the boundaries of technological change from fintech to clean tech, automation and AI. As the world’s second-largest services exporter, Britain is perfectly placed to support Indian growth in those fields, taking our partnership in the industries to the next level.

None of that will alter this Government’s commitment to uphold British values. I said that I would address this point: we condemn any instances of discrimination of religion or belief, regardless of the country or faith involved. Where we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Government of a particular country, including the Government of India, at official and ministerial levels. That continues to be so in the case referred to by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), which the Foreign Office has raised more than 70 times—

I am afraid I do not have time today, but I am sure we can continue the discussion.

This deal will help to define the future for the global Britain that we are building. It will lay the foundation of our trade relationship with one of our strongest and most important global partners. It will place the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s biggest one side-by-side as we champion a world view that puts people first. It will shape how a modern, ambitious and truly global Britain is using the irresistible power of free trade to tear down barriers to growth.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Agriculture: Sustainable Intensification and Metrics

I remind hon. Members that there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sustainable intensification and metrics in agriculture.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. In bringing forward this debate, I declare my interest as an arable famer and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture.

The world needs to increase food production and availability by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with the food needs of a rapidly increasing and expanding global population in the face of climate change and the increasing pressures of the world’s finite natural resources. With its good soils, temperate climate, professional farming sector and world-leading research and development, Britain is uniquely placed not only to optimise its capacity for sustainable and efficient food production, but also to become a global hub for agriscience excellence and innovation, exporting technological solutions, attracting inward investment, and fostering international research co-operation. Outside the EU, Britain has a unique opportunity to lead in those fields and to put significant vigour and evidence at the heart of UK policy development.

I also declare an interest as a landowner and as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. My constituency of Strangford is able to yield three potato crops a year due to sustainable, innovative farming and premium land. Does the hon. Member not agree that a UK-wide survey of soil quality and climate may enable farmers to slightly change their methods and allow us all to reap the benefits of additional produce with minimal environmental impact?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Soils play a hugely important part in the wider metrics of agriculture. Knowing the Minister very well, I know that she shares a passion for soils, so she might touch on that in her response.

Early action by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make gene editing regulations more science-based and proportionate, which realigns our approach with that of other countries such as Australia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and the United States, is a positive and welcome first step. I am pleased to see that coming forward in a statutory instrument at the beginning of March, I believe—perhaps the Minister can clarify that.

Members of the APPG for science and technology in agriculture led calls for the Government to take action on that issue during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, and we are grateful to the Minister for listening and responding to those calls. Access to precision breeding tools will bring new opportunities to keep pace with demands for increased agricultural productivity, improved and more efficient resource use, more durable pest and disease resistance, better nutrition, and improved resilience against climate change.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech and I am in complete agreement with his points. I was brought up on a dairy farm, and in those days the Milk Marketing Board secured a price floor for milk. Today, I would suggest to the hon. Member that we have a problem in that the price farmers can secure could undercut everything to which the Member refers. Does he agree that one of the opportunities of Brexit is that it gives Government the power to examine the issue and consider support mechanisms, so that people do not leave farming altogether?

I completely agree with the hon. Member that we have to ensure that we protect our farming communities and that people do not leave farming. It is so important that we have expertise both on the land and within the sector to make sure that opportunities are there for future generations. The Government must make that clear in their future agricultural policy, and I will touch on that shortly, because I have concerns about its direction, which is, I think, what the hon. Member was referring to.

When we talk about gene editing, we must ensure that future farm policies embrace and support the use of all the new, innovative technologies. Like many others in the sector, I am concerned about the direction of travel of the Government’s future vision for agriculture. As I just said, I am concerned about where future policy is going. We cannot afford to be complacent with something as fundamental as food security. The global food supply and demand balance remains as precarious today as 11 years ago, when Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report urged Governments to pursue a policy of sustainable intensification in agriculture to meet future food needs in the context of population growth, climate change and the finite national resources of land, water and fossil fuels.

Last year’s “Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030” report by the OECD and the Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, with 8.5 billion mouths to feed by 2030, a business-as-usual approach will fall short of achieving sustainable development goal 2 on zero hunger by 2030. The report also highlighted the critical role of public and private sector research and development investment in enhancing productivity on existing farmland to alleviate pressures and bring more land into production. We have a responsibility to optimise our capacity for sustainable, efficient food production and to not offshore our food system’s impacts to regions of the world that are more vulnerable to the production-limiting effects of climate change.

Concerns are mounting that, without clear vision and a definition of what is meant by “sustainable agriculture”, the UK is at risk of sleepwalking into its own food crisis. Writing in Food Policy, Robert Paarlberg of the Harvard Kennedy School recently highlighted the transatlantic policy tensions between the EU’s farm to fork strategy, referring to the plans to expand organic farming, reduce synthetic chemical use and reject modern biotechnology and the United States’ approach, which is to emphasise agricultural innovations based on the latest science, articulated through its global coalition on sustainable productivity growth.

Last September, I wrote to the Prime Minister, urging the UK Government to sign up to that coalition, which was established by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to demonstrate that farmers can adapt to and adopt environmentally friendly and climate-smart farming practices without sacrificing productivity. I did not receive a reply from No. 10, so I ask the Minister: will the UK Government join other countries, such as Australia, Canada and Brazil, in signing up to the global coalition for sustainable productivity growth? Will the Minister explain where the UK sits in terms of the agricultural policy tension described by Robert Paarlberg?

Last year, the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture held a meeting on the subject “Whatever happened to sustainable intensification?” It included contributions from leading UK experts in the fields of crop science, agricultural economics, rural policy and conservation science. The meeting highlighted serious concerns that current farm policy development lacks scientific rigour, and that policy focus on sustainable intensification has diminished.

We were reminded that DEFRA responded to Professor Beddington’s foresight report by initiating the sustainable intensification research platform, or SIP. That is a £4.5 million, four-year, multi-partner research programme to investigate the challenges of securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental protection. However, while the concept of sustainable intensification and the scientific rationale that underpins it remains as relevant and urgent as ever, the outputs, recommendations and advice generated through the DEFRA SIP appear to have been quietly shelved and forgotten.

The weight of scientific evidence points to a need to optimise production on existing farmland. Professor Andrew Balmford, a conservation scientist at Cambridge University, told the all-party group that the most effective way to keep pace with increasing human demands for food while protecting habitats and preventing further biodiversity loss is through high-tech, high-yielding production on land that is already farmed, mirrored by explicit policy investments and regulations to make sure that other land is set aside for nature.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent speech that he is giving; I particularly agree with the point about land sparing and sharing. His vison for the future, and the idea of what we need to do around food security, is incredibly important. Does he agree that if there is one Department that should probably be based outside London, alongside the agricultural colleges and the experts in this country, it is DEFRA? On top of that, does he agree that DEFRA must provide clarity for farmers to be able to look at how they can incorporate productivity with sustainability and environmentalism to ensure that our level of farming and food security can be sustained?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I thought he was about to call for DEFRA to come to his constituency; I would argue that York would make a fantastic location too. The principle of DEFRA moving out of London and into the wider farming community, where our food production is based, makes perfect sense. I completely agree with him.

It turns out that sustainable intensification is also the most efficient way to meet climate change objectives, through the increased opportunities for carbon sequestration and storage. The Government must, as a matter of urgency, revisit the policy focus on sustainable intensification as the most effective way—perhaps the only way—to feed an increasingly hungry warming planet. If the term “sustainable intensification” has fallen out of fashion, as DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Gideon Henderson, suggested to us recently, then by all means call it something else. However, above all else we must be guided by the science—the science that DEFRA itself has funded.

I am genuinely concerned about a shift away from science and evidence-based policy making in the Department, towards an over-reliance on voluntary and campaigning non-governmental organisations to support the Government’s vision for sustainable agriculture. Nowhere is that more apparent than in DEFRA’s approach to the issue of sustainable metrics in agriculture. While Gideon Henderson suggested to us in January that the Government are a long way from having a mature policy on metrics, correspondence that I have received on this issue from DEFRA Ministers suggests that one particular model, the Sustainable Food Trust global farm metric, is firmly embedded in the Government’s thinking. Not only is the Sustainable Food Trust an activist pro-organic NGO that openly campaigns against technologies that the Government are seeking to enable, such as gene editing, but the model itself is designed to reward less productivity and more extensive farming systems by favouring a whole farm or area-based approach to measuring resource use and the ultimate environmental impact.

Again, Professor Balmford told the all-party group that making meaningful sustainability comparisons between different farming systems would require an assessment of resource use and external impacts per unit of food produced, rather than a per-area-farmed basis. Professor Paul Wilson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nottingham, who leads the Government’s farm business survey programme, agreed that an area-based approach for sustainability indicators such as carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions is flawed in principle, and that there needs to be a clear reference point in terms of the amount of food produced to have any relevance.

Professor Wilson also led the metrics component of DEFRA’s SIP, which again does not appear to be feeding into the Government’s thinking. This included a huge amount of work on sustainability metrics and indicators, including the prototype development of a farmer-friendly data and benchmarking dashboard allowing producers to access and compare their performance against those indicators and against a weighted averaging of their peers.

The all-party group has long advocated for the need to embed data science and sustainability metrics at the heart of a policy agenda focused on securing the optimum balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact. We believe that access to metrics capable of objectively and consistently monitoring that balance will be essential to set targets and measure progress for sustainable, efficient production, to develop coherent research and development programmes, to understand and advise on best practice throughout the industry, and to provide meaningful information to consumers about the sustainability impact of each unit of food produced, whether that is a litre of milk or a bag of potatoes.

In addition to my earlier questions about whether the UK will sign up to the global coalition for sustainable productivity growth and where the UK sits in terms of the agricultural policy tension described by Robert Paarlberg, I will conclude with two final questions to the Minister. To be fair to her, this is not quite her brief, but I know that she has great knowledge in this field, so I look forward to her response.

First, in view of the concerns I have raised, will the Minister agree to submit the global farm metric model to a process of independent scientific scrutiny and validation with leading academic experts in the field? Secondly, will she commit to facilitating a joint roundtable with our all-party group to take forward discussions on the development of robust and meaningful metrics for sustainable agriculture?

I am aware that the hon. Member is reaching his concluding remarks. I would be less than honest if I did not say that farmers in my constituency have raised an eyebrow at the concept of wilding, which is very fashionable at the moment. I wonder whether he has anything to say about that. Should that perhaps also be included in any roundtable discussion?

I thank the hon. Member for bringing that up. I could say a lot about wilding, if I am brutally honest; that could fill another debate on its own. I return to the point that I made early in the debate: current farmland needs to be used to produce food in the most effective and productive way possible, but also in the most environmentally friendly way, and unfarmed land needs to be used to protect and preserve the environment. I am fundamentally against the principle of wilding productive farmland because I think it would lead to a food security crisis. We have to very aware of that. There has to be a balance struck between producing food in an environmentally friendly way to feed a growing global population and enhancing our environment. We can achieve that, but a balance has to be struck between the two. From what we are hearing from DEFRA, I worry that that balance is out of kilter at the moment.

My hon. Friend makes the point about his opposition to rewilding and about the need for productivity. Does that mean that he is leaning further towards the idea of regenerative agriculture—producing food in a more sustainable manner?

Absolutely. We have to produce more food, but we have to do so in an environmentally friendly way. We have to protect the environment at the same time—there is a balance to be struck. The way we do that has to be led by technology and science; we must go forwards, not backwards. That is the fundamental point that I am trying to get across today. We have to use and be led by science and technology; Government advice and policy have to be led by the science. I hope that the Minister will take that fundamental point away.

I think that I got my request for a meeting with the Minister in before the intervention on wilding. I am more than happy for wilding to be on the table, and I look forward to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and all the hon. Members involved in this morning’s debate, joining that meeting. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing this subject forward. The Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), would have been responding to the debate, but she is at the National Farmers Union conference, so I am standing in. I am very happy to do so, because the debate touches on so much of what I deal with as the Environment Minister. I will make some points about that as I go along.

We have a great deal of synergy here; I do not really think that we are arguing, as such, about a lot of the points that have been raised. I want to be clear from the outset that everything that I do in DEFRA is science-led—I can absolutely assure hon. Members of that. I sometimes ask officials, “Have we got to do another bit of data gathering and assessment?” The answer is yes, we do, because our work has to be science-focused; we have to have evidence for what we do and how we make policy.

I also want to assure hon. Members that we are not going backwards. Looking after our soil in the way that we hope farmers will in the future is not going backwards; it is going forwards. We will go forwards—yes, with lots of the old ethos and ideas, but also with a great deal of innovation and technology behind us. I want to make that clear at the start.

Food production really matters in this country, and it is at the heart of our levelling-up agenda. The “United Kingdom Food Security Report” set out that we produce 60% of our food supply need, and 74% of foods we can produce for all or part of the year. We are almost 100% self-sufficient in certain things, including poultry, eggs and—weirdly—swedes. We have a very good track record. As we work to deliver our rightly ambitious and world-leading commitments to halt the decline of nature—something to which we are legally committed—and reach net zero, it is critical that we are mindful of food security. However, we need to look at our land and land use strategically; I think that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer pointed that out himself.

As the Environment Minister, I have a solid background in farming and food production, but also in the environment. For me, the two things have never been separated, and indeed they should never be separated. That means that supporting and enabling sustainable intensification, land sharing and land use change are all in the mix. We have to have sustainable food production, and I think my hon. Friend agrees. Of course, producing sustainable, healthy food is inextricably linked to having a healthy environment.

All of DEFRA’s policy programmes in the agricultural transition plan are informed and supported by evidence generated by and developed in partnership with our world-leading UK research institutes, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware. Alongside our stakeholders—including, as he said, environmental non-governmental organisations, whose expertise, knowledge and passion we value—we also engage with academia, the science community and industry in developing programmes to ensure that our policies are supported by robust evidence; of course, that includes the chief scientific adviser.

DEFRA works in partnership with research councils, other Departments and agencies via the well-established UK Research and Innovation-led global food security programme, and sets the direction of the £90 million UKRI-led transforming food production challenge fund. More recently, we launched the farming innovation pathways competition under the wider farming innovation programme, through which we are funding projects including a fruit-scouting robot, the use of black fly as a feed alternative, and new approaches to tackling pests and pathogens on vegetables without the use of pesticides. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, moving away from reliance on chemical pesticides. A huge amount of data gathering, research and work is going into that.

Evidence plays a critical role in the development, monitoring and evaluation of our policy programmes. We rely on evaluation and monitoring to work out whether the tests, trials and pilots that we are constantly running are doing the right thing, and whether we should include those things in our policies. Evidence has been vital in underpinning the content of our sustainable farming incentive standards and the development of the net zero strategy in future farming and so forth.

Our thinking has evolved with the evidence, and it is clear that we need to pursue a sensitive approach to this matter. As such, we will invest in new research on land use and agricultural systems as a major strand of the £75 million allocated to research and development in DEFRA sectors announced in the net zero strategy. That investment will build on previous research—including the £4.5 million investment in the sustainable intensification research platform that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer referred to—and continue to address the pressures identified in Sir John Beddington’s 2011 foresight report. That really important document has informed so much of what we are doing now; people might think it has been forgotten, but it most certainly has not.

DEFRA directly funds innovative research on sustainable intensification and transformational approaches in agrifood protection via our core agrifood research programmes. Of course, intensification may not be appropriate for all settings, particularly in areas that are nature sensitive or of biodiversity value; in such areas, regenerative and agroecological approaches might be more suitable. As recognised by Henry Dimbleby in his independent review, we need to combine sustainable intensification and regenerative approaches to agriculture to meet the objectives of our 25-year environment plan while maintaining the secure and healthy food supplies that we need.

Although we have not touched on it in this debate, we must not forget water. We need a supply of water that is not only resilient and sustainable—agriculture needs that, of course—but clean and of good quality. All of this also impacts on agricultural management practices—what farmers do on the ground to produce the food we need. It is all related. As well as long-term food security, many of our schemes are looking at what I call the vital building blocks: healthy soil, water and a biodiverse ecosystem. If we do not get those right, we cannot produce any food at all. My hon. Friend knows my feelings about soil and the testing that will go with those soil standards.

I am running out of time, so let me mention briefly that we are doing a lot of data gathering. The natural capital and ecosystem assessment will inform an awful lot of what we do. We are also working closely with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

My hon. Friend asked about the US global initiative, which we are looking at. We have started a dialogue with Washington to identify the best way the UK can bring knowledge to the roundtable that he mentioned. I am sure that the Farming Minister would be happy to meet him—as would I, if that would be helpful. I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet, but we need to get that clear and we need to go forward working together.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.

Legal Aid: North-West

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of legal aid in the north-west.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue.

“If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’”

Those are wise words, I am sure we all agree, from the ancient philosopher Sophocles, but universal access to justice is far from a reality here in the UK. Justice is being rationed. On criminal legal aid, as the Law Society states:

“Cuts and the lack of a significant rise in criminal legal aid rates in 25 years has meant the work is financially unviable and solicitors are being forced from legal aid work. Since April 2012, the number of criminal legal aid firms has dropped by 585 (over a third).”

And in the north-west, it shows. There are over 47,000 cases outstanding in the north-west’s courts. Since 2020, there have been over 5,000 ineffective trials in the north-west, and staggeringly, in some areas of the north-west there are not enough duty solicitors to cover days of the week, let alone the number of people who need representation. The Southport criminal duty solicitor scheme has only two solicitors, and Knowsley has only six.

On civil legal aid, the situation is no less acute. The Law Society has mapped “legal deserts”, areas that show the devastating gaps forming around the country in the provision of housing, community care, education, welfare benefits, and immigration and asylum legal aid. In the north-west, 49% of residents live in local authorities with no housing legal aid providers, compared with just 3% in London, and 61% in local authorities with no community care legal aid providers, compared with 25% in London.

I applaud the work of the Greater Manchester Law Centre, which grew out of protests against cuts to legal aid. I also place on record my huge thanks to the Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre, known locally as the fourth emergency service. Both organisations try to fill the gaps in the legal aid advice drought that Salford faces, and their staff and volunteers are a lifeline for so many people. However, the reality is that legal representation based largely on charity and volunteerism should not need to exist. Access to justice, just like access to the NHS, should be a universal service available to all.

So what happened? On criminal legal aid, much of the crisis is the result of cuts to legal aid across a range of serious offences, including murder and rape, and a failure to pay for the extra hours a week undertaken by criminal barristers to meet the demands of trials in courts. Since the Conservatives have been in power, criminal advocates have suffered a 40% real-terms drop in earnings from prosecuting and defending.

On civil legal aid, from 2010 the austerity agenda forced through a wide range of cuts. Legal representation on many issues was deemed a luxury by the Government. Those changes were enshrined in legislation through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. LASPO ended the right to legal representation in huge areas of the law: divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefits and education. People in desperate need of representation were essentially priced out of the legal system. As a result, many people no longer even try to launch legal challenges. The number of civil legal aid matters initiated reduced by 84% between 2009-10 and 2016-17, and it remained relatively stable at the lower rate from 2017 to 2020. Alongside a fall in the number of cases, there was around a 35% cut in the budget for civil legal aid, from £1.2 billion in 2010-11 to £786 million in 2019-20. Where legal aid remains, it is very tightly means-tested, making it out of reach for many.

There are three major causes of the legal aid crisis that the Government need to address today. The first is the impact of austerity and the resulting cost of providing a legal service. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group shows that in 2010, £1.153 billion was spent on criminal legal aid and £925 million on civil legal aid, with a grand total of £2.156 billion spent on legal aid in England and Wales. If we fast forward 11 years to 2020-21, the most recent figures show £563 million spent on criminal legal aid and £724 million on civil, with a total of £1.319 billion. That is nearly a 40% cut in legal aid funding.

One of the most impactful areas has been funding provided for early legal advice. The Legal Aid Practitioners Group says that this has dramatically changed the case mix that providers can run and the stage in the development of a legal problem at which a client can seek advice and a provider can intervene. This is bad not only because that cut in early advice funding undermines the ability of the legal aid providers to continue to sustain a legal aid business model, but because those people facing housing problems and other early stage assistance are unable to seek help in the early stages, thus worsening their situation to the point of possession proceedings, for example, which could have been avoided.

The Government’s early legal advice pilot scheme is to be welcomed, but honestly, we know that early legal advice works. We do not need a pilot scheme—we need proper funding for early advice right across the UK.

It must also be noted that the current legal aid tendering process locks providers out of the system until a legal aid agency opens a formal tender round. Providers cannot apply for contracts on an ad hoc basis, and with large-scale tender processes four to five years apart, the number of providers is generally always in decline.

Secondly, legal aid rates have suffered decades of cuts and freezes, and, quite simply, legal aid lawyers are voting with their feet. The number of civil legal aid providers has reduced dramatically—from 3,555 in 2012-13 to 2,342 in 2020—while the number of criminal legal aid providers has reduced from 1,733 to 1,174. Those figures are likely to have fallen further following the pandemic.

Locally, the Greater Manchester Law Centre is aware of two large legal aid housing providers in Greater Manchester that are moving out of legal aid work, particularly housing advice, in the next six months. In the north-west, we have been made aware of a large not-for-profit in north Lancashire that has just given notice on its legal aid housing and debt contracts, meaning there will be limited provision in northern Lancashire, including Preston, Morecambe and Lancaster.

In addition, recruitment is a massive issue. Low pay and long hours mean that legal aid lawyers are getting older and are not being replaced. It has taken initiatives such as the Justice First Fellowship programme funded by the Legal Education Foundation—a charity, not the Government—to support the next generation of legal aid lawyers.

Finally, legal aid just does not cover the issues faced by many people. Employment law is no longer covered, except regarding discrimination issues, so unless someone is a member of a trade union, which often offers free legal advice to its members, they are not likely to qualify for legal representation. Indeed, no win, no fee lawyers are not really interested in lower level, low income work, and ACAS, great as it is, does not provide legal advice.

The same is true in many cases for debt, immigration and domestic violence. On welfare rights, only a tiny percentage of cases fulfil the criteria for legal aid, despite clients being on low incomes. The staggering fact, however—as I know from the work of the Salford Unemployed Resource Centre, which provides advocacy support at tribunals—is that the majority of benefit sanctions cases that are brought to a tribunal get overturned. That gives rise to the question: how many people across the UK have suffered through these inhumane sanctions and benefits decisions because they cannot access an advocate? As we know, many have tragically taken their own life.

It is clear that urgent action is required. The Law Society calls on the Government immediately to raise civil legal aid rates in line with inflation since 2020 to secure firms’ financial liability. Will the Minister confirm that today? In addition, the Government should review civil legal aid, carry out a cost benefit analysis of the value of civil aid, and broaden its scope significantly. They must also reform how it is administered in order to make the system more efficient and less burdensome on practitioners. What action will the Minister take on those issues today? Furthermore, to begin to reverse the decline of criminal legal aid, the Government must start by implementing the recommendations of the independent review of criminal legal aid, especially its recommendation to increase by 15% the criminal legal aid rates, as soon as possible. Will the Minister commit to that today? If not, why not?

Ultimately, the Government must accept that the right to legal aid must be enshrined as a fundamental universal right. Following the early legal advice pilot, the Government might offer small exemptions to LASPO, but that will not be good enough. We need to see significant reforms. We need to see the right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance on a broad range of issues that affect their liberty and quality of life, without facing costs that they cannot afford. Justice is the cornerstone of democracy, and a society that rations justice in the way that the UK is currently doing is not a democracy but, frankly, on a dangerous path towards barbarism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for securing this important debate.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on our justice system, which was already on its knees from 12 years of Tory austerity cuts that have seen the Ministry of Justice lose a quarter of its budget over the past 10 years. The cuts have run deep, with the reductions in legal aid and the increase in court and tribunal fees tipping the scales of justice against those who cannot afford to pay and who are invariably the most in need of such services.

I thank the law centres in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency—the fantastic Merseyside Law Centre and Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre—which have raised concerns about the desperate situation that they face as a result of the drastic impact of the LASPO cuts on legal aid, waiting times and availability of advice, which have left our legal system barely functioning.

On top of the pressures caused by the pandemic, the cost of living crisis caused by the Government will increase the number of constituents facing problems with rent arrears, welfare benefits, employment disputes, crime and domestic violence. We are standing on a cliff edge, and the poorest and most vulnerable are being left without legal protections and support.

In Liverpool, we are acutely aware of how stacked the scales of justice are against ordinary people. Faced with the unimaginable devastation of losing their loved ones in traumatic circumstances, the Hillsborough families were forced to face the full might of the state as the establishment closed ranks to save its own neck. The families and survivors were given no legal aid funding. In their darkest hours, when they should have been free to grieve for their loved ones, they were instead forced to fundraise to fight for justice. Against the odds, they uncovered the truth. Sadly, however, justice has still not been served.

Thanks to the fantastic work of the families and survivors, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the Hillsborough law is being brought forward. It will provide properly funded legal support for bereaved families at inquest and ensure parity of legal funding for families and public bodies at inquest. It will also introduce a charter for families and a duty of candour on public servants during inquiries, and it will provide a public advocate to act for families during inquests.

Although we urgently need funding to tackle the courts backlog and ensure that justice is a right available to all, not just the privileged few, we also need laws that force public officials and private companies to come clean about wrongdoings and failures. Time and again we have raised the need for these changes, but despite sympathetic platitudes from the Government, we have yet to see action. How much longer can we wait? Will the Minister take the opportunity—here and now—to commit this Government to bring forward these changes in legislation at the very next possible opportunity?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this important and timely debate.

Access to justice is a fundamental and basic right. Justice cannot be said to be just if it is afforded only to those who can afford it. Therefore, without legal aid, there is no access to justice, and the rule of law breaks down for millions of people.

That is what we have seen over the past decade because, alongside the Government’s harsh and sustained attack on the welfare system, deep cuts to legal aid have denied people with little in the way of financial means their legal rights. Across Merseyside, there has been a 41% reduction in solicitors firms providing legal aid since 2012-13, and a 20% fall in solicitors providing criminal legal aid within the same period. Yet these figures only paint part of the picture. Every missed opportunity for proper legal advice may be the difference between someone with a disability receiving or being refused the support they are actually legally entitled to; it may be the difference between someone subject to domestic abuse, domestic violence, being able to take action to stop their physical or financial abuse.

In my Liverpool, Walton constituency, I am proud to host regular surgeries at my office in Anfield, in partnership with the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, which provides free legal advice to members of the public on special educational needs cases. The sessions allow parents to obtain a proper education, health and care needs assessment for their child, or receive assistance to appeal to tribunal on matters including the choice of school.

I want to share with the Chamber an email I recently received from a constituent who attended one of the clinics. She said:

“When we received the ‘no decision’ letter last year, it was unbelievable how stressful and emotional the situation made us feel for our child and her future secondary school journey. But on attending the advice session you provided, it gave us the hope and positivity we needed to go ahead with the appeal. All we want is for our child to attend school, be happy and thrive, without worry, and for her to now receive an assessment. We hope this will be the case.”

I want to put on record my thanks to Deborah Tyfield and the wider team at the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, as well as the nearby law centres in Vauxhall and Merseyside that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) mentioned. Those organisations provide vital advice to my constituents and people across Liverpool, and yet they tell me how difficult it is to survive in the current legal aid environment.

The absence of adequate legal aid funding has driven out many providers, leaving remaining services overwhelmed. Therefore, the Government must act on the independent review of criminal legal aid. They must act on its recommendation to increase criminal aid rates by 15% to ensure that advice providers can continue to serve local communities. Civil legal aid rates, which have not risen for over 20 years and have faced real-terms cuts, must also rise. A Government who were serious about upholding justice and the rule of law would act to ensure that communities such as mine get the access to justice that they deserve.

I want to finish on the Hillsborough law. My city of Liverpool knows all about injustice. More than three decades since the Hillsborough disaster, no one has been held to account for the unlawful killing of 97 people. The long fight of the bereaved families and survivors is all the evidence we need to know that the legal system is broken. It is weighted in favour of the powerful and against working people and communities. That is why I support the campaign for a Hillsborough law, which would include a series of measures to rebalance the scales of justice: first, a statutory duty on public officials, including police officers; secondly, publicly funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests and an end to limitless legal spending by public bodies, to put those affected by public disaster on a level playing field; thirdly, a public advocate to act for families of the deceased after major incidents, a proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has brought before this House but that has shamefully been repeatedly blocked by this Government; and fourthly, a charter for families bereaved through public disaster that is legally binding on all public bodies. Those are the changes we need if we are to build a justice system worthy of the name.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on having secured this important debate. My learned friends will know better than anyone that there is no greater honour for a practitioner of law than to stand up for the rights of the poor and innocent, but today, there is simply no incentive for lawyers or their firms to engage in legal aid work. Over the past 30 years, fees for civil legal aid work have more than halved in real terms, while fees for criminal aid have similarly fallen far behind inflation.

The consequences have been devastating. Countless firms providing legal aid have folded, while the number of criminal aid providers has fallen by a fifth in Merseyside in just the past 10 years. Fewer and fewer trained solicitors are deciding to enter this important field, meaning that the average age of a criminal duty solicitor working in the north-west today is now 51. Based on current trends, in just a few years’ time there will be no legal aid provision whatsoever in some parts of our region. No corner of the UK has been worse affected by the plummeting numbers of legal aid practitioners than the north-west, and it sounds like my constituency of Birkenhead is being hit hardest of all.

In our region alone there are 46,000 cases waiting to be heard by the courts, leaving thousands of victims, witnesses and perpetrators of crime still waiting for justice to be done. It is the poorest who are bearing the brunt: as a representative of some of the most deprived communities in the UK, I am inundated every single day by people seeking support on complex housing, debt and welfare cases. My constituents have the right to expect quality legal advice, but the sad reality is that providers of such advice have become few and far between. Indeed, the legal aid directory now lists just seven organisations with contracts to offer welfare benefit services in the north-west—one for every million people. In the midst of the spiralling cost of living crisis, with so many millions of people dependent on a cruel and often opaque benefits system just to get by, that is an astonishing failure on the part of this Government.

What are the Government doing to address this unfolding catastrophe? Ministers talk about the need to be tough on crime, but that means nothing to the countless victims in my constituency who are still waiting for their day in court. Instead of taking the action that is so badly needed to tackle the historic backlog in our courts, Ministers are spending their time attempting to erect even more barriers to justice with the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, while their colleagues push ahead with the undemocratic attempt to criminalise peaceful protest; and all the while, more cases pile up on the docket.

The scale of the crisis facing our legal system is unprecedented, but it is not too late for the Government to start putting things right. After 12 long years of allowing the pleas of the legal profession to fall on deaf ears, Ministers must now urgently implement the 15% increase in criminal legal aid fees recommended by the Bellamy review and outline a long-term plan to create a more sustainable sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I am also grateful to everybody who has spoken today, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) who secured this important debate. There is much consensus in the room on the importance of legal aid, as well as an appreciation of how it should work and why it is not working now.

It is fair to say that the legal aid system is broken. As Members of Parliament, we all meet constituents who are in desperate need of both civil and criminal legal aid. From housing, welfare and immigration issues to more serious criminal cases, access to legal aid is essential to protect people’s rights and livelihood. We are suffering from the serial underfunding of the entire legal aid sector, paired with a strict means test and a huge backlog in the criminal courts. We know that justice delayed is justice denied.

Thousands across the north-west are impacted by this. We have already heard a number of examples of how it impacts ordinary people’s lives in the north-west. I recently learned about a couple who were referred to the Vauxhall law centre in Liverpool. Self-employed and unable to work during the pandemic, the couple depleted their savings and eventually fell into rent arrears. When the eviction ban was lifted, their landlord issued them with an eviction notice but, by the time the claim was issued at court, the couple had returned to work, and therefore failed the means test for legal aid. Their savings had gone; their earnings barely covered their bills. Thankfully, the law centre was able to provide support and ensure that the possession order was set aside.

Law centres such as that one are providing an emergency service up and down the country, preventing people from facing destitution, homelessness and even deportation. I want to put on record my thanks to Greater Manchester Law Centre and others for that vital work. It is not right for the third sector to pick up the pieces of the Government’s mess. These issues are not new and have been festering for a decade of Tory austerity. Since 1986, there have been progressive reductions in the scope of civil and criminal legal aid, along with strict financial requirements for eligibility, culminating in LASPO in 2012.

As a result, legal aid is now accessible only to less than a quarter of the population, and only for criminal defence and some very limited areas of civil law. Civil legal aid is usually available only in the direst circumstances where specific criteria are met, such as domestic violence, discrimination or risk of homelessness. Even when those conditions are met, there is no guarantee that a person will be granted legal aid. More than a third of women who have experienced domestic violence are unable to satisfy the Government’s strict requirements for providing proof, and are therefore denied access to legal aid. That is worsened by the fact that there is no remuneration to firms for assisting clients in gathering necessary evidence. As a result, victims must face their abusers in the family court without legal advice or representation.

Legal aid providers have also suffered considerably. Legal aid fees have not increased in more than 20 years, making it unsustainable for many firms to take on legal aid work, creating a shortage of legal aid lawyers, whose capacity to take on these cases is severely limited. The number of criminal legal aid litigators has fallen by almost 30% since 2012-13 in the north-west. The case for civil legal aid provision is even more dire, with what the Law Society describes as “advice deserts” appearing throughout the country. That means that even those who are eligible for legal aid face regional barriers to accessing it. The impacts of that can be felt across the justice system.

To put that in perspective, there are more than 47,000 outstanding criminal cases in the north-west courts. Furthermore, since 2020 there have been more than 5,000 ineffective trials in our region. Those are trials that do not go ahead as planned because of the action or inaction of the defence, the prosecution or the court, including unavailable counsel. That means that there are thousands of victims, witnesses and defendants in the north-west left without justice.

In December 2021, Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, chair of the independent review of criminal legal aid, published his report and recommendations on criminal legal aid in England and Wales. The Law Society has called on the Government to act on the review’s recommendations as quickly as possible, but they have so far failed to do so. The recent decision by the Criminal Bar Association to ballot in direct response to the Government’s failure to respond to the Bellamy review should be a cause for great concern. By the end of March, the Government will have had the Bellamy review in their lap for some four months. Victims, defendants, witnesses and criminal lawyers cannot wait any longer, because the backlog will remain stubbornly high the longer the Government take to act and risk the complete collapse of the criminal justice system.

Criminal advocates have suffered a drop of 40% in real-terms earnings for prosecuting and defending criminal cases over the past decade. That has been a result of cuts to legal aid rates across a range of offences, including murder and rape. There has also been a failure to pay anything for the dozens of extra hours a week undertaken by criminal barristers to meet the demands of the massive backlog of trials that the courts themselves are buckling under. The Government’s repeated stubbornness on fees has caused publicly minded criminal barristers and solicitors to walk from their chosen careers, meaning that their victims are being denied justice. We cannot reduce a record backlog of nearly 50,000 criminal trials if there are not enough lawyers to prosecute and defend.

Ultimately, cuts to criminal and civil legal aid while the Tories have been in power have contributed to a crisis in our criminal justice system and risk creating a two-tier legal system. Under those circumstances, people in the north-west are at a substantial disadvantage against the parties with access to legal advice and representation, undermining the core principle of equality before the law. Without adequate legal aid, victims are denied justice and criminals left to walk our streets.

The erosion of access to legal aid represents a threat to the rule of law. It does not matter what legal rights an individual has on paper if they do not have the means to vindicate them. The Government pay lip service to levelling up the country. When will they level up access to justice?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Fovargue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for calling this very important debate. I think we all agree on the importance of this subject. I pay tribute to colleagues for their words and to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who I enjoyed meeting as part of the engagement on the criminal legal aid review. In particular, I also wish to put on record my thanks to all the practitioners and everyone working in the courts in the north-west throughout the criminal justice system who helped us keep justice going during the pandemic. They were very challenging circumstances for all of them and particularly in the early months for those who were there face to face and in person, at a time when there was a great fear about the consequences of doing so.

To be clear, I believe that legal aid and legal advice play an incredibly important role in upholding justice and the rule of law, which are both vital tenets of our constitution. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles spoke about the importance of legal aid in the context of democracy. Access to justice is a fundamental right, and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system.

We usually spend around £1.7 billion annually on legal aid, which provides crucial support for the most vulnerable in society, ensuring that they can effectively access justice when they need to. While that amount was lower in 2020-21 due to the impact of the pandemic—after all, the number of cases being heard collapsed for several months—we put in place measures to support practitioners and are working to reduce the court backlog. We expect to have returned to an annual spend of more than £1.7 billion on legal aid by the end of the current financial year.

Legal aid services are delivered in England and Wales through solicitor firms; not-for-profit organisations, some of which we have heard about today, operating in Liverpool in particular; telephone operators; and barristers, most of whom are contracted by the Legal Aid Agency to do legal work. The LAA makes provision for legal aid services throughout England and Wales to ensure that individuals can access advice where they need it. It regularly monitors the provision of legal aid services in England and Wales. Where issues arise, it takes the necessary action to ensure that service provision reflects local need—for example, by merging duty schemes or conducting localised supplementary tender activity to ensure that appropriate provision is in place.

Before I turn to the wider actions we are taking on civil and criminal legal aid, I want to answer specific points raised in the debate. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Manchester, Gorton, for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) all referred to the courts’ backlog. Of course, that is incredibly important. I am the Minister responsible for court recovery. I understand the great anxiety out there. Cases have been taking a long time. We faced an extraordinary impact on the ability of courts to hear cases, particularly where there are juries in the criminal courts because of social distancing, but we are now recovering and are seeing a reduction in the backlog.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside spoke about funding for the backlog. We announced £477 million of additional funding in the spending review settlement primarily for Crown court recovery, which I think shows our commitment to addressing the backlog.

In light of the extra funding, what support is the Minister giving to make sure that throughout the system police officers, who prepare some of the files, are also recruited?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that. It gives me a chance to express how pleased I am with the recruitment of police officers. We are on target to achieve 20,000 extra police officers. In my county of Suffolk, we are going beyond the numbers that we expected, so it is very positive in terms of police recruitment.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. I appreciate that there are aspects of that Bill to do with judicial review and so on that are not directly backlog issues—they are more principles of law, particularly public law—but there are important measures in the Bill that will help us to deal with the backlog, not least the measures that will see more cases moving from the Crown court to the magistrates court. That will have a significant impact, freeing up potentially 2,000 days in the Crown court where we can hear cases—those serious indictable offences of murder and rape that we have heard about—so it is a very important measure included in that Bill.

I have the greatest respect for colleagues, particularly in Merseyside, on the issue of Hillsborough. I understand: this was a trauma for the city. The hon. Members for Birkenhead and for Liverpool, Riverside and others have consistently argued for more action on that, and I understand where they are coming from. They speak with great passion; this was a terrible event. The IPA was mentioned, which is a very good point. We recognise the fundamental importance of placing the bereaved at the heart of any investigation that follows a large-scale disaster and ensuring that bereaved people are supported and given a voice throughout the processes that follow.

Following a 2018 consultation on the establishment of an independent public advocate function, we are carefully considering a way forward. We note the Public Advocate Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), which is an important contribution to the debate, along with Bishop James Jones’s report on the Hillsborough families’ experiences, to which we will respond soon. In terms of timing—the hon. Member for Birkenhead knows this is primarily a Home Office responsibility—the Government remain committed to responding to Bishop Jones’s report. We have worked closely across Government and with key stakeholders to carefully consider Bishop Jones’s points of learning, and we will publish a response in due course. I am sorry that I cannot say more than that at this moment.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton spoke about a moving constituency case. He hit the nail on the head—this is about our constituents, their experience of the legal system and their access to it. To turn specifically to civil legal aid sustainability and the steps we are taking, I emphasise that we are in the middle of lots of engagement on criminal legal aid, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He has been a part of that. We are also continuing to engage with representative bodies and providers of civil legal aid to increase our understanding of the system. We are considering civil legal aid broadly, looking at a range of factors, from the current remuneration rates to the pipeline into a career in legal aid, as well as the ability of providers to offer legal aid services into the future.

I want to mention some specific points on housing, because I recognise that is a particularly important point in the constituencies represented in this afternoon’s debate. As part of our work considering civil legal aid sustainability, we have recently consulted on proposed changes to the housing possession court duty scheme—the HPCDS—to ensure the sustainability of the service and ensure that it meets the needs of the people using it. The HPCDS offers vital emergency, face-to-face advice and advocacy to anyone who is at risk of losing their home. The consultation proposals would amount to a more than £7 million investment in this vital service.

The key changes would remodel the delivery of the HPCDS to become a new housing loss prevention service, incorporating both the existing service of advice and representation at court and the early legal advice before court; expand the scope of legal aid so that providers of the scheme can offer early legal advice on social law matters to individuals facing possession proceedings; contract for individual courts rather than larger geographical areas; and allow providers to claim for the court duty fee in addition to a legal help fee for follow-on work, which is important for remuneration. Finally, the changes would introduce a set attendance fee for all schemes that is double the existing nil session payment. That is also important for renumeration. Officials at the Ministry of Justice are currently reviewing the responses to the HPCDS consultation and the Government intend to publish their response shortly.

The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles made a point about our early legal advice pilot. I am glad that she welcomed it, although with some caveats, it is fair to say. We are due to commence such a pilot later this year and I am bringing forward the statutory instrument on Thursday. The pilot is being funded with £5 million from Her Majesty’s Treasury’s shared outcomes fund. One of the areas selected for the pilot is Manchester, I am pleased to say. Participants will receive comprehensive legally aided advice covering housing, debt, and welfare benefits.

The early legal advice pilot signifies an important step in delivering a key commitment made in the Ministry of Justice’s legal support action plan, which was published in 2019. The pilot is intended to test whether early legal advice leads to early problem resolution and saves money in the long run. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, “We all know that already”, but, unfortunately, when we go to the Treasury, we need definitive evidence. The pilot will hopefully help in that regard. We intend to use the findings of the pilot to inform future policies relating to legal aid services for social welfare law matters.

To be eligible for the pilot scheme, individuals will live, or be habitually resident, in the areas of Manchester City Council or Middlesbrough Council. Manchester and Middlesbrough were identified as areas with potentially high levels of legal need, and it was felt that the people living within these areas would be most likely to benefit from early legal advice. Our decision was further supported by the Government’s levelling-up agenda, which informed our preference for the pilot to take place in the north-west and north-east. The early legal advice pilot scheme is part of our wider ambition to test what works and for whom, so we can ensure that legal aid is available for those who genuinely need it.

We are reaching the end of a review of the legal aid means test and will publish a consultation shortly. The review has been assessing the effectiveness with which the means test protects access to justice. This includes reviewing the income and capital thresholds, the passporting provisions for people receiving certain benefits, and the level of contributions applicants are required to pay towards their legal costs. We have already made changes ahead of publication of the review. In December 2020, we removed the £100,000 cap on the amount of any secured debt that may be disregarded when assessing the value of an interest in a property.

The rule change will benefit a significant number of applicants for civil legal aid, including survivors of domestic abuse, with many more eligible for legal representation in family proceedings. Last month we removed the means test for legal representation at inquests, available through the exceptional case funding scheme, and for legal help at an inquest for which representation is granted in order to ease the burden on bereaved families at such a difficult time.

As hon. Members know, we have just completed a wide-ranging review of the long-term sustainability of the criminal legal aid market. In light of early findings, in September 2020 we injected up to £51 million per annum into the criminal legal aid system through payments for reviewing unused material, sending cases to the Crown Court and increasing funding for cracked trials and paper-heavy cases.

In December 2020 we launched the second phase, an independent review led by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, to consider the sustainability of the criminal legal aid system in its entirety. The criminal legal aid independent review—CLAIR—was published on 15 December 2021. Sir Christopher has undertaken a whole-system review of criminal legal aid provision in England and Wales and has considered a vast amount of evidence from a wide range of sources. We recognise the importance of remuneration in delivering the long-term sustainability of the market and are considering Sir Christopher’s recommendations very carefully. Given the detail covered by Sir Christopher, it is right that it receives full and thorough consideration. We aim to publish the Government’s response no later than the end of March 2022, alongside a consultation on our related policy proposals.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton made the point that many people want that timescale to be accelerated. I understand that. In all the engagement I have held with the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association, individual practitioners and other groups that represent practitioners, I have expressed my understanding about where they are coming from in wanting urgent action. We all see that. However, I do not think anyone disputes it is a wide-ranging review covering the criminal justice system in the round, and we cannot rush that. More importantly, we, as a Government, have to abide by public law principles and to be careful that any consultation does not risk being unlawful by not giving everyone adequate time to contribute. I would stress that point particularly.

On the specifics of legal aid provision in the north-west, let me give some numbers. In the north-west, including Merseyside, there are 231 criminal legal aid provider offices, with 166 provider firms, and 337 civil legal aid provider offices, with 213 provider firms. The LLA remains confident there is enough provision of services in the north-west for criminal justice, but, as I said earlier, where issues arise the LLA takes the necessary action to ensure appropriate legal aid provision is in place. For example, the LLA launched a tender in December 2021 in 10 areas, three of which are in the north-west—Cheshire, Trafford and Wigan—for new housing possession court duty contract holders. The outcome of the tender is yet to be finalised and the results will be published in due course.

While legal aid is central to access to justice, it is part of a much broader picture. Since launching our legal support action plan in 2019, we have been exploring several changes across the full breadth of legal support, focusing on what works for the people who need it. The Government are passionate about the importance of giving people access to the right support to enable them to resolve legal problems earlier.

One such example is the £3.1 million litigants in person grant, which was launched in April 2020. The grant is funding 11 projects across England and Wales that deliver advice on a national, regional and local scale to litigants in person at different stages of their problem, within several areas of civil and family law. Through the legal support for litigants in person grant, local services in Greater Manchester and north Lancashire are delivering an integrated regional advice and information network that services the needs of litigants in person from two community hubs, one in each county. These hubs support people across a broad range of areas including employment, family, immigration, housing, debt and welfare benefits. Linked to that is the importance of law centres, which were mentioned by several hon. Members. They will know that during the pandemic we made available £140,000 for the Greater Manchester Law Centre and £120,000 for the Merseyside Law Centre, as well as £60,000 in 2020 and £36,000 in 2021 for the Vauxhall Community Law and Information Centre, and £80,000 for the Equality and Employment Law Centre in Liverpool

Additionally, we are working to improve signposting services to enable early access to legal support. Last year, in collaboration with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we launched an online guided pathway pilot to help people living in rented accommodation.

The Minister has put a lot of information on the record. I know that the law centres will be following the debate closely. Will he go back to the civil legal aid fees that are paid? They have been frozen for 20 years and eroded by inflation. When do the Government intend to take a decision on them? Will there be a full review of the civil legal aid market and its future financial sustainability?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I said earlier—it is important to stress—we are conducting a means test review. That is key to civil legal aid. We will announce our response soon. I cannot say more than that, but it underlines that this in an important moment for legal aid. We are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support they need to access the justice system, whether civil or criminal.

Looking ahead to the future, 2022 will be a big year for legal aid, with the Government publishing our response to the criminal legal aid independent review and bringing forward new proposals on the means test review, as I mentioned in response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton. Alongside this, we will continue to focus on the sustainability of the civil legal aid system in all parts of the country, including the north-west.

I thank everyone for taking part in today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) outlined the terrible situation that the Hillsborough families found themselves in. She said they should have been free to grieve, but instead they were forced to fundraise for justice. That about sums up the sentiment of today’s debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) agreed that access to justice is a fundamental and basic right. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said the scale of the crisis is unprecedented. Indeed, that was a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) illustrated; he stated very clearly to the Minister that failure to act now risks collapse of the criminal justice system.

I welcome the comments made by the Minister, who genuinely sounds supportive of the legal aid system. He said he was committed to ensuring that people can get access to justice in a timely manner. However, that just is not happening—and it will only get significantly worse. The Minister mentioned the increase in annual spend and the spending review amount. I would say, in response to that, the amounts that were referred to in the spending review will not be sufficient to stem the crisis in civil and criminal legal aid. He mentioned the review of civil legal aid; that is welcome and I would like to see the details of it, and whether his Department is looking at the broad areas that legal aid should cover. That is certainly a huge issue in my constituency.

When the Minister was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton about increasing the rate of legal aid for the civil legal aid sector, he did not respond, and referred simply to the means test, which is a completely separate issue. That is not the rate of civil legal aid; that is what needs to be addressed as quickly as possible so that legal aid providers can exist, function and continue to provide legal aid to their communities. The Minister also mentioned the early legal advice pilot scheme. As I said earlier, I welcome it but it will not benefit my constituents in Salford—we are not covered by Manchester City Council. Perhaps he will clarify to me separately whether people in Salford, if they go to Greater Manchester Law Centre, for example, would be able to qualify for that scheme.

We know that early legal advice leads to early resolution. I understand that the Minister’s hands are tied by the Treasury and he is under pressure to create business cases to justify polices that his Department want to put forward, but, frankly, if we are in a situation where we have to make a business case for access to justice then we are on very shaky ground as a democracy. That is a point that the Minister made right at the start; he said that legal aid was a cornerstone of democracy. He agrees with me on that, and I welcome his comments. If he does believe that, he has to understand that no access to justice means no justice at all.

The Minister needs to address the points that I set out about increasing the amounts that are provided for criminal legal aid—the uplift to 15% as a minimum would be transformative. He needs significantly to increase the funding for civil legal aid and a wider review of civil legal aid is long overdue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of legal aid in the north-west.

Sitting suspended.

Cost of Living in Wales

Before we begin, I remind Members of the House of Commons Commission’s guidance to observe social distancing and wear masks. I will call Jessica Morden to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up because that is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of living in Wales.

I am most grateful to be granted a debate on this most pressing issue for constituents in Newport East and across Wales, who face an unprecedented cost of living crisis, which has perhaps more accurately been described as a “can’t pay the bills crisis”. Across Wales, our constituents face galloping prices fuelled by soaring energy bills, which affect the cost of everything. This is leading to deepening inequality, as price rises hit the poorest households hardest—inequality already entrenched by years of Government austerity. With things only set to get worse in April as constituents feel the impact of the energy price cap rise, the Government’s manifesto-busting national insurance hike and a forecast rise in inflation, the Government’s lack of understanding and empathy about the stark choice households are having to make, and the absence of any meaningful response to address it, is unacceptable. This is a serious situation that demands a serious response.

I am calling the debate today to give voice to the real stories that constituents have shared with me about their day-to-day existence and how their income is not enough to cover rising bills. The following are quotes that constituents have shared with me, because the cost of living crisis is real:

“I reduce the amount of meals I have a week so the food is spread further for my children, I do not use the heating if I am home alone as I cannot afford it and we cannot use it at night as it is just too expensive.”

“I’ve found that buying cheaper, less nutritional food is the only way I can make food last longer for my children. The cost of gas and electric means I struggle to wash and dry their clothes.”

“Almost all of my tax credits, if not more, a week go on my gas and electric. Very often I have to go without food to be able to have the heating on.”

“The cost of food is jumping quite dramatically, my weekly shop was about £40 a week now it’s more like £60 to £80, unfortunately, my wages and benefits haven’t gone up to compensate. … I’m also disabled—I cannot get cold and I use hot water to manage pain!”

“I struggle to feed my children and to keep the house warm, I’m too embarrassed to use a food bank, especially as I work within the community. I have even gone without food so my daughters could eat.”

“I’ve had to cut down to one ‘meal’ a day to be able to heat our home at night. It’s so cold, too cold for my baby in his thickest sleeping bag, so I have no choice.”

“I am a community nurse and my pay rise is totally negligible. I am paying a lot of money for petrol and the increase in this is not reflected in the expenses I receive ... Food is costing me a lot more and my heating oil has gone up ... I try not to use the heating as much. I am a middle income family and I am not entitled to any financial support.”

“We’ve had to cut everything back to just the basics of daily living. We are a family of three. We have five jobs between us. We have no social life or time for relaxing … having to work to make ends meet. It’s not living, it’s surviving.”

These are just a small selection of the responses I received after asking constituents to tell me how life is for them. The overall results of the survey we carried out in Newport East was stark: 95% of those who responded said that they had seen an increase in the cost of living; 76% had cut back or made difficult choices to try and save money; and more than 15% offered that they had used food banks. This feedback chimes with the view of the Bevan Foundation, one of Wales’s leading think tanks, which called the current cost of living crisis the most challenging in living memory. Its most recent research paper describes how more than a third of Welsh households have had to cut back on heating, electricity or water, and more than a quarter have had to cut back on food.

We are seeing a perfect storm, with many factors coming together and hitting people at the same time. Since December, the UK’s rate of inflation has soared to its highest level for nearly 30 years, and it is expected to peak at 7.25% in April, higher than the growth in wages. A British Chamber of Commerce survey found that 58% of businesses are now planning to raise prices. As the prices we all pay at the till go up, household budgets will be further squeezed.

Food prices are already up. The most recent BBC food price index showed that the cost of some individual food items had skyrocketed by nearly 50% during the last year. Earlier this month, the chairman of Tesco warned that the

“worst is still to come,”

with a potential 5% increase in food prices over the coming months.

The cost of many food items has already shot up faster than the rate of inflation. According to research by Jack Monroe, the price of the cheapest loaf of bread is up by 92%, a can of baked beans by 45% and the cheapest bag of pasta by 141%. All this will be felt most keenly by those on the lowest incomes.

The Child Poverty Action Group suggests that the cost of a food shop will soon rise by £26 each month, with a disproportionate impact on families with children in poverty. The Government’s own food security report found that the poorest 20% of households spent a higher proportion of their income on food, and are therefore more impacted by the changes in food prices. These households have already seen their incomes drop since 2017.

Private rents are now £62 per month higher on average than in March 2020, with Wales experiencing some of the highest rent rises after London and Northern Ireland. The costs of mortgage repayments are also up. UK Finance estimates this will add around £26 a month on to a typical tracker customer mortgage repayment.

Rail fares will rise by 3.8% in March, the biggest increase in nine years. For the two thirds of commuters who drive to work, petrol prices have risen to an all-time high this year, with the cost of filling a tank up by an estimated £10. With oil prices likely to rise further, prices at the forecourts will only be ramped up more.

Then there are the soaring household gas and energy prices. Households in Wales and across the UK will see their energy bills rise by nearly £2,000 a year from April, when the energy price cap lifts, an increase of 54%, or an average of £693.

Does my hon. Friend agree that things would be a lot worse in Wales if it were not for the Welsh Labour Government’s £330 million package to tackle the cost of living crisis, targeted at helping the most vulnerable through the winter support scheme and the discretionary assistance fund?

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent intervention. In fact, we saw a further announcement and more detail last week.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Before the vote, I was talking about the soaring household gas and electricity prices and about how households in Wales and the UK would see their energy bills rise to nearly £2,000 a year from April, when the energy price cap lifts. I agree with the excellent intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) about the interventions of the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff and how they have used the levers at their disposal to do all they can to ease the cost of living crisis for Welsh people. I will talk more about that later.

The proportion of households spending at least 10% of their budget on fuel bills will be trebling from 9% to 27% and, on top of that, taxpayers will be asked to foot an estimated £120 a household to shoulder the extra costs of the energy companies that have gone under in the last year. Based on that increase alone, National Energy Action Cymru estimates that 280,000 households in Wales could be in fuel poverty come April. That is a further 100,000 households since October 2021, and all that at a time when pay is not keeping pace with rising prices. When we factor in inflation, average weekly pay packets across Britain fell in December by 1.2% and TUC research suggests that real wages are set to fall by £50 a month this year, after taking into account the cost of living, with incomes after tax forecast to drop by 2%. That represents the biggest fall since records began in the 1990s. Although the national living wage may be going up, the proliferation of insecure, casual jobs and cuts to in-work benefits mean that a higher minimum wage does not mean higher living standards.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although many people think of benefits as going to people who are not in work, there are in fact a lot of benefits that go to people who are in work? The fact is that there have been swingeing cuts to tax credits since 2010, and even though there was some adjustment to the taper last year, that alone is not enough. With rampant inflation, there now needs to be a real effort to make sure that those tax credits are actually worth something, to make it worthwhile to be in work. At the moment, people face horrendous poverty because of that accumulation of 12 years of cuts.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right: the levels of in-work poverty are really terrifying, and it is those on the lowest incomes who are feeling the squeeze most acutely. As she said, that is made worse by the Government’s £20 cut to universal credit in the autumn, which impacted 8,630 households in my constituency. Research from Wales TUC and the Bevan Foundation suggests that Wales was particularly hard hit by the cuts to universal credit and working tax credit, especially when it comes to the in-work poverty that she mentions.

Of the 280,000 individuals in receipt of universal credit in Wales, around 104,000, or 37%, are in work—the highest proportion of any nation or region in the UK. In April, universal credit will increase by 3.1%, just as inflation is predicted to peak at 7.25%. As the Child Poverty Action Group has highlighted, that means that the real value of universal credit for families with children will fall by around £570 a year on average.

Citizens Advice tells us that, heading into the winter, one in 10 families were already facing financial crisis. With food prices going up, utility bills going up and the extra burden of the national insurance payments, families are having to decide between heating and eating.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right. The experiences of her constituents that she relays were borne out in the comments from my constituents that I read earlier on. The average fall of £570 will affect 3,355 families and 6,272 children in Newport East alone. Meanwhile, families across the UK hit by the benefit cap will experience an even greater fall.

Increases in other benefits are totally insufficient in the face of the inflation juggernaut. Carers allowance has increased by only £2 a week, statutory sick pay by £3 a week and the severe disability premium by £2.10 a month. Local housing allowance rates were also frozen again until 2023, meaning that help for housing costs through universal credit and housing benefit have not kept pace with inflation.

Pensioners are also hit hard. Comparing state pension increases to inflation projections, there is a real-terms cut of £355 for a couple on the basic state pension and £222 for an individual. That is not to mention the hundreds of thousands whose pensions have been underpaid because of admin errors and the 1 million pensioner households still missing out on pension credit.

I apologise for missing the first part of the hon. Lady’s speech—I was keen to vote. Does she agree that we need a measure of inflation that reflects the costs that people—including pensioners and families with children—actually face? In fact, 3,153 children in my constituency will be hit by the change to universal credit.

I very much understand the point that the hon. Member makes about inflation, which runs through this whole debate.

On top of all that, the Government have decided to go ahead with the national insurance rise in April, with the average worker’s contribution set to be hiked from £274 to £500 a year. National insurance contributions will be charged at 13.25% on earnings up to £50,000, but just 3.25% on income above that threshold. Low and middle-income earners will be affected yet again—a tax on ordinary working people and on jobs. The Government have had an opportunity to do something about the cost of living crisis, but the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been distracted and slow to act. What have we had so far from the Chancellor?

The accounts from her constituents that the hon. Lady read out earlier were very moving, and I take that to heart. Does she not think it is time, with the cost of living crisis, that the Welsh Labour Government did more to tackle the huge council tax bills in Wales? Welsh councils are consistently and disproportionately some of the most expensive in the UK. That comes up time and again with my residents. Should she not be putting pressure on her colleagues in the Senedd?

We have some of the lower council tax rates, compared with the UK as a whole. The support packages from the Welsh Labour Government are more generous than those of the UK Government. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely, because I had just asked what we have had so far from the Chancellor. The answer is a £150 council tax rebate for a limited number of households, which is already less generous than the council tax reduction scheme in Wales, where on average people will pay £17 less on their council tax bill. An average band D council tax bill in England is £167 more than in Wales.

The second measure the Government have come up with is the buy now, pay later scheme of a £200 loan to help with bills, which the public are expected to pay back in full over five years, even if their wages fall in the meantime or energy bills rise further still, or even if they become a bill payer later and do not receive the initial £200 loan. The TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, has highlighted that, for most families, the Chancellor’s support package equates to just £7 a week, with more than half of that having to be paid back. As she said,

“It’s too little, it’s poorly targeted, and it’s a stop-gap measure instead of fixing the big problems.”

Conservative MPs voted down Labour’s proposal to cap VAT on energy bills, after suggesting that we could do that once we left the EU. The Government, let us not forget, have casually written off £4.3 billion lost to fraudsters, but refuse to tax properly North sea oil and gas profits, despite the fact that leading energy companies such as BP are boasting about being cash machines, as gas prices across global markets reach record highs.

In contrast to the Tory Government, in Wales we have a Labour Government who are prepared to step in and help by using the levers that they have. Last week, the Welsh Labour Government set out a £330 million package of extra help. That is a funded package that is significantly larger than equivalent support provided by the UK Government. It includes matching the UK Government’s £150 council tax rebate and extending the eligibility criteria, so that many more households will benefit. That is funded by the Welsh Government, as the UK Government made no extra money available, even though they said they would.

The Welsh Government have also announced an extra £200 for low-income households, by extending the winter fuel payment this year and next winter, £25 million for local authorities to help struggling households, and an extension of the Wales national discretionary assistance fund. They have also invested in crucial advice services, food banks and community hubs.

My hon. Friend might have been about to come on to this point. Will she also congratulate the Welsh Labour Government on their basic income pilot scheme for care leavers in Wales? That will give care leavers the support they deserve to develop and become independent young adults.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am glad she mentioned that scheme because I am running out of time, and it is another thing we are able to highlight. All those steps are in addition to Wales’s more generous council tax reduction scheme, the warm homes programme, free prescriptions, a free school meals programme and more. Their actions ensure that people who need support get support, but many of the solutions fall in non-devolved areas, which is why it is the responsibility of the UK Government to step up.

The Government should look again at the practical solutions Labour is putting forward. A one-off windfall tax on North sea oil and gas profits could pay for the removal of VAT on energy bills for a year, and an increase and expansion of the warm homes discount. That is a support package that could mean up to £600 for those who need it most. The UK Government should also reconsider their increase to NI and cuts to support.

The Minister should look at the sensible five asks on the cost of living that the Welsh Government put forward last month, none of which has been responded to. They include the social energy tariff to support lower-income families, increasing local housing allowance, increasing the support available through the warm home discount and other winter fuel payment schemes, expanding suppliers’ ability to write off household energy debt and removing the regressive social policy costs imposed on household energy bills by moving those costs to general taxation.

In the longer term, we need a fundamental reform of our energy system. We also need the Government to set out a national strategy for food, including how they intend to ensure access to high quality, sustainable, affordable food for all and meet the United Nations goal to end hunger by 2030. The national Food and Drink Federation has been clear that it wants greater collaboration between the industry and Government on finding a solution. The next Labour Government would support business to bolster the sustainability and affordability of good quality food.

As the Welsh Government said last week:

“Paying bills, heating homes and putting food on the table shouldn’t be so hard.”

They have taken the action they can with the levers they have available to them. If the Conservative party will not take action, the Opposition stand ready to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I apologise for the fact that I was at the vote for a few minutes, as one or two others were. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this debate, and I thank those who have contributed. I am pleased that we are having this debate on a subject that is of great importance to colleagues. I want to make it absolutely clear that I fully accept that there is a cost of living crisis. It is a global crisis with many causes, one of which is the quadrupling of gas prices as a result of factors such as the sudden increase in demand for goods and energy as we come out of the covid crisis, and the inability of some suppliers to match that need. It is a global crisis, and I do not deny for one minute that people are suffering.

It is worth reflecting on the unprecedented support provided to businesses and individuals by the UK Government in Wales during the pandemic: 475,000 Welsh jobs have been protected through the furlough scheme, billions have been provided in Government loans to Welsh firms and an extra £3.8 billion of Barnett-based funding has been provided to the Welsh Government. The hon. Lady suggested that the extra money for the council tax rebate had not been supplied yet. That might be the case, but it will be supplied because it was a Barnettised sum, so I am certain that that money will arrive. That is why the Welsh Government were right to pass that reduction on.

The pandemic has had a significant effect on the global economy, and the Government have intervened to ensure that the UK persists and is strengthened throughout the economic challenges. As a result of actions taken by the Government, more people are on a payroll than before the pandemic began. The UK economy is the fastest growing among the G7 nations, so I hope we can agree that the best way to support people’s living standards is not through handouts but by offering access to good quality jobs, better skills and higher wages.

We are helping people across the UK, including in Wales, to find work and to boost wages and prospects through our plan for jobs. That includes the kickstart scheme, which has seen 122,000 young people begin work across the UK, including 6,000 in Wales. I am pleased to say that the Wales Office has a kickstart worker from Merthyr Tydfil working in our Cardiff office, and I was absolutely delighted to meet her today.

We are increasing the national living wage by 6.6% to £9.50 an hour, which will benefit more than 2 million workers. We want to ensure that people in Wales keep more of what they earn, so we are raising income tax personal allowances and freezing alcohol and fuel duties. Although the price of filling up a tank has gone up, it is still £15 cheaper than it would have been if we had kept the original fuel duty escalator.

We have also, as the hon. Lady knows, reduced the universal credit taper rate from 63% to 55%, and we are increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. Together, that should mean more than a million households—I do not have the exact figure, but it is certainly a significant number of households—keeping an extra £1,000 a year, on average.

We absolutely recognise that this is a worrying time because of significant increases in global energy prices. We understand that people such as the hon. Lady’s constituents are concerned, and we have done what we can to help. We have provided £12 billion of support over this financial year and next to ease the cost of living pressures across the UK. We have targeted help for working families, low income households and the most vulnerable in society, in addition to providing a £9.1 billion package of support to help households with rising energy bills during 2022 and 2023.

The hon. Lady is right about the impact that these prices will have, but we cannot do very much about the fact that global gas prices have quadrupled in the last year alone. This will be an issue for every country across the world. The more dependent a nation is on gas, the more of an impact that will have.

The Minister is quite right, but he missed the comments that I read out from constituents about how hard life will be. He is also quite right that there is a global gas crisis, but we are more exposed to it because of a decade of Tory mismanagement. Gas storage has been cut, so we are reliant on Russia and other countries. We have been slow on insulating homes and we have not been investing in renewables. Does he not accept that?

Funnily enough, I do not accept that. First, gas storage will make no difference whatsoever to the price. It does not matter if we are storing two, 20 or 200 days’ worth of gas, because if the unit price of gas has gone up at some point, we will have to pay that higher price.

I will in a moment. Let me finish my speech—as Opposition Members know, I like to take interventions and then I completely lose my place.

I do not accept that storage was an issue. We made a decision, as a nation, that we were not going to frack for cheap gas, but we are not dependent on Russian gas. Only about 2% of the gas we use comes from Russia, and we could easily do without it. We import mainly from Norway and take liquefied natural gas, as well as using our own. We are not dependent on Russian gas, but other countries in the EU are, and that will have an impact on supplies overall.

As far as renewables are concerned, we have an amazing story to tell. We have vastly increased the amount of renewables we use, mainly from wind. We are now developing offshore wind power, and even looking at floating offshore wind. The hon. Member for Newport East will realise that the transition towards carbon neutrality comes at a cost. We should not hide the fact that low-carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar, generally cost more than carbon-based energy sources, such as gas and coal. I wonder how many minutes I have left.

In France, where the industry around energy is nationalised, there have been nowhere near the price hikes that there have in this country, where we have allowed the Government to allow the companies to get away with blue murder.

I fear the hon. Lady may not be right about that. About 70% of the electricity in France comes from nuclear power plants, which are already built. That is one reason why they have managed to control their costs. I hope we will be building nuclear power stations across the UK, and I would very much like to see one built at Wylfa in Wales; there is pretty much cross-party support for that.

I welcome the fact that we are going further and looking into developing modular reactors. I know the hon. Member for Newport East is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the western gateway, and I may see her later on when I talk to that group about the spherical tokamak for energy production, which could lead to nuclear fusion by 2040.

Does the Minister accept that a failure to regulate our energy market has led to dozens of energy companies going bust and consumers footing the bill for that? Consumers have had to move their bills to new energy companies, and they do not know what those will be like in the future.

A fairer analysis would be that a lot of energy companies had not expected prices to quadruple and had given people fixed prices. In conclusion, this has been an excellent debate and I wish we had more time for it.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No.10(6)).

Kinship Care for Babies

I beg to move,

That this House has considered kinship care for babies.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Ms Fovargue. Parents come in all shapes and sizes, and today I want to touch on the role of kinship care, particularly for babies. Recently, a constituent came to my surgery to talk to me about his then eight-month-old niece. For a couple of months, she had been under the care of her grandmother, who was understandably struggling to cope with the needs of a baby, so my constituent and his wife agreed to become kinship carers.

It was clear to me that my constituents were both fully committed to raising their niece as their own daughter, but it was also apparent that the level of support they received was almost zero. In order to formalise the kinship care arrangement, they each had to take a week of paid holiday to undergo compulsory training and complete all the administrative arrangements with the local authority. Then, to enable them spend vital time with their now almost one-year-old niece to build the secure bond that is so essential to the happy upbringing of any child, my constituent and his wife were only eligible for unpaid leave from their respective businesses, both of which are significant employers in the UK.

My constituent pointed out to me that if they had been formally adopting this gorgeous baby, they would have received similar pay and leave rights to birth parents—as it happens, both their employers would have offered up to 39 weeks of parental leave at close to full pay. My constituent, who also has older children of his own to support, had to choose between earning and parenting. Even if they had been fostering this baby, they would have received an income from the local authority, as well as ongoing support. This situation seems to me to be completely unfair.

It is estimated that 200,000 children in the United Kingdom who cannot live with their birth parents are being brought up by kinship carers—grandparents, older siblings or other wider family members. In England, surveys suggest that 51% of kinship carers are grandparents. Over 40,000 children in kinship care in the UK are aged nought to four. In my work on the Government’s early years healthy development review, we demonstrated the vital importance of the earliest years of a baby’s life. It is in the period from conception to the age of two—known as the 1,001 critical days—that the building blocks for good lifelong physical and emotional health are laid down. The quality of a baby’s attachment to their principal caregivers will literally determine their lifelong potential.

In its 2021 state of the nation survey, the charity Kinship reported that 96% of kinship carers expect their children to live with them permanently. It is clear that the kinship route has a low rate of disruption, offering much greater levels of stability for children than non-kinship foster care. Additionally, there is less risk of placement instability, and the likelihood of emotional and behavioural difficulties is lower, when children are in kinship care than when they are in non-kinship foster care. Where a baby is unable to stay with his or her birth parents—perhaps for reasons of death, mental health issues, incarceration, addictions or other problems—the younger the placement into kinship care, the greater the chance of a secure future for that baby or child.

One of the key concerns raised by every parent and carer, including kinship carers, during the research phase of the early years healthy development review was that parents and carers simply do not know what kind of support they might need. Even if they do know, they struggle to get access to the help that they are looking for. The Government’s vision for the best start for life seeks to address that fundamental challenge by requiring every local authority to publish a Start for Life offer for every new family in England and to provide universal support for every new family through the family hub model.

I was delighted that the Government announced in the spending review a £500 million investment package to help every family across 75 upper tier local authority areas over the next three years. The Start for Life unit is currently looking at how those 75 local authority areas will be selected. The spending review commitment includes £82 million for transformation of existing children’s services into family hubs. It also includes £100 million for infant and perinatal mental health services, £50 million for parenting programmes and another £50 million to develop breastfeeding support services, as well as a £200 million uplift for the supporting families programme. The commitment in the spending review also includes funding for early years workforce pilots to improve the capacity and skills mix of the early years workforce, as well as funding to enable every local authority to publish their Start for Life offer.

During the research phase of the early years healthy development review, we spoke to a number of kinship carers and heard directly from them about the extent of the additional practical and emotional support that they so often require when a baby or child who is going into kinship care has experienced significant trauma and neglect before arriving in their new family. The review also heard that kinship carers, particularly grandparents, often face financial problems as a result of caring for a young baby or a child. Kinship carers often step in to help just because it is the right thing to do for their broader family, but the personal sacrifice for them can mean having to give up work and make considerable changes to how they live. Clearly, for kinship care of babies to be a success, it is critical that there are good quality joined-up services to support the parent and infant relationship, but it is also vital that employers step up to the mark and treat kinship care of babies in the same way as they would childbirth, fostering or even adopting a baby.

Before covid, when I worked on the employment rights Bill as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I pushed the idea of flexible work as standard for every employer. Flexible working can include part time, flexitime, compressed hours, staggered hours and job sharing. Since 2014, all employees have had the legal right to request flexible working, but it is still up to the employer whether to grant the request. Unfortunately, in too many cases we find that employees are afraid to request flexible work because they fear they will be seen as not committed. There is evidence that this can increase job insecurity—another reason why employees will be reluctant to request flexible working.

Flexible work as standard would involve jobs being advertised without a specific proposal for the number of hours or the days of the week to be worked. The employee would apply for the role and offer the working arrangements that suited them, and it would be for the employer to agree, to negotiate or to refuse. As we look to recover post pandemic, this policy can reflect the reality of post-covid preferences and support the needs of families, but it can also support the needs of employers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that allowing and even encouraging people to work flexibly can boost productivity, increase diversity in the workforce and help general wellbeing. That would be a win for employers and a win for the quality of life of employees. I hope the Government will consider the role that that can play in our recovery.

Not only can more flexible work help our nation’s fiscal position and mental health, but it could encourage more families to consider kinship care or fostering. With so many families struggling and so many thousands of children already in care, a more flexible approach to work could enable many more children to benefit from the security and love of a family environment. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) is working on a private Member’s Bill, the Kinship Care (Parental Leave) Bill. I pay tribute to her for her work in the area, and I pay tribute to all across the House who recognise what unsung heroes kinship carers really are.

I will end my remarks with good news. My constituent has recently been back in touch and has told me that, following his story, his employer is considering reviewing its employment practices and will be setting up a working group to look at better supporting kinship care. That is great news, and I hope other employers will listen to his story and be inspired to see how they can better support families and kinship carers right across the UK.

Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for having secured such an important debate and for the work she has done in this important area.

I start by declaring an interest, because I and my wife Allison are kinship carers to our beautiful grandson Lyle. I also sit as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care. This is not an easy debate for me to take part in. I understand the issues with kinship care in this country all too well. Allison and I have lived the uncertainty, the heartache and the sleepless nights. We have spent countless hours trying to navigate an incredibly complicated system, one that is in dire need of reform and that all too often feels devoid of compassion.

Soon after Lyle was born, it became clear that his parents would be unable to care for him. Allison and I went through the family court and eventually managed to secure a special guardianship order. An SGO gives us parental responsibilities and enables us to make important decisions about Lyle’s upbringing. However, a lack of legal aid often means that kinship carers rack up extraordinary costs during the legal process. I have heard stories, both personally and in my capacity as chair of the APPG, of families being dragged into substantial debt, all for trying to do the right thing and be there for a child in need of their support. It is not right. We are leaving families in a legal labyrinth, with precious little in the way of financial or emotional support. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire set out so eloquently, living with a family member is often the best course of action for a child, yet the system does not feel optimised to facilitate kinship care. People are often left at sea, scrambling to meet mounting legal costs, all while trying to hold their family together in extremely difficult circumstances.

At the centre of all this is a child. In my case, it was baby Lyle—he is now three, so he is not so much of a baby. Allison and I are often praised for choosing to look after Lyle, and while those comments are obviously well intentioned, they somewhat miss the reality of the situation many kinship carers find themselves in, because kinship care is not really a choice: it is ultimately about love. When Allison and I looked at Lyle, our baby grandson, we did not have an option. We would be there for him no matter what. When it became clear that we would need to look after Lyle, we did not think twice, and I believe that very few people would.

The fact is, though, that we are fortunate enough to be in a position to meet the legal and financial demands of kinship care, but what about the other 180,000 children in kinship care? What about the kinship carers who are not Members of Parliament? What do they do? There is massive variation in how local authorities address, assess and support potential kinship carers. Such a massive decision, which ultimately boils down to the welfare of a child, should not amount to a postcode lottery.

In my capacity as co-chair of the APPG, I work closely with the charity Family Rights Group and the Kinship Care Alliance. Their agenda for action makes a number of policy recommendations that would instigate transformational change for kinship carers across the country. That includes calling for more to be done to ensure that local authorities explore the option and suitability of kinship care in the event that a child needs to be looked after. That means working with families in a proactive way and letting the wider family take the lead in making a safe plan for the child in question. It also includes recognising the practical and financial consequences of kinship care. That means giving kinship carers the right to a period of paid employment leave as well as ensuring that there is suitable specialist advice available, irrespective of the local authority or postcode. I hope that the Minister, in his response, will recognise these calls and outline what steps the Government will take to work with kinship care and sector leaders to recognise and reform a system that has been neglected for far too long.

I would like to conclude by sharing something that defines the start of my working week. Every Monday morning, I am waved away from Stockport railway station by both Allison and Lyle as I set off for another week in Westminster. Leaving Lyle does not so much tug on my heartstrings as heave on them. However, as the train pulls away, I am always filled with an enormous sense of gratitude and love. I am very lucky to be Lyle’s grandad and kinship carer.

I started my contribution by stating that this is not an easy debate to take part in, and it is not. However, I believe that it is my responsibility as an elected representative and Lyle’s grandad to speak up for kinship carers and to use my own experience to try to effect positive change. Ultimately, that is what politics is about, and I hope that, sooner rather than later, the Government recognise that change is needed and, more importantly, proactively do something about it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and on her incredible campaign and passion for this subject, particularly around the first 1,001 days. Her knowledge of this subject is second to none in this place, so it is a privilege to speak in her debate today.

I will touch on the care market in general and then on kinship care and perhaps babies, as per the title of the debate. Children’s services around the country are under massive pressure and are our biggest budget pressure from a local authority perspective. People talk about social care, and I wish I could spend the money in social care, but the staff do not exist, so the biggest budget pressure is in children’s services. Every year we battle with the overspends.

At the same time, we are also tackling what are very often poor outcomes for children in the care system. Mostly, it is best for children to be with families. There were 57,000 children in the fostering system this time last year, but fostering is also a challenge in the current climate. Covid isolation—not being able to have people come and go from one’s house—has had a huge impact on fostering and the ability to recruit and retain people in the sector. The Competition and Markets Authority’s report on the children’s care sector has said that the market is broken and in need of significant work, which further highlights just how important kinship care is and will increasingly be in the future in what is otherwise a volatile market.

Living with family or friends is often the best outcome for a child. It is also cheaper from a local authority perspective, and it is outside the market pressures that mean that fostering and adoption are so difficult. It is something we could manage much more easily if we wanted to do so, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire touched on, there is inconsistent support, and much less support than for fostering or adoption, even though there are additional challenges that do not exist in those areas, such as the relationship with birth parents. More often than not, we would hope, there is a reason why families cannot look after their child, which can lead to incredibly strained relationships with whoever looks after the child. I do not want to stereotype, but my right hon. Friend touched on some reasons why that might be the case, including imprisonment and substance abuse. Clearly, if granny or grandad takes on a child in such circumstances, with perhaps a mum or dad who is on drugs or an alcoholic, it can be an incredibly difficult relationship for them to manage alongside the work pressures, financial pressures and everything else that comes along with kinship care. Sometimes it just has to go in the “too difficult” box without the support that exists.

Kinship carers also get less access to free childcare, which does not happen in other parts of the care system. Almost uniquely, kinship carers do not access the 15 or 30 hours’ support in the same way as parents who adopt, which is something very simple that we could do. In Nottinghamshire, we are investing in that in our budget this year; we are putting £400,000 into a specific kinship support scheme. When we look at how we are going to balance our budget in children’s services over the coming years, it clearly has to be by having more of that kind of support—keeping kids in their own homes or in the home of a family member or friend through kinship care—and having less expensive residential care, which we know costs a fortune and where the outcomes are typically not good.

The more that we can invest up front in those proactive services to help kinship carers to cope and look after relatives, and to mitigate those financial challenges, the better off we will be in the long term, both financially and in terms of outcomes. We want to look at how we incentivise granny and grandad, or aunt and uncle, to take on that challenge and keep their family member in a loving home environment. We will invest in that in our budget this year, and I am very proud that we are doing that for the first time.

The national review of children’s care services needs to highlight the importance of kinship care and increase the simplicity of, and access to, that support. That should be tackled alongside the well-understood and discussed challenges around fostering and the wider care market, which are really challenging. From a purely financial perspective in local government, early support and intervention to help people access kinship care are much simpler and cheaper than the challenge of providing long-term residential care and, ultimately, of having to look after people throughout most of their adult lives because outcomes are often very poor.

In her example, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire highlighted cost and the lack of comparative rights, when compared to adoption and fostering. I have touched on some of those, and there has to be more that we can do to rebalance things. The private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) sounds like a fantastic start to being able to do that, and I look forward to supporting it in the House.

My right hon. Friend also focused on babies. We know that the earliest years are absolutely vital in terms of emotional connections with family, communication and language, and social skills and the ability to meet and engage with other children. Security is very important when it comes to things like that. Going in and out of different foster homes with different people, or going in and out of the care system in different ways, cannot be a good environment, particularly for babies. All the way through the system, kinship care tends to be a much more secure and long-term placement.

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight all the good work that has happened around the early years workforce and the investment in family hubs that was in the Budget last year—again, in Nottinghamshire we are very much promoting and supporting that model. All these things will boost the life chances of young people. There are many positives, but it is also clear that more could be done on kinship care, the care market and fostering.

I urge the Minister in his closing remarks, and over the coming months and years—particularly through the children’s care review—to help us support services such as the one that we are rolling out in Notts. I think that will be a fantastic start but there is much more that we could do, and I would welcome his thoughts and advice in the future about how we can boost and promote that. We should look at that support and the incentives that exist for kinship carers, to ensure that kindship care is at least comparable with fostering and adoption. It is a better outcome; it is arguably the best outcome for most children to stay with somebody whom they know, who loves them and who wants to look after them. We should support and promote that, because it is better for children, better for families and better for the taxpayer as well. It should be at the top of our list, and I am sure it is at the top of the Minister’s list.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate.

It is very striking, when we look at the care system in England, that the earlier a child goes into care and the longer they stay, the better their outcomes are. We also know that the cost of failure is enormously high. On average, a local authority spends in excess of £55,000 per year to support a looked-after child; for a child with a significant level of care needs, it is on average over £130,000 per year. When the local authority takes that very difficult decision to go to court to safeguard a child’s interests, it seems absolutely critical that planning and seeking the best available option for that child are an early part of the work that is done.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) described, a kinship care placement can be the very best option for any child, for a whole host of reasons. My ask of the Minister is to look at how local authorities can, in that initial decision-making process, when a child first comes into the care system very early in life, think about how to plan effectively. They need to be able to explore kinship care options alongside other things that may need to be considered as part of safeguarding, so that we can ensure children are placed in a safe and familial environment.

The concept of kinship care seems to have grown very much in the last two decades. That has arisen partly from a recognition that box-ticking does not ensure a quality experience for a child. We have seen Governments of all stripes seeking to improve the quality of children’s experience in care. The key thing that emerges from the feedback of children who have been through that system—as well as from relatives, social workers and professionals—is that always having a stable, enduring and loving relationship is the most important thing if a child is to thrive. We can have foster carers who are incredibly well trained and social workers who are immensely highly qualified, but if each of those is dipping in and out of a child’s life, that simply is not going to bring about the quality of outcome that a loving grandparent, aunt, uncle or other family member could provide.

I want to develop that point slightly. There are long-term, systemic issues that might arise for any new kinship carer, although there may just be a nasty shock. Does my hon. Friend agree that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom)—whom I commend for securing this debate—is right to highlight the role that employers can play, in advance of legislation or local authority care, to support family members coping with that shock event, as well as with some of the long-term structural needs that Members have spoken about?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I was going to develop next. We need to look at the practicalities and logistics of making kinship care a much more effective system and to address some of the challenges described by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne).

The support of employers is clearly vital for family members to be able to take on that caring responsibility. Entitlements that exist in law for adoption and parenting are often very difficult to access for a whole host of reasons, which is something that needs to be explored. We need to consider the issue of finance and what it means to a family taking on a child with potentially very expensive needs that have to be met, when they themselves might not be in a position financially to do that directly. We need to recognise that this process saves the local authority potentially significant costs that would be incurred through a foster or residential placement, which is also an incentive to look at the way we provide support. The manifest benefits of kinship care placements, such as the sense of stability a child experiences being with a family member instead of with strangers at that stage in their life, are critical.

Yesterday, I went to the Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to visit an acquaintance of mine, Dr Jideofor Menakaya, who is a leading national expert on care of neonatal children. It was an opportunity to see how Hillingdon Hospital is working with a local authority, through a family hub model, to develop a package of different kinds of support to address the care needs of children with significant medical challenges. Some children going through the care system have suffered disruption and may have health problems arising from what happened to them before birth. It is striking that when children are in an environment with supportive and loving family members around them, it is much more straightforward to address those medical and health challenges. I know that Members present have often spoken about that, and seeing it in action is fantastic. Recognising how the placement of a child with a kinship carer can make a real difference to addressing significant medical needs right at the start of life is a good example of why this care is so important.

To conclude, it is important to recognise that a degree of moral hazard is perceived in the wider public debate. Having been in local authorities and seen kinship care developing as an option that is often explored, I am certainly aware that people ask why we would pay family members to care for a child who is a member of their own family, especially when, historically, many people would do that voluntarily. We need to recognise that, as a country, we have high expectations of the experience that children will have. In order to make sure that the outcomes we want are achieved, we need to make sure we have system that supports children. Alongside adoption, fostering and special guardianship orders, the kinship care model is an excellent way of managing the risks to a child, ensuring a nurturing environment and doing so in a way that is good value and efficient for taxpayers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for securing this debate; I am extremely happy that she has because the subject needs debating.

Ashfield, which I represent, has the most looked-after children in Nottinghamshire. That is not a statistic I am proud of, and it is going to get worse. I work with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) to make sure that we give our young people the very best chances in life.

I have some experience of working with young people who have been through the care system. Before I came to this place, I worked for several homelessness charities in Nottinghamshire. The children who came to us at 16 had been in the care system since they were babies—they had been pushed from pillar to post through it. I saw them first-hand; they would come in at 16 years old and we would try to get them on the right path.

For two years, we would spend tens of thousands of pounds on these young people who, as I say, had been pushed from pillar to post and had a very poor start in life. They had not had that loving relationship. To be honest, the girls who left at 18 or whatever age were pregnant, to get accommodation and to be able to sustain not a reasonable standard of living, but a standard of living. If they had a child, they would be bumped to the top of the housing list and get accommodation and all the benefits. What a waste of a young person’s life that is! They had all their life chances taken away because they had been through the care system without the support and love of their family.

The young men I used to work with in the hostels would leave, and within months a lot of them were in prison because they had not knuckled down and had not been in those stable, loving relationships. They had been through the care system since they were babies and that was all they knew. At 16, they were selling 10-bags on the corner of the street just to make a few quid. They had no idea how to look forward to a career. They had no real role models in their life; they had just been in and out of care.

Given the money spent on the care system, benefits and whatever else in later life, I have always said that it would be cheaper to put some of those children—I know this sounds a bit bonkers—into private education and give them the very best, so they could get the very best outcomes in life. That has to be much better, and it would break the poverty cycle. The young children I worked with were stuck in a poverty cycle; their parents were, and probably their grandparents before them. Hey presto—20-odd years and three generations later, the same young people are going to live the same sort of life as their parents. Unfortunately, I have seen first-hand that they have children, and a few months later those children are in care.

We are really missing a trick in this country. Our best asset is young people. We have a massive pool of young people, and we have let them down over decades. I speak from experience. I want to speak about a lady called Maxine in my constituency. Maxine is a little bit older than me—58, I think. I went to school with Maxine in Ashfield, back in the day. She is approaching 60 and looking forward to retirement but, unfortunately, her daughter is a heroin addict with all sorts of mental health problems.

Her daughter has three children, the youngest being six months old. Maxine had her daughter committed to an institution and took the children in, but the hoops she had to jump through to get the children into her house were incredible. Social services raked her out and poked into her private life from 35 years ago. Yes, she had made some mistakes in her past, but she was nothing more than a loving grandparent who did not want to see her grandchildren go into care. She wanted to provide a loving home.

Eventually, she came to me as an old friend and her Member of Parliament. I rattled a few cages and we got social services involved properly; we got some legal help for her, and I am glad to say she now has her grandchildren. I spoke to her on the phone today about this debate, she said she was very proud because the middle grandson can now read and write. He is seven. That brought a lump to my throat; I could write when I was five. She has taken it upon herself to give that young man a real start in life.

The biggest problem she had, once she got the children, was money. She said to me, “I could not cope with bringing my three grandchildren up properly without proper money.” Again, I had to get involved with the benefits system and sort her child benefit, child tax credit and everything out with the local authorities, who are under a lot of strain. I know they are because, as I said, Ashfield has the most looked-after children in the county.

Maxine is very happy now, but she is a woman, at nearly 60, who has given up her retirement after working all her life, done the decent thing and given up those final years to bring up her grandchildren. I think that is an incredible thing—and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) should be incredibly proud of what he did, because it is amazing.

Children need a loving home; they need to be with their parents or their family. We must remove some of the barriers to that, and the biggest barrier is financial. I hope that the Minister will look at this and see how we can move forward on it, because there are thousands of Maxines around the country who want to help their grandchildren but simply cannot afford to, so those children end up with a life in care instead.

The last time I saw Maxine was late last year; she was taking her grandchildren to Skegness. I think it was probably the first time they had been on a holiday. I went around to give them some ice cream money, because I thought that would be a nice treat for them. They were so happy and excited that they were going to Skegness for a week in a caravan. They would not have got that before, with their mother, because obviously she had her health problems. I thought, “You know what? She’s done really well, Maxine has.”

As politicians, if we cannot make it easier for people like Maxine, up and down the country, to look after those children, then we are failing society. I hope the Minister and the Government will look at this issue very seriously, and realise that young people are our best asset, and that it is actually cheaper, in the long run, to pay family members, such as grandparents, to give those children a loving home.

Thank you very much for chairing this debate, Ms Fovargue. I give massive thanks to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), who I know has worked in this area, particularly on improving the life chances for babies, for a significant time, and has done a massive power of work on it. I am glad that she has brought this debate today and given us the opportunity to speak about it.

I particularly recognise the speech given by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). It was a brave speech to give, but not an easy one. Nothing compares to lived experience in these debates. We are so often talking about things that an awful lot of us do not know enough about, so it is hugely important to have that experience. I thank him very much for bringing that to us.

I wanted to make a few comments, particularly from the Scottish point of view. I do not know very much about how the care system works in England, and may use terms that are Scottish-specific, and are not as relevant in England. I begin by apologising for that.

First, kinship care is absolutely not just about grandparents. It is important to recognise that. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said about the family that she talked about, it was not the grandparents who were caring for the baby. Some of the people who have come to me in my constituency, who have been involved in kinship care, are concerned that everything that relates to it is set up expecting the kinship carers to be grandparents.

Sometimes it is some of those younger kinship carers, who are in work, who are struggling to get the understanding, rather than the people on pensions, for whom there are more systems in place. In one of the families that I spoke to, the adults looking after the children went along to a meeting and everybody was 30 years older than them. They felt, “Well, we’re not going to get very good help, assistance and support from our peers here, because these people don’t seem to be our peers.” There was a gap there; they felt that something was missing.

Throughout Scotland, kinship carers get the same allowance as foster carers. That is important, because we are recognising the importance of kinship care. Unfortunately, my understanding is that kinship carers are not entitled to the child element of universal credit if the child is a looked-after child. Clearly, that needs to change.

There needs to be a recognition that although the children—babies, in the case we are talking about—are looked-after children, in a lot of cases the kinship carers are going through a significant number of difficult legal processes, as well as financial expense. Those carers probably did not plan or arrange their lives for this to happen. I do not see why the child element of universal credit should be excluded just because the children have the title “looked-after children”. We have to remember that for some people involved in kinship care, the children are not classed as looked-after children, so they are in a different category.

In Scotland, people who are kinship carers of babies can get the baby box. Provided that the baby is under six months old, a family involved in a kinship-care relationship can ask their social worker to ensure that the baby box is delivered. They can get that box if the child is under six months old. That is important in levelling the playing field and ensuring that everyone gets the universal entitlement that there is in Scotland, whether or not the baby is with the birth parents or in a kinship-care arrangement.

In Scotland, children are also eligible for the best start grants, for the Scottish child payment and for the twos provision—the provision in nurseries for children under three years old. They are eligible if the young person is a looked-after child, subject to a kinship care order or something related to that.

In Scotland, we have given huge attention to ensuring that looked-after children get the best possible outcomes. The situation brought up by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is an illustration of how much the system has absolutely failed if that is the outcome he has seen for the young people he worked with. In Scotland, we have made a promise to young people that we plan to keep: by 2030, all those young people involved in the care system will not be faced with a care system, but will be raised with love and compassion, which is what every young person should be raised with.

Whether children are raised with either or both of their birth parents, in foster care, in placements or in kinship care, or if they have a looked-after order in place, surely what we should want for all of them is that they should be raised with love and compassion. It is incredibly important to ensure that that is front and centre.

Previously, I was the looked-after children’s champion in my local authority, when I was a councillor. The issue is therefore pretty close to my heart. We need to do a significant amount more. In talking about the benefits of kinship care, there is the comparison with the other elements of the care system. It is important to have those other elements, but it is clear that some of them have comparatively very poor outcomes for children. For example, young people in out-of-authority placements have significant problems, which make it much more difficult for them to achieve their potential in life. Kinship care is one of the elements that results in the best outcomes for young people.

Why should kinship carers get paid? That was mentioned earlier. They should get paid because what has happened is not what they planned for. The system is difficult, which is necessary—I understand why: some sort of legal system needs to be in place around how kinship care works. But navigating that system, when people did not expect to have to navigate it, is expensive and difficult. We owe the people who choose to be kinship carers or foster carers looking after young people who are in corporate care. We owe them, and therefore we need to do better than we are currently doing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate.

I put on the record that, until recently, I was an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on kinship care, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). In the work of that group, I met kinship carers regularly, and I was involved in the parliamentary taskforce on kinship care, which made recommendations on the additional support that should be provided to kinship carers.

I am really grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate, but I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who spoke so powerfully about his experience of caring for his grandson Lyle. He discussed the legal labyrinth that kinship carers face and the postcode lottery of support that applies across the country, but he also spoke movingly about the unconditional nature of love that characterises kinship care, and how lucky he is to be able to look after Lyle. I think we would all agree that Lyle is also very lucky to have such a lovely granddad.

Other right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted the time commitments entailed in kinship care; the disparity in entitlement to paid leave between new parents, whether by birth or adoption, and kinship carers; the disparity of access to free childcare affecting kinship carers; the importance of consistency in care and attachment for children in the care system, and how successions of people dropping in and out of a child’s life can compound the original trauma that led to them being in the care system in the first place; and about the negative consequences and costs to individuals and to society of failing to look after children in the care system properly.

I pay tribute to kinship carers across the country who care for babies and children when relatives or close friends are unable to do so. I think every one of us would find the idea of a cherished niece, nephew, grandchild or close friend being taken into care and looked after by strangers, however loving and capable, almost unbearable, particularly since such circumstances almost always result from a tragedy; addiction, domestic abuse or serious mental or physical ill health may have befallen the child’s birth parents. The 180,000 families across the country who have stepped in to care for the children of a family member or close friend know of the enormous personal sacrifice and considerable extra cost involved.

I also pay tribute to the Family Rights Group, Kinship and the Kinship Care Alliance for the work they do to support kinship carers, and also St Michael’s Fellowship, a very special organisation based in my constituency that provides support to very young parents specifically with the aim of reducing the risk of the need for care proceedings.

We know that the number of babies subject to care proceedings is increasing rapidly, from more than 2,400 in 2012-13 to more than 2,900 in 2019-20. Before we look at the support that is needed for kinship carers, it is important to ask why this increase is happening. The Family Rights Group has highlighted the erosion in early help and support for vulnerable women during pregnancy and immediately after childbirth. More than 1,000 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, and the Government have so far committed to open family hubs in just 75 locations across the country. The National Children’s Bureau estimates that Government funding available to councils for children’s services fell by 24% between 2010-11 and 2019-20, from £9.9 billion to £7.5 billion in real terms, and the impact of the pandemic is likely to have made it even harder for councils to offer early intervention for families. There is a direct link: if support that could be given to vulnerable women who are pregnant is not being provided, the risk that their babies end up being subject to care proceedings will increase.

We know that domestic abuse is a common reason for the removal of children from their parents, yet too often mothers who have experienced domestic abuse feel that they are punished further by a child welfare system that blames them for failing to protect their child while not holding the perpetrator of their abuse to account. The failures of the Government to ensure that early help is always available to the most vulnerable families, wherever they live in the country, has a direct bearing on the increase in the number of babies who are subject to care proceedings.

It is also very concerning that when babies are subject to care proceedings, short-notice hearings are now the norm, with 86.3% of cases involving babies in 2019-20 being heard at short notice, and one in every six cases involving a newborn baby heard on the very same day. Clearly, there are emergencies in which the safety of the baby demands that immediate action is taken, but we must discuss why emergency hearings are becoming the norm rather than the exception, and understand in how many cases involving short-notice hearings there were missed opportunities to identify risks, offer support to parents, or explore kinship care options earlier. Short-notice hearings allow no time for families to prepare, to decide whether and how they can take on the care of a baby, or to ensure they are properly represented and that there are good channels of communication with children’s social services.

Since we know that kinship care delivers better outcomes for children than many other forms of non-parental care, a system that routinely fails to ensure that kinship options for care of a baby are properly explored surely lets down babies and their families. Kinship estimates that for every 1,000 children who are removed from local authorities and put into kinship care, £40 million is saved in placement costs.

The Family Rights Group introduced family group conferences to the UK from Australia in the 1990s. They bring together a child’s family and other adults who are important to the child, to create a plan for the child that addresses concerns. They can result in support being provided to parents, which removes the need for care proceedings, or they can explore care options within the wider family.

Kinship care delivers better outcomes for children and their families and saves the Government millions of pounds each year, but many studies have acknowledged that kinship carers are not well supported. That creates perverse incentives and often unbearable hardships and strain for families who want to do the right thing for the children they love.

Order. Ms Hayes, can you bring your remarks to a close? I am keen to ensure that the Minister has enough time to respond.

I will finish by saying that there is an urgent need for the Government to look comprehensively at the framework of support that is offered to kinship carers in order to enable more families to take on the care and support of a child whom they love.

I will be as brief as I can, Mr Mundell. Time is short, and there are so many comments to respond to. Let me first thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) for securing this important debate and for all of her work on “The Best Start for Life” and her commitment to families, babies and children.

My right hon. Friend rightly said that parents and families come in all shapes and sizes. She is absolutely right, and we should celebrate every single one. She is right to raise the important role of kinship care, particularly in the context of babies. She raised her constituent’s case, and I would like to apologise for the experience that her constituent had. I assure her that I am very much alive to the experiences her constituent had. The Government are committed to ensuring that kinship carers receive the necessary support to give their children the support they need.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentions that there are many reasons why babies and older children can no longer live with their birth parents. In many cases, the reasons are sad or tragic. In others, it is for their own protection. I am full of admiration for kinship carers. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) eloquently and articulately set out the role of kinship carers and the love and affection that he has for baby Lyle—though he is not so much a baby now.

It is not just grandparents who step up to offer loving homes; it is aunts, uncles and siblings. They often make considerable sacrifices, as was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who mentioned his friend and constituent Maxine. Last year I met a support group for kinship carers, and they set out some of the challenges they experienced as kinship carers. They are all heroes and we must do more as a Government to support them. I will come on to what I want to do in this area and how I believe we can better support kinship carers and special guardians. I will not talk in very much detail, as I do not have much time, but I am happy to do so at a later date.

It is clear that there are benefits to children remaining with the wider family wherever it is possible and safe to do so and when it is with someone they know and trust. It is about a sense of belonging and maintaining family links. It is about the people and places they know. It is about permanence and the potential for future reunification. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish rightly pointed out, fundamentally it is about love.

I was fast scribbling down points raised during the debate. My right hon. Friend rightly raised—I was fast scribbling these down while she did so—access to support, access to financial support, carers leave, parental leave, employment rights, support groups and advocacy. I would love to touch on every single one of those issues, but I fear I am not going to be able to do so in the time left available to me.

Access to support, both financial and otherwise, is critical. We rightly give a lot of autonomy to local authorities, but is always about striking a balance. Yes, there is a bit of a postcode lottery, but at the same time it is about balancing local discretion and the autonomy of local authorities to make the right decision, because they are the ones that best know their residents. It is about addressing the inconsistency and patchy provision of support at a local level while at the same time making sure that the support that is available is tailored to the individual needs of the kinship carers. The support that Maxine may have needed could have been very different from the support that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and Allison need, so having local discretion is also very important.

We know that the financial impact of kinship care can be considerable, especially if it is unplanned. There is statutory guidance, and it is clear that local authorities should consider financial help for kinship carers, but as my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) set out, it is patchy and the cost of failure in children’s social care is high in terms of both the outcomes for children and the financial cost to the local authority.

There is so much that I would love to say, but I am very much alive to some of the other pressures that kinship carers can face—whether it is employment rights, housing, benefits, HMRC, universal credit or child benefit. I see my role as a cross-Government one, and although I do not have all the levers to pull, it is part of my role to ensure that other Government Departments are playing their part and ensuring better support for kinship carers.

In the minute or so I have left, I want to say how sympathetic I am to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire on the apparent disparity between the support offered to foster parents and adopters versus kinship careers. It is complex and there are considerable challenges—not least because most kinship care arrangements are informal and familial, which makes it challenging—but I want to explore what more we can do. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and others from across the House to improve the service and support that we are able to offer.

I would like to put on the record my sincere thanks to my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate, and I want to reiterate my commitment, and that of the Department, to champion across Government the needs of kinship carers. I assure my right hon. Friend, and indeed the House, that I am committed to ensuring that those who step up to take a baby or child into their care receive the support that they need to give that baby or child the best possible start in life. As I say, if I had more time, I would love to answer every single point in detail, but I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and others from across the House, as well as with charities in this sphere, to improve the support and provision for families.

Thank you, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is incredibly supportive of the work on early years and who has done so much to support improving services for babies. It has been such a fantastic debate, and we have heard two fabulous stories. We heard about the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), his partner Allison and baby Lyle. They do fantastic work, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member—it is all about love. We also heard about Maxine and the incredible sacrifice that she made to raise three of her grandchildren.

Those are the things that people do, and it is about love. It is about trying to make sure that, in raising the next generation, we give them the capacity to have fulfilled and happy lives. We absolutely know that the best way to do that is in the bosom of the family, so we need to support the family network. I would like to leave this debate with the thought that the best place to do that is in the perinatal period. That is when the building blocks for emotional good health are laid down, so the earlier we do that, the better. It is vital to give kinship carers and other carers maternity and paternity rights in that early period. If we can get employers to recognise that kinship care is the best solution and much better than any other looked-after or adopted solution outside the bosom of the family, we should always start with that. We should always put the baby and child at the centre of everything we do, look at it through their eyes, and give the best solution for them.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her immaculate timing.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered kinship care for babies.

Sitting adjourned.