Wednesday 26 October 2022
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
Global Food Security
[Relevant documents: Second report of the International Development Committee, Food insecurity, HC 504; and the Government response, HC 767.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global food security.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard, and I want to thank all Members for attending the first debate I have ever hosted in this place.
I will start by setting out what we mean when we use the term “global food security”. The UK Government define it as
“stable global production and a well-functioning global trading system that reliably, efficiently and sustainably meets the needs of the UK and the world.”
It is about the security of our food system and our ability to ensure that people do not go hungry, both at home and abroad. But this issue stretches way beyond tackling hunger. Global food security involves education, international aid, tackling poverty, the impact of war and the climate crisis. I want to touch on each of those issues, looking at the worldwide situation first.
The United Nations has a global target to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition by 2030 as part of its sustainable development goals, but the UN has said that we are not on track to achieve that, with the latest estimates showing that between 702 million and 828 million people—10% of the world population—are currently going hungry. The UN estimates that that number could rise to 840 million people by 2030. If we look specifically at famine, the World Food Programme has said that a record 345 million people across 82 countries are facing acute food insecurity, including up to 50 million people in 45 countries who are at risk of famine. Over 970,000 people are already living in famine-like conditions in Somalia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen.
Does the hon. Member agree that farmers and agricultural workers across the world are the backbone of the globe’s access to food, despite smaller rural farmers often having to overcome the barriers of poverty and inequality? Does she agree that providing those smaller, poorer farmers with the support and technology they need is vital to every country’s food security?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and I absolutely agree.
Famine is also projected in parts of Somalia this month. Up to 60 million children worldwide could become acutely malnourished by the end of this year. Evidence from previous famines shows that young children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. During the Somalia famine in 2011, more than half the deaths were among children under five. International aid is an extremely important part of the solution, but short-sighted cuts to the aid budget by the Government have left us isolated on the world stage. No other G7 country cut aid in the middle of the pandemic; Britain sadly stands alone in having turned its back on the world’s poorest. We are already seeing the impact of the cuts to international aid. The Government have paused all non-essential aid spending to ensure the budget does not push above their new target of 0.5% of our national income. That is yet another broken Tory manifesto promise. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee, in calling for more clarification on what the spending pause means in practice.
The climate crisis is one of the leading causes of the rise in global hunger. The World Food Programme estimates that if average global temperatures rise by 2°, an additional 189 million people could be pushed into food insecurity. The Climate Change Committee has warned that global warming could lead to a 20% rise in food prices globally by 2050, hurting the poorest wherever they live on our planet. I hope to hear some reassurances from the Minister that the Government will finally deliver on their promise of providing international climate finance to help developing countries fight the climate crisis and to protect food supply.
Although there are many factors causing global food insecurity, we cannot ignore the role that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has played in increasing food prices around the world. Before Putin’s invasion in February, Russia and Ukraine were responsible for about 29% of the world’s wheat exports. Ukraine grew enough food to feed an estimated 400 million people, despite having a population of only 44 million. Both countries are also significant suppliers of fertilisers.
The World Food Programme has warned that rising food and energy prices due to the war are likely to exacerbate humanitarian crises around the world, particularly in the middle east and Africa, which are some of the most dependent regions on Ukrainian and Russian food imports. More than 80% of the wheat supply of countries such as Egypt and Somalia comes from those two countries. Russia’s blockage of grain exports from Ukraine has fuelled an international humanitarian crisis. The UN-backed Black sea grain initiative, an agreement between Ukraine, Russa and Turkey, is essential in combating rising food prices. Russia must continue to meet its commitments under the agreement in full. I hope the Minister will tell us that international pressure is being applied to make sure that happens. The war in Ukraine affects us all. In the UK, we may not be experiencing problems with our food supply in the same way that many poorer nations are, but we are seeing the impact of the war through higher energy costs and inflation.
I now turn to food insecurity in Britain. Recent research by the Food Foundation shows that 18% of British households experienced food insecurity last month, and that 4 million children live in households that experience food insecurity. Food prices are reported to be rising at their fastest rate in 42 years. That means it is more important than ever to ensure healthy, nutritious food is affordable and accessible by the most vulnerable through policies such as free school meals and by investing in healthier sustainable urban food systems. I will draw on one particular example that is close to my heart; it is something I worked on in my previous role as the Birmingham City Council cabinet member for health.
In Birmingham, we developed an eight-year strategy, in partnership with the Food Foundation, that put sustainable food at the heart of our local economy and used the power of education to transform people’s diets and help them to eat more diverse and nutritious food. I am particularly proud of our focus on nutrition in the work that we did in Birmingham. Food Foundation research shows that only half our city’s population eats five portions of fruit and veg per day, and that fruit and veg make up only 11% of expenditure, while 34% of money is spent on food high in fat, salt and sugar and takeaways. We can end food insecurity only by focusing on nutrition, to ensure that people have healthier diets. I hope the Minister can give us some assurances that nutrition will be a central part of the Government’s approach to this issue.
Let me finish by pressing the Minister to take on board three key points about food security. First, I hope the Government will acknowledge the simple fact that there is no shortage of food in our world today. The problems we face with food insecurity, both at home and abroad, are down to food being made unavailable as a result of economic and political factors shaped by people. We can change this, and we must work together to make food available for all.
Secondly, we hear a lot about the cost of living crisis and its devastating impact on our economy in Britain, but it is a global crisis that is increasing poverty everywhere. People everywhere are getting poorer, and when people get poorer they eat less food—and, crucially, less nutritious food.
Thirdly, I urge the Minister to acknowledge that food insecurity hits women and children the hardest, wherever they live in the world. All the available research points to this being a gendered issue. I hope the Government’s strategy will take that into account.
By working together internationally to reduce poverty, invest in local food production and improve nutrition, we can end global food insecurity. I urge the new Government to put these priorities at the heart of their approach to this issue.
It is not often that I get called immediately after the proposer of the debate, so I am greatly encouraged and a bit taken aback that that should be the case. It is a real pleasure to be here and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) for setting the scene in such an evidential and factual way. I am sure this is the first of many debates that she will have in Westminster Hall, and we look forward to her making many more contributions.
This debate is incredibly important in today’s climate, for every aspect of daily life is being drowned in the cost of living crisis. It has engulfed us all; we read about it in the newspaper, hear about it on the radio and see it on the TV. The negativity that seems to permeate society about rises in the price of energy, fuel and foodstuffs is real, in every sense of the word. I commented last week about the price of some products back home; for example, eggs that were £1 for 10 are now £1.89—an 89% increase. Milk, another staple, is up 79p since before the crisis. Those are just two of the basics of life. The problems that people face are real, and that has been especially true in the last couple of weeks.
In addition, the devastating impact that the Northern Ireland protocol is having on smaller food producers in both the mainland and Northern Ireland often goes ignored. I will develop that theme when I talk about how we in Northern Ireland are impacted by global food security.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I think this might be a new portfolio for him. I know that he has been exceptional in past portfolios, and I look forward to his reply to this debate. I also look forward to the contribution of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), who is a good friend of mine.
According to new research, 40% of the global commercial seed market is owned by two companies, compared with 10 companies 25 years ago. Does the hon. Member share my concern that the lack of competition in the global food market broadly risks leaving the world’s food security at the mercy of a select few?
Yes, wholeheartedly. We are in a complex situation, and that has implications. There are some who control what happens. I know that the Minister and the Government do not always control whether we can have the impact we want to have, but I know that the Minister will address some of these issues when he responds.
Our food industry has shown incredible commitment in manufacturing, farming and fishing throughout the pandemic, including during the panic buying. It has dealt with the impacts of Brexit and the protocol, and our dedication to the Ukrainians after the Russian invasion. Our Government have committed to all those things. I fully support that, and I understand the need to do those things. This is about the safety of the world. We are not just individuals playing our own game; the rest of the world impacts us all, so the title of the debate, “Global food security,” is apt. We are part of a team that work together as best we can.
We therefore have a need for greater resilience in the UK’s entire food system. We are fully aware of the threats that can damage our food systems, emphasising the greater need for systems to be in place for our protection. Recent pioneering research from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland has established us as leaders in addressing global food security through our agritech industry partnering with different industries to develop solutions. Elected representatives often understand the need to partner with universities. Queen’s University Belfast is one of those. Such partnerships are replicated across the whole United Kingdom, and I know that others will emphasise that. For us in Northern Ireland, Queen’s University is a key partner to take this matter forward.
We recognise how important the agrifood sector is in Northern Ireland. Some 80% of what we produce in Northern Ireland is sold overseas, so it is important for us to develop that sector. There are many, many markets that we can develop. Lakeland Dairies, for example, produces a milk powder that it exports all over the world, and it is instrumental in growing that market. Even through the hard times of covid, that market was growing because the agrifood and agritech sectors have taken great steps forward.
We have been somewhat left behind by ignorance—I say that with great respect—as little consideration has been given to how the Northern Ireland protocol has impacted our food security strategies. We want to grow our sector. We need that protection and security. The Food and Drink Federation surveyed 83 members, half of which were deemed large businesses with over 250 employees, and found that food and drink imports into Northern Ireland had decreased by 10% because of the Northern Ireland protocol. I fail to see how we can possibly encourage food security strategies when Northern Ireland has been left behind. I always try to be constructive, but there is an anomaly here that has to be addressed.
I am sure Members are aware that my constituency of Strangford is rich in farming and fishing. I know the Minister has been to Portavogie. His former portfolio as Veterans Minister prompted him to visit Beyond the Battlefield there, so he knows the village and exactly where I am talking about. It is the second largest fishing village in Northern Ireland. Fishing is incredibly important for us. The Northern Ireland agrifood sector is imperative for our food security system. We produce food for five times our population and employ more than 100,000 people in that sector alone, and it is our largest manufacturing industry, so agriculture, the production line and manufacturing are critical.
I have mentioned before the concerns that land could be reforested, when it could be used further to advance the security of our agriculture sector. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is not the case. I appreciate his response to me and the debate. Food poverty has been an issue in the past two years. Local food banks in my area have been inundated with those struggling to obtain food. My office refers at least 20 people each week for assistance; that is more than 1,040 a year. That gives an indication of the impact.
The Trussell Trust food bank was the first initiated in Northern Ireland, in Newtownards in my constituency. That has grown alongside the need and demand. There is also an issue with food access, emphasised by the fact that more than 97,000 children are entitled to free school meals. It is important that the Government have responded to that, and made sure that those children have free school meals, but the fact that so many—the largest number ever—are in receipt of free school meals indicates that things are not the way they should be. I make that point in a constructive fashion. We must ensure that poverty is taken into account when it comes to food security.
The UK imports 47% of our food. I know we cannot grow everything here. It is not possible to grow some of the fruit, vegetables and minerals that we bring in. There have been debates on this issue in the past in Westminster Hall. I mentioned reforesting; it is good to have more trees for the lungs of the world, but it is also important to have land. Good, productive land should be retained for production. Other land could be used for reforesting and becoming the lungs of the world.
We must ensure that our imports are secure for the benefit of local and global food security. Our food security strategy falls within the UK and also externally, which is why the debate title, “Global food security,” is so important. We must protect and encourage the alignment of the four regional Administrations to pave the way for global food security. When we make decisions at Westminster, we must think about how they work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so that we can do the job better together.
I hope that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will do all in its power to preserve and protect our agriculture sector, which has proved instrumental for our food security, especially the contributions for my constituency of Strangford, as I am sure all Members will agree. I encourage the Minister to consider the installation of a private body to oversee the UK as a whole and our joint collaboration to achieve our food security goals. I say this often, but that does not lessen its impact: I believe that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can do great things together. I think the Minister will endorse that. Let us do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It is a rare experience to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), rather than him following us. He said that we cannot grow everything in this country, but anyone listening to “Good Morning Scotland” earlier would have heard about the tea plants that have just been harvested on Orkney.
My hon. Friend says that has also happened in Stirling. That shows that, with a bit of ingenuity —and possibly as the result of a changing climate, which we will come back to—it is surprising what can be harvested when minds are put to it.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) on securing her first debate in Westminster Hall, and on an incredibly powerful speech. I agree with pretty much every word that she said, which makes it quite difficult to find something new to add to the debate. It is slightly unfortunate that it seems to be the case in Westminster Hall these days that very few Government Back Benchers want to come along, contribute and offer their perspectives. That leaves the Minister with a slightly unenviable task. Perhaps we will hear in due course which portfolio he is going to be addressing—I understand that these are slightly uncertain times.
I welcome the appointment of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) as a Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Perhaps it is understandable that he is not right here right now, although it is unfortunate, because I suspect he would have been here to speak from the Back Benches if circumstances allowed. He has been a real champion of global poverty and global justice issues, and that is a rare thing to say about a Conservative Member. Out of all the chaos and everything else that is going on, his presence at Cabinet should be welcomed, but he has a very high standard to live up to now. Those of us who have been in these debates over the years will be looking to see whether development and justice issues really do start to feature more prominently in the Government’s foreign and development strategy.
As both previous speakers have said, food security is a challenge both at home and abroad. People watching this debate might wonder why we are spending time discussing food security around the world when there are people reliant on food banks in our own constituencies —Glasgow North is no exception—but the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington powerfully laid out precisely why that is, why it is a common challenge for humanity as a whole, and the range of steps that need to be taken to tackle the issue.
If food insecurity is a global challenge, it requires a global, as well as a domestic, response. The reality is that it is the same attitudes and philosophies among decision makers, whether at home or abroad, that have left people queuing at food banks here in the UK and queuing for emergency food supplies in famine-hit countries in east Africa. The constituents I hear from in Glasgow North, including supporters of the Borgen Project, who I hope to meet in the next few days, do not want to live in a world where anyone goes hungry, whether that is families down the street or families halfway around the globe—especially not when they know that hunger and food insecurity simply should not and do not need to exist in the modern world.
The reality, though, is, as we have heard, that for too many people, hunger continues to be all too real. We have heard about some specific examples. The food crisis in east Africa is now affecting about 50 million people. In particular, Somalia is on the brink—or perhaps even past the brink—of the official definition of famine. However, food insecurity is not only a crisis or emergency situation, but a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world. As was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who introduced the debate, the number, astonishingly and depressingly, seems to be rising. That is particularly frustrating because the solutions are not unknown. In my time as a Member of Parliament, I have had the huge privilege of meeting farmers in Colombia, Zambia, Rwanda and Malawi, and in Wellingborough and Scotland, and they all know perfectly well how to farm sustainably. They know how to grow crops that will feed themselves and their families and produce a surplus for market, if only they have the right kind of support and fair access to markets.
In the middle years of the 2010s, as we came close to the deadline for the millennium development goals and negotiation for the sustainable development goals was under way, a coalition of international development and advocacy organisations, including one that I worked for at the time, ran a campaign called “Enough food for everyone IF”. It made the point clearly that we live in a world that is more than capable of producing sufficient nutrition for the global population—even taking into account the rapid increase in world population numbers in recent years—provided that we get the priorities and processes right, and that is still true today.
First and foremost, as both previous speakers have said, small-scale farmers all over the world have to be at the heart of how we produce and distribute food, and they need support to grow what works best for them—as I said, enough to feed their families and enough surplus to sell at market. Too often, small farmers become reliant on particular crops and particular fertilisers and inputs, or are forced off their land altogether by multinational monocroppers and agribusinesses. That is to slightly over-simplify a whole range of interventions that are also needed, from decent irrigation, to proper education on farming techniques, to fair access to energy and fair access to markets.
We have to change our own food habits here too. Reducing western demand for meat and for out-of-season fruit and vegetables has the potential to change demands for land use around the world. A fantastic report was launched last week by campaigners for the Climate and Ecology Bill, which looks at the paths towards net zero through changing land use and changing global diets to more sustainable, more nutritious, better diets that will make us all healthier, thinner, fitter, more resilient to disease and more resilient to climate change. It is a win-win-win situation, which gets us closer to net zero into the bargain as well.
We have to address the root of the issue, and help people to understand where food comes from. It comes not from packets in supermarkets, but from the ground; we have to put things into the ground to get it in the first place, and we have to work very hard. We have to help more people understand how to cook and prepare cheap, nutritious food for themselves. That is the whole point of a holistic and rights-based approach to development that tackles a range of problems all at once.
The UK Government have to rediscover the leadership that they once showed in these areas and rebuild the consensus. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington said today’s debate was the first Westminster Hall debate she has led; the first Westminster Hall debate I led was in 2015, on the sustainable development goals. In those days, there was a consensus. Members from all parties would speak together and would congratulate the Government on achieving the 0.7% target and on taking a leading role in shaping the SDGs. Now, the SDGs seem to have been forgotten, the aid target has been slashed to 0.5%, and the Government have announced that non-essential aid spending will be frozen. What on earth is non-essential aid? Surely, by definition, all aid is essential. All aid meets a vital need that cannot be met by a domestic Government.
Cutting the aid budget and diverting funding away from long-term sustainable development projects that boost food and other security is ultimately a false economy. Perhaps, for example, fewer people would be tempted to get on small boats and cross the English channel if their countries of origin were not being dried up or flooded by climate change, with their families and communities going hungry as a result. There would certainly be less need to spend vast amounts on emergency intervention and famine relief if there was proper investment in long-term sustainability.
I was thinking back to my days in the international development sector and was reminded of a saying that was attributed to the late Brazilian archbishop, Dom Hélder Câmara:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
I think that attitude still pervades in a lot of the world today. Investing in global food security is perhaps the ultimate in preventive spending policy. If people at home or abroad have access to good quality, nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food, they will live longer, happier and more successful lives.
The hon. Member is making an important point. Given that malnutrition plays such an important role in a child’s development, that 45% of all deaths of under-fives are due to malnutrition and that we are in the midst of a global food security crisis, does he agree that food security should play an integral part in the Government’s international development strategy?
Absolutely. The hon. Member makes a valid point. Children will not be able to study at school, either in the UK, in a developing country in sub-Saharan Africa, or in a middle-income country in Latin America, if they are hungry. We recognise that in the UK; we have free school meal programmes and campaign for free school meals. The Government were embarrassed into extending the free school meals programme during the pandemic, and I pay huge tribute to the Scottish Government for their roll-out of free school meals. We recognise that children who have a decent, good quality, nutritious meal will be more able to concentrate at school, and that will improve their education, which improves society as a whole in the long run. It is the ultimate in levelling up, and I hope the Minister might reflect on that.
All development processes are linked, and that is the route to tackle instability. Hungry children are more likely to go out and get radicalised. If they cannot grow their own food, if they cannot get food in the local supermarkets or the local shops and markets, and if they cannot rely on their own Governments to provide them with support, of course people will end up getting radicalised and seek more violent or extreme solutions to the challenges that face them in their country.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) that tackling the root causes of poverty is in everybody’s interests; that was pretty much where I was going to conclude. Food security is at the root of a lot of the sustainable development goals, and a range of different international development interventions are aimed at achieving it, because that is the basis for what we all need to survive. It is on that basis that we can all live in a fairer, more peaceful and prosperous world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) for securing this timely debate.
Global food networks are innately linked to our national security. Throughout Putin’s illegal war, Russia has refused to fulfil its commitment to export grains from Ukraine, which in turn has poured fuel on the fire of an already serious humanitarian emergency. Rising food prices across the globe are having a devastating impact on the poorest communities, which cannot continue. Yet at a time of such calamity for global food security, what do the Government decide to do? They continue to cut the UK’s aid budget, with disastrous effect.
As the global community reels from conflict, hunger and climate catastrophe, the Conservatives continue to heap damage on to our global reputation. Britain should be at the forefront of providing aid to the hungry, not turning our backs on the world stage when help is most needed. Our allies are noticing, and they will not forget this moment. Britain is a leader on the world stage or it is nothing, so I urge the Government to think again and provide the help that is so badly needed. The Conservatives’ own manifesto contains an explicit commitment to end
“the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030”.
Given that malnutrition plays a role in 45% of all deaths of under-fives, and with global food insecurity rising, it is unacceptable that food receives only three mentions in the international development strategy. This Government are showing their true colours when it comes to fighting global food poverty. They will not act when it matters, and that is truly disgraceful.
The Government are breaking their own promise not only on preventable deaths, but on the looming threat of climate change. Global warming could lead to a 20% rise in global food prices by 2050, hurting the world’s poorest countries. The Government must finally deliver on their promise on international climate finance, to help developing countries fight the climate crisis, and help to protect food supply. If food security is not connected for the world, it is not protected for us at home. This, more than most, is an interconnected issue, and if we do not deal with it on a global scale, there is minimal chance of success. We cannot close ourselves off from the reality of climate change; we must work together with those who will be worst affected to find a solution now.
In the United Kingdom, we need a sustainable pivot towards self-sufficiency, meaning a decisive shift towards a farmer-focused food chain. We have a target to double the amount of locally sourced food in our shopping baskets. We need to put local farmers in Coventry, the west midlands and across the country, and fishers, food producers and workers, at the heart of plans to deliver healthy food locally. To support our farmers and save our planet, locally produced food must be the future. To achieve that, we need to boost the viability of small and medium-sized enterprise producers of fruits, vegetables, dairy and livestock, and increase the land area dedicated to smallholdings. City gardens and other urban green spaces must provide local populations with a much higher percentage of their daily food. That is something that we need to urgently address.
Unless the Government act, the UK’s reputation will continue to wane as we are seen to be closing ourselves off. This is an opportunity for our country to become a world leader in an area that will only grow in significance in the years to come, and for the Government to tackle a key issue that also affects the United Kingdom. Food poverty is on the increase, and in my city of Coventry many families now depend on food banks. If the Government refuse to act, Labour is ready and willing to do what is needed to provide food for the children of this country and the world.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard, and to wind up for the SNP in this very important debate. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) on securing it. She said it was her first Westminster Hall debate; I hope it is not her last.
This important discussion is close to my heart. I was a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, when that Brexit thing got in the way, and I sat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. I was often struck by the interconnected nature of those issues: climate change, food insecurity and resource scarcity are drivers of many of the issues that we traditionally view through a foreign affairs prism, but which actually need to be viewed through a much more coherent prism.
It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place. I know that fishing and farming are close to his heart; he has been a strong advocate of both sectors for a long time. He made the point powerfully that the UK imports 46% of its food, so the UK’s food security cannot be viewed in isolation; it needs to be viewed through a much wider prism, and our policies need to align better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a very powerful point on behalf of his constituents: they do not want to see anybody suffering from food insecurity and hunger, whether in our own communities or worldwide. That needs a far stronger response. In a very powerful speech, the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) spoke about the interconnectedness of climate change and international development policy, and said that we need to do better than we have managed to date.
I feel for the Minister, because there is an awful lot in this. As I say, I was struck by the fact that food, agriculture and foreign affairs are often interlinked, and the same is true domestically. Call it agriculture and only so many people are interested, but many are interested in food, nutrition, land management, trade, climate change, animal welfare, development policy and social justice. Food is at the heart of many of those issues, and we do not have the policy coherence that we need. I feel for the Minister, who has to cover all that.
To make a consensual point—this has been a cross-party, consensual debate—these issues cut across party, country and region. We all need to work on them together, because I am afraid they are getting worse, and they are getting worse faster. The developed world—I do not like that term—is in a position to help other countries that are suffering the consequences of our economic, trade and foreign policy.
I have some concrete suggestions. I am indebted to two organisations: the National Farmers Union of Scotland has produced a number of strong recommendations for domestic food security, which is part of the wider context, and the International Development Committee’s “Food insecurity” report contains a number of strong recommendations. I hope the Government take those recommendations to heart, because if they tackle this issue seriously, no one will applaud louder than me. It needs urgent attention and cross-cutting solutions.
The biggest thing we can do to tackle short-term food insecurity is to go back to the 2019 Conservative party manifesto and reinstate the 0.7% international aid commitment. I appreciate that the cut to 0.5% is temporary, but it means that a lot of people in the developing world are suffering. On 6 May, the ONE campaign published concrete data showing that the UK official development assistance cut had caused 11.6 million children, girls and women to lose out on nutritional support, 6.2 million girls under two and 12 million babies to lose out on nutritional support, 7.1 million children to lose out on education, 5.3 million women and girls to lose access to modern family planning methods, and 3.3 million to lose humanitarian aid. In addition, 54 MW of clean energy has not been installed.
That relates to my wider point about policy coherence. We must remember that food needs a farmer. We should not allow ourselves to get tied up in short-sighted debates about meat versus vegetables, and between competing land uses. Farmers will be integral to how we feed ourselves now and in the future. Farmers need to be at the heart of that policy. Policy coherence needs to begin at home, and our policies are not as coherent as they need to be.
I was struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford about forestry. We are dealing with that issue in Scotland as well; the Scottish Government have recently brought out new forestry guidelines. I remember when I helped to draft the European Parliament’s common agricultural policy. It encouraged farmers to diversify into energy crops, photovoltaic panels and forestry, but it was always meant to be for the bits and bats of land that farmers could not do much else with. It was never meant to be taking prime agricultural land out of agricultural production. We must get that back out of our agenda. Of course there are going to be competing land uses—at home and worldwide—but we must put food production far higher up our national security and resilience agenda.
There has been a good debate and discussion. We have a lot of suggestions. I again refer Members to the International Development Committee’s report, which has a lot of concrete suggestions and, in a spirit of constructive co-operation, I offer the Minister our support; where we see positive developments, we will be constructive. These points are not party political. They are not limited to one country, however we define country. They are not limited to the domestic, however we define that too. We need to work together on this stuff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) for securing this hugely important debate, which is an existential matter for many of our constituents and millions around the globe.
I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who cares about our role in the world and speaks up for the most marginalised at home and abroad. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for his contribution, which made the link between food insecurity at home and abroad. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for making a powerful case on the impact of aid cuts and the decimation of the Department for International Development.
At a time of converging global crises, I look forward to working with the new Minister for Development, who is not in his place, in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised, and those of the British people, who expect us to play a leading role in building a fairer, safer world, which is in our national interest. Global food security is national security. The UK imports almost half the food it consumes, exposing us to fluctuations in global prices. In the year to September, food and non-alcohol beverage prices rose nearly 15%—the highest rate in 40 years. For many basics, the rise was even higher.
For our poorest constituents, the impact stings all the more, as more of their disposable income is siphoned away on the essentials. At this point, we can all cite shocking tales from our constituency mailbag. I spoke to a headteacher from my constituency recently, who told me they have children turning up to school nervous wrecks, unable to concentrate. They have seen their parents skipping meals, and are often hungry themselves. One boy she spoke of was so hungry that they caught him trying to eat from a pot of PVA glue.
This not just a national crisis, but an international crisis that we have an interest in solving. Globally, food prices have soared over the past year. Despite dropping over the summer with harvests rolling in, the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that prices remain high, at 8% above last year’s levels. Global wheat prices remain 10.6% above values in August last year. According to the World Food Programme, 345 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity.
The causes are multifaceted, but the consequences are invariably stark, as many hon. Members have highlighted. Putin’s barbaric war of aggression with Ukraine has poured fuel on the fire of inflation. Earlier this year, the Russian block on grain exports from Ukraine contributed to an international humanitarian crisis. Across the House, we are united in standing up for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. We welcome the UN-backed Black sea grain initiative between Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, which has been essential to get shipments out of Ukraine and to combat rising food prices. The UK has to put its diplomatic weight behind extending the agreement beyond November. Russia must continue to meet its commitment under the agreement in full. I hope that the Minister will continue to provide support to the EU solidarity lanes programme, which is helping to ship millions of tonnes of grain from Ukraine via land and river borders each month.
Let us be clear: Ukraine is only one factor in the global hunger crisis. Even before Russia’s invasion, food, fuel and fertiliser prices were rising, and 70% of those facing acute levels of food insecurity in 2021 were in conflict-affected countries. Ukraine-related food price spikes are only the latest evidence that the global agriculture system is broken. That reinforces the global need to diversify our food sources and support developing countries with a bottom-up approach to food security. Households’ right to food is put under increased pressure when they experience extreme events that are out of their control. The hungry have few choices: they can migrate in search of food, take food from others by force or die of starvation. The question for us is how to work with partners to stabilise and build resilient local food environments.
Rising global food prices are being felt by people from Nugaal to Northfield. Like the pandemic before it, this crisis is a reminder that island though we are, the greatest challenges facing the world will also reach our shores. In these difficult times, there is cause for solidarity and international co-operation between allies and nations. It is a call that, in times past, Britain has answered proudly.
As many colleagues have said today, the suffering across the world is enormous. Labour has been ringing the alarm about the hunger crisis for the best part of a year. From Afghanistan to Yemen to sub-Saharan Africa, conflict, inflation and accelerating climate change are creating a perfect storm. In June, the World Food Programme warned that the number of people at risk of succumbing to famine or famine-like conditions could rise to 323 million this year. The former Minister, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), travelled to east Africa last week, where she will have seen the human consequence of the crisis at first hand. It is a shame that she cannot now turn that into action.
Extreme hunger is driving mass displacement and conflict, and putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. According to Oxfam, more than 13 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were displaced in search of water and pasture in just the first quarter of 2022, while the UN warned that 350,000 children could die by the end of the summer in Somalia alone.
After the catastrophic famine of 2011, which killed 260,000 people—half of them children—the UK and the international community vowed “never again”. The UK learned lessons with a much stronger response to the famine of 2017, when it succeeded in saving thousands upon thousands of lives. However, despite the current crisis outstripping those of five and 11 years ago, the UK’s response this year has paled in comparison. The World Food Programme director, David Beasley, said that it has put aid workers in the unimaginable position of having to take food from the mouths of the hungry to give to the starving.
At a time when we should be fortifying our alliances and building international co-operation, the UK, under this Government, has gone missing. Successive cuts to overseas aid and the chaotic block on spending this summer, just weeks after the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget was signed off, have left the UK isolated. Repurposing aid away from poverty has not gone unnoticed. In June, Samantha Power, chief of the United States Agency for International Development —USAID—expressed disbelief at this Government’s decision to strip back support from east Africa:
“at just the time of this, arguably, unprecedented food crisis, you’re actually seeing a lot of the key donors scaling back, if you can believe it…assistance in places like sub-Saharan Africa. And that comes on the heels of the British government…making significant cuts”.
Last week, Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, the presidential envoy for Somalia’s drought response, made these chastening remarks:
“In the 2017 drought, the UK and its leadership was vital, its advocacy and energy was great, and it encouraged people like me to match that commitment. Britain was a great ally to Somalia but that is all gone. The UK is still an ally, and they help with security, but when it comes to humanitarian response they are not there, not in leadership or in aid. It’s all gone.”
He is right to speak out because the situation is so grave. Some 700,000 people are now on the brink of famine in east Africa, and many millions more are suffering from acute malnutrition.
Let me be as clear as I can. When I say famine, I mean mass death. Under the integrated food security phase classification system, that means two in every 10,000 adults or four in every 10,000 children dying every single day. Oxfam has warned that across the region, someone is now dying of hunger every 36 seconds. By the time this debate finishes, that will be 150 people more.
The urgency of this crisis could barely be more stark. However, earlier this month, when the Minister in the other place, Lord Goldsmith, was asked how much of the £156 million allocated to this crisis had been disbursed to date, he said that less than half had been allocated. Let me impress on the Minister that when 260,000 people died in the famine of 2011, more than half died before the official declaration of famine was made. What are we waiting for? We cannot wait until a formal announcement to act.
On the steps of Downing Street, our new Prime Minister tried to claim the mandate of the 2019 general election and recommitted to delivering on that manifesto. In the context of this debate, I remind the Minister what that manifesto said:
“Building on this Government’s existing efforts, we will end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030”.
Given that malnutrition plays a role in 45% of all deaths of under-fives, and that in a food crisis it is women and girls who eat less and eat last, we would expect food security to be a top priority for this Conservative Government. Why was food mentioned only three times in the Government’s 10-year international development strategy? Why did Ministers turn up empty-handed to the Nutrition for Growth summit in December and take two years to renew its pledge? Why did an estimated 11.7 million women and children lose out on nutrition support last year due to the cuts?
I will finish by referring to the single greatest long-term challenge to global food security: the climate emergency. This summer, droughts, floods and wildfires wreaked havoc in the UK and across the world. In Pakistan, devastating floods left a third of the country—equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom—underwater. Acres of rice fields were lost. In India, extreme heat decimated crop yields in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, leading to a domestic grain export ban. In the horn of Africa, we face an unprecedented fifth failed rainy season in a row.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of the impact of global warming on food security—not only from the wanton destruction of extreme weather events, but as soil health progressively weakens and ecosystems collapse, pests and diseases become more common and marine animal biomass depletes. This is a disaster for the world, including for us in the United Kingdom. The Climate Change Committee has warned that global warming could lead to a 20% rise in food prices by 2050. That is a reminder why international co-operation and development is essential to protect people at home and across the world.
The truth is that the UK has a unique role to play, but under this Government we are falling woefully short. Our international development expertise, decimated with the destruction of DFID, is sorely missed here and abroad. Our research institutions and universities have an incredible role to play in unlocking long-term solutions to the global food security crisis, such as their role in developing drought-resistant crops.
In the crises of years past, we stepped up as leaders on the world stage to galvanise action and co-operation on the challenges that we have in common, helping to develop early warning systems so we can act decisively before tragedies strike. What happened to that ambition? Will the Minister tell us why his Government continue to invest in fossil fuels overseas? Why were central projects for adaptation and mitigation indefinitely paused this summer? When will the UK finally deliver on the international climate finance that it promised as host of COP26 last year?
The Opposition know where we stand. We cannot keep lurching from crisis to crisis. It is only long-term development that will help us turn the tide on the greatest global challenges, and rebuild trust based on our shared values and common interests. Global crises demand global solutions. I hope that the new Minister for Development will recognise that and will fight to return the UK to the global stage.
There is usually a time limit of 10 minutes for Front Benchers. Given that we have a little more time, I allowed the shadow Minister to speak for a bit longer. In the spirit of fairness, if the Minister wants an extra two minutes, that would be in perfect order.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am standing in at short notice after my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) left her position. I wish to put on the record our gratitude for everything that she did so magnificently in the Department in recent months in her role as the Minister for Development. Her work was much admired throughout the House and her recent visit to Ethiopia showed the compassion with which she conducted her duties and the extent of her contribution. I put on the record our thanks to her.
In the same spirit, I congratulate the incoming Minister for Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). He will need no introduction on this issue; he has long-standing and deep expertise. I am sure he will fulfil the role with alacrity and that he will be available for Westminster Hall debates in the near future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) on her first Westminster Hall debate. She gave a passionate speech full of information and I am grateful for the issues and questions she raised. She set the issue of food security in the global context very effectively, and mentioned the fact that food insecurity is a function not of food shortage but of a lack of access to food; I agree wholeheartedly. It is with great regret that we see food being weaponised as a political means of achieving certain outcomes around the world—indeed, we are seeing that in mainland Europe right now.
The hon. Member mentioned the fact that we have a global cost of living crisis; I will make some remarks about our contribution to the World Food Programme in that respect. She rightly pointed out that women and children are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, and I assure her that that is why empowering women and girls is one of the main pillars of our international development strategy. We are in agreement on that issue. She also made some remarks about climate finance, which I will cover presently.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, not least the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill); the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who is no longer in her place but talked about the importance of small farmers; and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who talked about the importance of domestic food production and the magnificent production of fish and beef in his constituency, which is an extremely important contributor to UK domestic production. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) talked about the importance of sustainable agriculture and small farmers, which was a very relevant set of remarks, and the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) mentioned the climate impact of food security, which is something we are serious about and which I will cover presently.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) made clear the connection between geopolitics and agriculture and brought to bear his deep experience in the European Parliament, which was welcome. He referred to the IDC report; he will have seen the Government response, which is cogent and lays out the fact that the Government are doing a great deal. He should be reassured that there is coherence across Government about bringing development to bear throughout everything we do, and that it is linked into the integrated review in terms of our being aware of climate change and food security as a function of geopolitics, but I welcome his remarks.
The world faces an unprecedented food and nutrition crisis. Conflict, climate change and the lasting impacts of covid have had a devastating impact on local and global food systems and the people who rely on them. On top of that, we have the insecurity coming out of Putin’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine and the extent to which he has sought to weaponise the flow of grain, principally, but also other foodstuffs from Europe’s breadbasket. We are keenly aware that up to 345 million people face acute food insecurity. Close to 50 million people are one step away from famine and, across the regions of most concern, some 9 million children are suffering from severe malnutrition. Our focus is on meeting humanitarian need, keeping food moving and working to future-proof global food systems. We are working to resolve conflict and address its root causes.
I gently say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston that we have been constrained in our official development assistance budget, given the reduction to 0.5%, but we should be proud that it is still north of £11 billion annually. It is not a decimation: development is still a very important part of our political output through the Foreign Office, so we should be upbeat about what we can achieve given—and despite—our budgetary constraints. Helping those in acute humanitarian need is a top priority. We are taking life-saving action. Our support to the World Food Programme is helping it to reach 150 million people in urgent need of food and nutrition assistance this year. We plan to provide £156 million of bilateral humanitarian assistance to east Africa this year, helping millions of people to access essential services and supplies, including food, water, shelter and healthcare.
Of course, the UK is combining aid with diplomacy, using our political influence to bring others to the table and deliver a greater impact. At September’s United Nations General Assembly we co-hosted an event with the head of humanitarian affairs at the UN, Martin Griffiths, the head of the United States Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, and the Governments of Italy and Qatar, to raise the level of alarm around the humanitarian crisis in the horn of Africa.
Furthermore, we have been one of the first to respond to the terrible flooding that has affected more than 33 million people in Pakistan. Alongside the amazing response from the British public to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal, we have provided supplies, shelter and essential water and sanitation assistance to help to prevent water-borne diseases. Colleagues have been hugely impressed with Lord Ahmad’s leadership on that in the Department.
When it comes to multilateral finance, international co-operation is paramount in addressing food insecurity. With the UK’s support, the multilateral development banks are stepping up their assistance. Of course, we remain one of the largest shareholders—indeed, we are joint fifth—at the World Bank. The bank has announced $36 billion-worth of support alongside a further $9 billion from other multilateral development banks.
When it comes to Ukrainian grain, it is clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been extremely harmful. We have pushed hard for the Black sea grain initiative and are very grateful for the leadership and co-ordination provided by the Turkish Government, which has helped to stabilise food supplies by increasing the flow of grain out of Ukraine. Since 1 August, more than 8 million tonnes of food has been exported from Ukraine’s Black sea ports and, importantly, more than 60% of the wheat exported has gone to low and middle-income countries. That is despite what Putin’s regime might say in its propaganda. It is vital that Russia does not block the deal’s extension when the initial 120-day period expires on 19 November. We are working really hard through our diplomatic channels to ensure that that does not happen, because the grain must keep flowing.
Several Members mentioned climate change and sustainable agriculture, which is absolutely critical. Feeding the world must work hand in hand with tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and biological threats. I can confirm that our international development strategy reaffirmed our commitment to doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion between 2021-22 and 2025-26. At least £3 billion of that will be invested in solutions to protect and restore nature, and we aim to ensure a balanced split between mitigation and adaptation finance. We are putting our money where our mouth is. We think that is important because, as has been discussed in this debate, if the climate is protected to allow small farmers to continue production, that tackles the root cause of these sorts of issues.
Furthermore, under our COP26 presidency we helped to bring agriculture and food systems to the centre of climate discussions at that forum. We launched the agriculture breakthrough agenda, which will help to accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture. At the World Bank annual meetings, we bought partners together for our policy dialogue, to learn about and collaborate on policies that work for people, climate and nature, such as the repurposing of harmful subsidies.
For example, Vietnam is training farmers in the Mekong delta in sustainable rice production, cutting the use of water resources by 40% and reducing fertiliser use while increasing farmers’ incomes. Similarly, Sierra Leone is planting trees on degraded lands to reduce the impact of climate change and to protect farmers from flooding. I am sure Members will be pleased to hear that in Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda and Ethiopia, our commercial agriculture for smallholders and agribusiness programme is helping farmers to adopt climate-smart technologies and improve fertiliser use.
On science, technology and innovation, our investment in science and research has been important to the Foreign Office’s work. Our support enables bodies such as CIGR—the International Commission of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, which is the world’s leading agricultural science and innovation organisation—to release new climate-resilient wheat varieties, which help millions of farmers to increase the resilience of their crops to drought and disease. Last year alone, our investments resulted in the release of 59 climate-resistant and nutritious new bio-fortified crop varieties, feeding more than 27 million people.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response to the debate. I and other Members have talked about the partnership between the agrifood sector and universities, and how that advances the technological opportunities that result. Does he recognise that those contributions and those partnerships in universities across all of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland really point the way forward to finding a new way to feed the world?
I agree entirely; that co-operation is extremely important. That kind of research and co-operation has shown that the efficiency of things such as photosynthesis in food crops can boost yields by more than 20%. That is critical to drive up yield, improve the efficiency of land use and, of course, feed the world, so we are in agreement. We need such technological transformation to expand global food supplies in a sustainable way without expanding land use or damaging the environment.
I conclude by thanking all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. We acknowledge the fact that feeding the world in the face of such huge challenges demands the attention of us all, and the entire effort of the Government is focused on that. I am grateful for the contributions from all parties. We will continue our extremely important work.
We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who highlighted the important contribution of agriculture in Northern Ireland to our food security. We must ensure that no one feels they are left behind.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who talked about the right type of support for farmers and people having access to markets to sell the products they produce. His experience of working in the international aid sector made his contribution to the debate really helpful.
As a fellow west midlands MP, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for focusing on the importance of locally produced foods in ending food insecurity. I also thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), and the Minister; I am grateful for his responses. This has been a really important debate and I thank each and every person who has spoken.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered global food security.
Levelling Up Barry, Vale of Glamorgan
I beg to move,
That this House has considered levelling up Barry, Vale of Glamorgan.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard, for calling me to propose this debate on levelling up in Barry. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, and I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the fantastic opportunities for Barry and the background to why it needs UK Government support.
I recognise that economic development is devolved and that the primary responsibility for supporting investment in Wales falls to the Welsh Government, but the levelling-up agenda is central to the UK Government’s plans. I am delighted that my long-standing calls to change the law to allow the UK Government to invest directly in communities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has now passed. We no longer have to wait for the Welsh Government to act.
Barry has been ignored for far too long by the Welsh Government. This is our chance. Our Barry Making Waves project provides the next step in the development of Wales’s largest town. It is a hugely exciting project, supported far and wide, and meets the aspirations that community groups and I have held for many years. Barry is a fantastic place to live, work and visit. Most recently, it has become best known to many from the BBC comedy “Gavin and Stacey”, but the town has a long, proud history steeped in coal exports, built on the back of the Barry Dock and Railways Act 1884. The Act was passed to develop a railway line from the valleys, to create a coal-exporting facility in town, and to break the monopoly of neighbouring Tiger bay.
The railway line also provided the connection for millions of tourists to visit the fantastic coastline every year, notably Whitmore bay, and, since the post-war period, the Butlin’s holiday camp, which has long since closed. That highlights the economic activity and relative prosperity that existed throughout much of the previous century. However, with the closure of the south Wales coalmines, changes to larger ships and ports, and overseas holidays becoming commonplace, Barry was left looking for a new focus.
I also want to point out that, although coalmining communities have rightly received significant sums of public money over decades to support their transition to new industries, Barry was left without, because it exported rather than mined coal. Furthermore, as west Wales and the valleys received more than £5 billion in new aid since 2000, the quirks of the map and EU regulations meant that Barry, with some of the most deprived communities in Wales, did not qualify as a priority area. As a result, very small sums were available for community programmes, rather than for significant infrastructure development.
The point I am making to the Minister is that other areas in need have been supported in their economic transition, but Barry has missed out. In spite of that, Barry has made huge strides in its regeneration over the past 15 years or so, with Barry Island, supported by the “Gavin and Stacey” phenomenon, which provided confidence and a renewed interest. The waterfront development has modernised the town and brought new housing. Campaigning groups, such as Pride in Barry, notably led by Paul Haley, and FocusBarry, led by Dennis Harkus, galvanised the community’s ambition, and local developers such as Simon Baston, took significant risks with their own investments in developing Goodsheds and former pumping station projects.
It is a town, however, that needs support to move to the next step of development. The data speaks for itself. The Welsh indices of multiple deprivation show that the most deprived communities in Wales over decades have persistently been in Barry. Five areas were among the 10% most deprived wards in Wales in 2011. That is in spite of being just a short distance from the relative affluence of Cardiff and the relative prosperity of the rural Vale. Three areas in Barry remain at the bottom of the league table. Levels of productivity are much lower than the UK average, at £14,706. The town has relatively few employment sites, and most employees commute to Cardiff to work every day.
We need to recognise, however, the positive changes that have taken place. Barry Island has been transformed to a year-round resort enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. The docks area, now referred to as the Waterfront, has been refreshed and regenerated, and a new Cardiff and Vale College campus is to be developed to support new skills.
With the help of the levelling-up bid, the town’s redevelopment will move to the next level. The Barry Making Waves project will put rocket boosters under the regeneration ambitions. It is a bid for £19.9 million of levelling-up funds to release a £32 million project. The central feature of the levelling-up bid is a 400-berth marina, which will make the most of the docks area; attract more visitors and increase spend to the community; create jobs, from engineering to hospitality; transform the image of the town; and complete the western side of the Waterfront development. It will have a new flexible 30,000 square feet hot-desking workspace to enable many of the professionals who have moved into the town to the new housing to work locally, rather than travel to Cardiff.
The proposal builds on a small-scale model elsewhere in the town, where demand is strong and the business and environmental outcomes meet local, Welsh and UK aspirations. The plan includes a 2-acre park with an events space, ensuring it remains an open, public area for everyone to enjoy, from Barry and beyond, rather than just the immediate local residents.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this proposal and on his assiduous efforts as an MP on behalf of his constituency. He mentioned Barry and beyond. Beyond Barry, there is my constituency of Strangford. When it comes to levelling up—I welcome the Minister to her place and I look forward to her contribution—the Government have committed to levelling up the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I want to ensure that we in Strangford and Northern Ireland also have the same opportunities to level up. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree? Barry is great, and he should be doing that, but it is important for us, too.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those points, which allows me to underline some points that I touched on earlier. Economic development has generally been a devolved function. Therefore, investing in communities and attracting new jobs and companies has been a devolved, rather than a reserved, responsibility. I am a former Secretary of State and the representative of Barry, but I have also seen communities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that the devolved Administrations did not have the capacity to focus on because there were more deprived areas elsewhere. Therefore, the UK Government needed to step in.
There is also politics at play. I am concerned that the Vale of Glamorgan does not receive the Welsh Government’s support because they choose to prioritise the valley heartlands, where their party is strongly represented. This is an opportunity for the UK Government to reset that balance and invest in needy projects across the whole of the United Kingdom, whether in Northern Ireland or Wales, so that communities that have been left behind have the chance to shine in the sun.
As well as the central feature of the marina, the 30,000 square feet hot-desk workspace and open parkland, the eastern side of the dock will also have a watersports facility that will allow local residents of all backgrounds to access the water. That is hugely popular with community groups. I declare an interest: I am a trustee of the Ocean Watersports Trust Vale of Glamorgan, which will occupy that building. Importantly, that project will be in partnership with Cardiff and Vale College to further support tourism and skills development. That also complements the new college building that is being constructed just a short walk away.
The whole scheme, the whole Barry Making Waves project, is low risk—low risk to the Treasury, to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and to the local authority—because it has only two central partners: the local authority and Associated British Ports. It also has a high cost-benefit ratio that will meet the deep-rooted structural challenges in Barry, provide opportunities to many who have been left behind, and correct a deficiency in public funding support that has existed for decades. It is understandable that the Welsh Government have prioritised west Wales and the valleys, but it is regrettable that Barry has been left to reinvent itself without support compared with other areas, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned.
The levelling-up fund and shared prosperity fund were designed to meet these types of challenges in communities such as these, across the whole of the United Kingdom. I played a part in planning the policy and sought to ensure that communities across the whole of the UK that have been overlooked because of quirks of maps, EU regulations or devolution, or simply because political will has driven investment elsewhere—communities that did not fall into those favoured categories—could benefit. Such is the interest in the Barry Making Waves scheme that the Westminster-based think-tank Onward has conducted a study on Barry’s challenges and ambitions. Although the report is not yet published, I am confident that it will underline many of the points I have made, and I hope the Minister will look at that report when Onward publishes it, so strong is the interest in that regeneration project.
Finally, I want to recognise that Barry Making Waves is a springboard project that will attract other development opportunities to Barry. I am in discussions with private developers that are prepared to spend tens of millions of pounds on developing other employment sites on the back of that transformation. As well as the merits of the project in its own right, it stands as a catalyst for other private development opportunities, which include ambitions for a hotel—again, building on the strengths of the Barry Making Waves project and the renewed tourism offer.
In closing, I draw the Minister’s attention to the capacity issues. The Vale of Glamorgan is a small local authority, particularly by UK standards, and as I have stated, it does not have experience in submitting bids for large-scale capital projects because we simply did not qualify. The project has therefore taken a huge amount of effort and focus, and I pay tribute to Marcus Goldsworthy and Philip Chappell and their team from the local authority for their work in bringing those strands together and working closely with me and others to ensure that such a strong, credible bid has been made. I urge the Minister to look closely at the quality of that bid, but also to look at it in the context of a community that has not received the support it deserves from the Welsh Government or the European Union. This is Barry’s time to shine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) for raising the important issue of levelling up Barry town in his constituency. If I may say so, his speech was a brilliant tourism ad. He highlighted some of the best of Barry, not least “Gavin and Stacey”, which I am a huge fan of.
As my right hon. Friend highlighted, the Government’s central mission is all about levelling up all parts of the UK. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I reiterate that—all parts of the UK, including Wales and Northern Ireland. We will do so by ensuring that we spread opportunities more equally around the country, empowering local leaders and bringing left-behind communities up to the level of more prosperous areas. I was particularly interested to hear about the background of my right hon. Friend’s constituency, with its transition from coalmining to a new purpose. In many ways, that is reminiscent of my own constituency, which was reliant on coalmining and, of course, the railways, and has had a journey to find its new ethos and purpose. It was interesting to hear about those similarities, which I know are reflected in a number of constituencies right across the country.
I am delighted to have the chance today to set out the opportunities being made available to Barry and its community through the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Wales is already benefiting from substantial investment across a whole range of new UK Government funding opportunities. In total, Wales has been allocated over £750 million of levelling-up funding in the last year alone. That includes over £45 million from the community renewal fund, benefiting 160 local community projects. Places across Wales have also received an additional £121 million across 10 projects under the first round of the levelling-up fund. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that those new opportunities mark an incredibly exciting time for local places in Wales to be at the centre of decision making.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining the support that has been made available, but may I draw to her attention the point that I made about the capacity of local authorities? Those projects that gained support were primarily by authorities that were used to bidding for European-aided schemes. Clearly, we have now left the European Union and we have the levelling-up fund, with the shared prosperity fund to follow. Some local authorities that have been left out until now did not have the capacity to bid, or were not up to speed. That is not their fault; it is simply a lack of experience in bidding. I therefore ask the Minister to look specifically at those communities that have been left out for quite a long period.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. Ensuring that areas have the capacity and experience to complete what can be quite lengthy and complicated bidding processes is something that has featured in my inbox quite a lot during my time as Minister. I am looking at funding simplification to see how we can make these processes simpler and more streamlined so that there are fair opportunities, even for smaller authorities.
We have had a fantastic response to these new funding opportunities from local partners in Wales, including Vale of Glamorgan, which fully embraced its role in the delivery of the community renewal fund. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will know all too well about the £970,000 allocated to six exciting projects in the Vale, which have been delivering for local people, communities and businesses over the last year.
The community renewal fund is all about supporting the people and communities who need it most right across the UK. It is about creating opportunities, being innovative and trialling new approaches and ideas, all at a local level. To nurture that innovative thinking and give the communities the flexibility they need, we encourage partners to deliver on skills, local business, supporting people into employment, and community and place.
Through funds such as the community renewal fund, we have strengthened the relationship between the UK Government and the places we serve in every part of the UK, including Barry, we are working directly with local partners—people who know, understand and are part of the social fabric of their communities. I am proud that we are giving them autonomy over local decisions to support positive changes for their communities. That is evident, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will know, through Barry Bands Together, a community regeneration project run by a local musical partnership in Barry. It is using the skills of its members to work alongside the local authority music service to provide a new focal point for musical training. That multi-agency approach focuses on upskilling trainees, empowering children and embodying a cohesive and community-centric way of delivering local services through music.
The good news does not stop there. Other areas in the Vale of Glamorgan have also benefited from the community renewal fund. Enterprise Vale, another prominent project in the area, was awarded over £100,000 for its business support services. Over the last year it has been taking action to support local people into self-employment, and helping those in the community who are economically inactive to build confidence and take the important step into the world of business.
Building on the success of the community renewal fund, £2.6 billion is being allocated to places across the UK as part of the UK shared prosperity fund, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. Of that, a sizeable £585 million has been allocated to places in Wales, with over £14 million specifically for the Vale of Glamorgan. This trailblazing new approach to investment, and the empowerment of local communities to level up and build pride in place, will see direct investment in three local priorities: communities and place, support for local businesses, and people and skills.
I am pleased to say that the approach to regional collaboration intrinsic to delivering the shared prosperity fund has seen all 10 local authorities in the south-east of Wales submit a joint regional investment plan, backed with over £278 million of funding. As a partner in the region, Vale of Glamorgan will play its full part in delivering the regional investment plan and tailoring areas of support to local communities, including those in Barry.
I should also take this opportunity—I will be told off by the boss if I do not—to mention that the freeports programme is another core part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda taking place in Wales. Freeports will unlock much-needed investment in port communities up and down the country, helping those areas to overcome barriers to investment through a broad package of incentives. Our new freeport programme in Wales, which is being jointly delivered with the Welsh Government and backed by an initial £26 million of funding, will help us to make this vision a reality. The programme will drive forward our ambition for Wales to compete at a global level, while creating new local jobs and putting Welsh communities on the path to long-term growth and prosperity.
I know that my right hon. Friend will be familiar with the levelling-up fund, through which £4.8 billion of investment is being made available to provide crucial capital investment in local infrastructure. The aim of this competitive funding is to empower local areas to identify new opportunities for investment in creating pride in place. Projects are prepared in collaboration with local stakeholders and should have clear benefits to the local community, while being aligned with a broader local economic strategy. Through the first round of the levelling-up fund, over £1.7 billion was awarded to local areas across the UK, of which £121 million came to Wales, substantially more than would have been the case through any Barnett-based formula.
As Members may know, the second round of the levelling-up fund opened for bidding earlier this summer. My officials are continuing the assessment process, and successful bids should expect to be notified by the end of the year. I am sure my right hon. Friend knows that, due to the competitive process involved, I am unable to comment specifically on individual applications, but I look forward to seeing the outcome of all bids submitted, including the Barry Making Waves project, which he spoke so passionately about. I pass on my thanks to all those in his local authority who have worked so hard on making that bid and bringing it to the Government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing forward this important debate—I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his contribution—and for drawing my attention to the Onward report, which I am interested in reading once it has been published. I certainly welcome the opportunity—assuming I stay in post—to have further conversations with my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford on the future of Barry and Wales as a whole and, of course, of Strangford and Northern Ireland as a whole too.
Question put and agreed to.
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2021-22, Tackling Online Abuse, HC 766, and the Government response, HC 1224; e-petition 272087, Hold online trolls accountable for their online abuse via their IP address; e-petition 332315, Ban anonymous accounts on social media; e-petition 575833, Make verified ID a requirement for opening a social media account.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered online harms.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to serve in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship—[Interruption.] In a debate about technology, this was always going to happen. It is great to see the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), in his place. He is enormously respected by Members on both sides of the House. He came to this role with more knowledge of his subject than probably any other Minister in the history of Ministers, so he brings a great deal to it.
This is an important and timely debate, given that the Online Safety Bill is returning to the Commons next week. Obviously, a great deal of the debate will be in the House of Lords, so I thought that it was important to have more discussion in the House of Commons. The Online Safety Bill is a landmark and internationally leading Bill. As a number of people, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright), can attest, it has been a long time in gestation—five years, including two consultations, a Green Paper, a White Paper, a draft Bill, prelegislative scrutiny, 11 sessions of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and nine days at Committee stage in the Commons. It is complex legislation, but that is because the subject that it addresses is complex.
Some want the Bill to go further, and I have no doubt that on Report and in the Lords there will be many attempts to do that. Others think it already goes too far. The most important message about the Bill is that we need to get on with it.
Technology is a big part of children’s lives—actually, it is a big part of all our lives. The vast majority of it is good. It provides new ways of keeping in touch, and ways of enhancing education for children with special educational needs. Think of all the rows in the car that have been done away with by the sat-nav—at least those rows. My personal favourite is the thing on my phone that says, “The rain will stop in 18 minutes,” so I know when to get my sandwich. Technology changes the way we live our lives. Think about our working lives in this place. Thanks to Tony Blair and new Labour, the pager got all MPs on message and disciplined, and now WhatsApp is having exactly the opposite effect.
In particular, in the Bill and this discussion we are concerned about social media. Again, most of what social media has given us is good, but it has also carried with it much harm. I say “carried with it” because much of that harm has not been created by social media, but has been distributed, facilitated and magnified by it. In the last couple of weeks, we have been reminded of the terrible tragedy of Molly Russell, thanks to the tireless campaigning and immense fortitude of her father, Ian, and her family. The coroner concluded that social media companies and the content pushed to Molly through algorithmic recommendations contributed to her death
“in more than a minimal way”.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I entirely agree that the Bill needs to come forward now. The algorithm is the key part to anything that goes on, in terms of dealing with online problems. The biggest problem I have found is trying to get transparency around the algorithm. Does he agree that the Bill should concentrate on exposing the algorithms, even if they are commercially sensitive, and allowing Ofcom to pull on those algorithms so that we do not get into the horrible situation that he has described?
I absolutely agree about the centrality of the algorithms and about understanding how they work. We may come on to that later in the debate. That brings me on to my next point. Of course, we should not think of Molly’s tragedy as a single event; there have been other tragedies. There is also a long tail of harm done to young people through an increased prevalence of self-harm, eating disorders, and the contribution to general mental ill-health. All of that has a societal cost, as well as a cost to the individual. That is also a literal cost, in terms of cash, as well as the terrible social cost.
Importantly, this is not only about children. Ages 18 to 21 can be a vulnerable time for some of the issues I have just mentioned. Of course, with domestic abuse, antisemitism, racist abuse, and so on, most of that is perpetrated by—and inflicted on—people well above the age of majority. I found that the importance and breadth of this subject was reflected in my Outlook inbox over the past few days. Whenever a Member’s name is on the Order Paper for a Westminster Hall debate, they get all sorts of briefings from various third parties, but today’s has broken all records. I have heard from everybody, from Lego to the Countryside Alliance.
On that subject, I thank some of the brilliant organisations that work so hard in this area, such as 5Rights, the Children’s Charities Coalition, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of course, the Carnegie Trust, the City of London Corporation, UK Finance, the Samaritans, Kick It Out, and more.
I should also note the three e-petitions linked to this subject, reflecting the public’s engagement: the e-petition to ban anonymous accounts on social media, which has almost 17,000 signatories; the petition to hold online trolls accountable, with more than 130,000 signatories; and the e-petition for verified ID to be required to open a social media account, with almost 700,000 signatories.
Such is the interest in this subject and the Online Safety Bill, which is about to come back to the Commons, that someone could be forgiven for thinking that it is about to solve all of our problems, but I am afraid that it will not. It is a framework that will evolve, and this will not be the last time that we have to legislate on the subject. Indeed, many of the things that must be done probably cannot be legislated for anyway. Additionally, technology evolves. A decade ago, legislators were not talking about the effect of livestreaming on child abuse. We certainly were not talking about the use of emojis in racist abuse. Today, we are just getting to grips with what the metaverse will be and what it implies. Who knows, in five or 10 years’ time, what the equivalent subjects will be?
From my most recent ministerial role as Minister of State for Security, there are three areas covered in the Online Safety Bill that I will mention to stress the importance of pressing on with it and getting it passed into law. The first is child abuse, which I have just mentioned. Of course, some child abuse is perpetrated on the internet, but it is more about distribution. Every time that an abusive image of a child is forwarded, that victim is re-victimised. It also creates the demand for further primary abuse. I commend the agencies, the National Crime Agency and CEOP—Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command—and the brilliant organisations, some of which I have mentioned, that work in this area, including the international framework around NCMEC, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, in the United States.
However, I am afraid that it is a growth area. That is why we must move quickly. The National Crime Agency estimates that between 550,000 and 850,000 people pose, in varying degrees, a sexual risk to children. Shall I repeat those numbers? Just let them sink in. That is an enormous number of people. With the internet, the accessibility is much greater than ever before. The Internet Watch Foundation notes a growth in sexual abuse content available online, particularly in the category known as “self-generated” imagery.
The second area is fraud, which is now the No. 1 category of crime in this country by volume—and in many other countries. Almost all of it has an online aspect or is entirely online. I commend the Minister, and the various former Ministers in the Chamber, on their work in ensuring that fraud is properly addressed in the Bill. There have been three moves forward in that area, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) may speak a bit more about that later. We need to ensure that fraud is in scope, that it becomes a priority offence and, crucially, that advertising for fraud is added to the offences covered.
I hope that, over time, the Government can continue to look at how to sharpen our focus in this area and, in particular, how to line up everybody’s incentives. Right now, the banks have a great incentive to stop fraud because they are liable for the losses. Anybody who has tried to make an online payment recently will know what that does. When people are given a direct financial incentive—a cost—to this thing being perpetrated, they will go to extraordinary lengths to try to stop it happening. If we could get that same focus on people accepting the content or ads that turn out to be fraud, imagine what we could do—my hon. Friend may be about to tell us.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done. He knows, because we spoke about this when we both were Ministers, that the key implementation once this Bill is law will be fraudulent advertising. I speak as a former Pensions Minister, and every single day up and down this country our pensioners are defrauded of at least £1 million, if not £2 million or £3 million. It is important that there are targeted penalties against online companies, notably Google, but also that there are police forces to take cases forward. The City of London Police is very good, but its resources are slim at present. Does he agree that those things need to be addressed as the Bill goes forward?
I agree. Some of those matters should be addressed in the Bill and some outside it, but my hon. Friend, whom I commend for all his work, particularly on pensions fraud and investment fraud, is absolutely right that as the balance in the types of crimes has shifted, the ways we resource ourselves and tool up to deal with them has to reflect that.
Could you give me an indication, Mr Dowd, of how many Members are speaking in this debate after me?
I shall accelerate in that case. The third area I want to mention, from my previous role as Security Minister, is disinformation. I welcome what is called the bridge that has been built between the Online Safety Bill and the National Security Bill to deal specifically with state-sponsored disinformation, which has become a tool of war. That probably does not surprise anybody, but I am afraid that, for states with a hostile intention, it can become, and is, a tool in peacetime. Quite often, it is not necessarily even about spreading untruths—believe it or not—but just about trying to wind people up and make them dislike one another more in an election, referendum or whatever it may be. This is important work.
Health disinformation, which we were exercised about during the coronavirus pandemic, is slated to be on the list of so-called legal but harmful harms, so the Bill would also deal with that. That brings me to my central point about the hardest part of this Bill: the so-called legal but harmful harms. I suggest that we actually call them “harmful but legal”, because that better captures their essence, as our constituents would understand it. It is a natural reaction when hearing about the Online Safety Bill, which will deal with stuff that is legal, to say, “Well, why is there a proposed law going through the British Parliament that tries to deal with things that are, and will stay, legal? We have laws to give extra protection to children, but adults should be able to make their own choices. If you start to interfere with that, you risk fundamental liberties, including freedom of speech.” I agree with that natural reaction, but I suggest that we have to consider a couple of additional factors.
First, there is no hard line between adults and children in this context. There is not a 100%—or, frankly, even 50%—reliable way of being able to tell who is using the internet and whether they are above or below age 18. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage), among others, has been round the loop many times looking at age verification and so-called age assurance. It is very difficult. That is why a couple of weeks ago a piece of Ofcom research came out that found 32%—a third—of eight to 17-year-old social media users appear to be over 18. Why is that? Because it is commonplace for someone to sign up to TikTok or Snapchat with the minimum age of 13 when they are 10. They must give an age above 13 to be let in. Let us say that that age limit was set at 14; that means that when they are 14, it thinks they are 18—and so it carries on, all the way through life.
The right hon. Member and many other Members present will know that leading suicide prevention charities, including Samaritans and the Mental Health Foundation, are calling on the Government to ensure that the Online Safety Bill protects people of all ages from all extremely dangerous suicide and self-harm content. The right hon. Member makes very good points about age and on the legal but harmful issue. I hope very much that the Government will look at this again to protect more people from that dangerous content.
I thank the hon. Lady; I think her point stands on its own.
The second additional factor I want to put forward, which may sound odd, is that in this context there is not a hard line between what is legal and what is not. I mentioned emoji abuse. I am not a lawyer, still less a drafter of parliamentary legislation—there are those here who are—but I suggest it will be very hard to legislate for what constitutes emoji abuse in racism. Take something such as extremism. Extremist material has always been available; it is just that it used to be available on photocopied or carbon-copied sheets of paper. It was probably necessary to go to some draughty hall somewhere or some backstreet bookshop in a remote part of London to access it, and very few people did. The difference now is that the same material is available to everyone if they go looking for it; sometimes it might come to them even if they do not go looking for it. I think the context here is different.
This debate—not the debate we are having today, but the broader debate—is sometimes conducted in terms that are just too theoretical. People sometimes have the impression that we will allow these companies to arbitrarily take down stuff that is legal but that they just do not like—stuff that does not fit with their view of the world or their politics. On the contrary, the way the Bill has been drafted means that it will require consistency of approach and protect free speech.
I am close to the end of my speech, but let us pause for a moment to consider the sorts of things we are talking about. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) made a written ministerial statement setting out an indicative list of the priority harms for adults. They are abuse and harassment—not mere disagreement, but abuse and harassment—the circulation of real or manufactured intimate images without the subject’s consent; material that promotes self-harm; material that promotes eating disorders; legal suicide content; and harmful health content that is demonstrably false, such as urging people to drink bleach to cure cancer.
I suggest that when people talk about free speech, they do not usually mean those kinds of things; they normally mean expressing a view or being robust in argument. We have the most oppositional, confrontational parliamentary democracy in the world, and we are proud of our ability to do better, to make better law and hold people to account through that process, but that is not the same thing as we are talking about here. Moreover, there is a misconception that the Bill would ban those things; in fact, the Bill states only that a service must have a policy about how it deals with them. A helpful Government amendment makes it clear that that policy could be, “Well, we’re not dealing with it at all. We are allowing content on these things.”
There are also empowerment tools—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) may say more about that later in relation to anonymity—but we want users to be in control. If there is this contractual relationship, where it is clearly set out what is allowed in this space and someone signs up to it, I suggest that enhances their freedoms as well as their rights.
I recognise that there are concerns, and it is right to consider them. It may be that the Bill can be tightened to reassure everybody, while keeping these important protections. That might be around the non-priority areas, which perhaps people consider to be too broad. There might also be value in putting the list of priority harms in the Bill, so that people are not concerned that this could balloon.
As I said at the start, the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, knows more about this than probably any other living human being. He literally works tirelessly on it and is immensely motivated, for all the right reasons. I have probably not said anything in the past 10 minutes that he did not already know. I know it is a difficult job to square the circle and consider these tensions.
My main message to the Minister and the Government is, with all the work that he and others have done, please let us get on with it. Let us get the Bill into law as soon as possible. If changes need to be made to reassure people, then absolutely let us make them, but most of all, let us keep up the momentum.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate. Many people will be watching who have taken a keen interest in the Online Safety Bill, which is an important piece of legislation, and the opportunities it offers to protect people from harmful, dangerous online content. I also welcome the Minister to his place. I am sure he will listen carefully to all the contributions.
My interest in the Bill is constituency based. I was approached by the family of a young man from my constituency called Joe Nihill, a popular former Army cadet who sadly took his own life at the age of 23 after accessing harmful online content related to suicide. Joe’s mother Catherine and sister-in-law Melanie have run an inspiring campaign, working with the Samaritans to ensure that the law is changed. In the note Joe left before he sadly took his life, he referred to such online content. One of his parting wishes was that what happened to him would not happen to others.
I want to ensure that the Minister and the Government take full opportunity of the Bill, so let me talk briefly about two amendments that might strengthen it. We want to protect people of all ages, and ensure that smaller online platforms as well as the larger ones are covered. Two related amendments have been tabled: amendment 159 by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and proposed new clause 16 by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). I know that they are backed by the Samaritans and the inspiring campaigners from my constituency.
Amendment 159, relating to protecting people of all ages, addresses the point that clearly harmful suicide and self-harm content can be accessed by over-18s, and vulnerable people are not limited to those under 18 years of age. Joe Nihill was 23 when he sadly took his own life after accessing such content.
As it is currently drafted, the Bill’s impact assessment states that of the platforms in scope
“less than 0.001% are estimated to meet the Category 1 and 2A thresholds”.
It is estimated that only 20 platforms will be required to fulfil category 1 obligations. If the Bill is enacted in its current form, unamended, then smaller platforms, where some of the most harmful suicide and self-harm content can be found, will not even need to consider the risk that any harmful but legal content on their site poses to adult users. Amendment 159 presents a real opportunity for the Government to close a loophole and further improve the legislation to ensure that people of all ages are protected.
The issue is so relevant. Between 2011 and 2015, 151 people who died by suicide were known to have visited websites that encouraged suicide or shared information about methods of harm, and 82% of those people were over 25. The Government must retain regulation of harmful but legal content, but they should extend the coverage of the Bill to smaller platforms where some of the most harmful suicide and self-harm content can be found. I urge the Government to carefully consider and adopt amendment 159.
Finally on closing all the related loopholes in the Bill, new clause 16 tabled by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden would create a new communications offence of sending a message encouraging or assisting another person to self-harm. That offence is crucial to ensuring that the most harmful self-harm content is addressed on all platforms. As the Minister knows, Samaritans was pleased that the Government agreed in principle to create a new offence of encouraging or assisting self-harm earlier this year. That new offence needs to be created in time to be part of this legislation from the outset. We do not want to miss this opportunity. The Law Commission has made recommendations in this regard.
I urge the Government to make sure that the Bill takes all possible opportunities. I know that the Minister is working hard on that, as the right hon. Member for East Hampshire said. I plead with the Minister to accept amendment 159 and new clause 16, so that we do not miss the opportunity to ensure that people over 18 are protected by the legislation and that even the smaller platforms are covered.
The Bill, which will come back before the House next week, is a historic opportunity, and people across the country have taken a close interest in it. My two constituents, Catherine and Melanie, are very keen for the Government not to miss this opportunity. I know that the Minister takes it very seriously and I look forward to his response, which I hope will include reassuring words that the amendments on over-18s and smaller platforms will both be adopted when the Bill returns next week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this vital and timely debate. Time is really of the essence if we are going to deliver the Online Safety Bill in this Session.
The scenario whereby the Bill falls is almost unthinkable. Thousands of man hours have been put in by the team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, by the Home Office team, and by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which the Minister chaired so brilliantly. There have been successive ministerial refinements by quite a few of the people in the Chamber, and numerous parliamentary debates over many years. Most importantly, the stakes in human terms just could not be higher.
As my right hon. Friend said, that was painfully underlined recently during the inquest into Molly Russell’s death. Her story is well documented. It is stories like Molly’s that remind us how dangerous the online world can be. While it is magnificent and life-changing in so many ways, the dark corners of the internet remain a serious concern for children and scores of other vulnerable people.
Of course, the priorities of the Bill must be to protect children, to tackle serious harm, to root out illegal content and to ensure that online platforms are doing what they say they are doing in enforcing their own terms and conditions. Contrary to the lazy accusations, largely by those who have not taken the time to read this hefty piece of legislation, the Bill does not set out to restrict free speech, to protect the feelings of adult users or to somehow legislate for people’s right not to be offended.
Following on from other Members, I will talk about the legal but harmful issue. There is no easy way to define “legal but harmful”, because it is so opaque. Even the name is clunky and unappetising, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) sometimes uses the phrase “lawful but awful”, which often seems more appropriate, but it does not necessarily work from a legislative point of view.
If Molly Russell’s tragic case teaches us anything, it is that dreadful, harmful online content cannot be defined simply by what is strictly legal or illegal, because algorithms do not differentiate between harmless and harmful content. They see a pattern and they exploit it. They are, quite simply, echo chambers. They take our fears and our paranoia, and surround us with unhealthy voices that simply reinforce them, however dangerous or hateful they are. Fundamentally, they breadcrumb users into more content, slowly, piece by piece, cultivating an interest. They take us down a path we might not otherwise have followed—one that is seemingly harmless at the start, but that eventually is anything but.
We have a moral duty to keep children safe on online platforms, but we also have a moral duty to keep other users safe. People of all ages need to be protected from extremely harmful online content, particularly around suicide, self-harm and eating disorders, where the line between what is legal and what is illegal is so opaque. There is an inherent legal complexity in defining what legal but harmful really means.
It feels like this part of the Bill has become a lightning rod for those who think it will result in an overly censorious approach. That is an entirely misleading misinterpretation of what it seeks to achieve. I feel that, perversely, not putting in place protections would be inherently more of a bar to freedom of speech, because users’ content can be taken down at the moment with random unpredictability and without any justification or redress. Others are afraid to speak up, fearing pile-on harassment and intimidation from anonymous accounts.
The fact is that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make this legislation effective and meaningful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
I thank the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this important debate, which has far-reaching impacts for the whole country. I welcome the Minister to his place. I look forward to the Online Safety Bill completing its passage in this Session. We have had to wait quite some time. Four years ago, the Government promised to tighten the law on online harms. The delay has, unfortunately, had devastating impacts for many people in this country: £3 billion has been lost to fraud and 60,000 offences relating to online sexual abuse material and grooming have been committed.
As many Members have said, cyber-bullying has a disastrous effect on young people and, indeed, everyone across our communities. We know that big tech companies will not regulate themselves if it is not in their interest to do so. Sadly, it has taken a while for the necessary actions that we need to be taken. Instead, leading charities have been forced to support the many families who have been affected. I will focus on a key organisation in my constituency that does excellent work fighting for young disabled people and their rights.
Coventry Youth Activists is a wonderful organisation that has played a central role in campaigning for change in the way that disability hate is handled by social media platforms. CYA told me of a staggering 52% increase in online hate crime in 2021; however, their attempt to reach out and ask social media companies, specifically Facebook, to look into how hateful, ableist crime is posted on their platforms and to review their algorithms and respond effectively has not really been taken up, and certainly not by Facebook.
We cannot continue this way. Many young people have suffered devastating impacts. There are tragic consequences to the bullying that many young people face online. One of my constituents told me that when he went to an online platform and asked to volunteer for a community organisation, someone said to him, “What is this giraffe thing? I hope he doesn’t procreate.” That had a significant impact on his mental health and ability to feel valued within the community. That is absolutely wrong. No one should have to experience such bullying.
As things stand, the online world is a space where bullies feel emboldened, because they know that there are zero consequences for their shameful actions. We cannot allow that to continue. Bullies need to know that when they post harmful, hateful things online, they will be dealt with effectively. I urge the Minister to meet with me and Coventry Youth Activists to discuss the important work they have been doing and to ensure that no young person is bullied online, specifically those with a disability. I want to see a world in which the virtual space is a safe space for everybody, regardless of whether one is able or has a disability.
Lastly, I wish to mention the importance of eradicating misinformation and protecting young people. As the right hon. Member for East Hampshire said, misinformation is having a significant impact online and is making the online space more difficult for many people. I encourage the Minister to ensure that action is taken to make the digital space a safe space for young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
As many Members present know, I have been campaigning for verification options on social media to tackle anonymous abuse. I understand that new Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State like to put their own stamp on legislation, but I am appealing for no more delays in protecting children and adults from online abuse. In the time that I have been working on this issue I have had two children, dealt with a pandemic, a war and the deaths of two beloved monarchs, and worked on thousands of cases for people in Stroud; if little old me can fit in that much, I know that the massive Government machine and fantastic civil servants want to get on with this legislation, and we can do it.
I do not mind re-fighting the case for tackling anonymous abuse, because I love working with the Clean up the Internet gang, and anonymity is a really important part of this issue. The ability to operate anonymous accounts is abused on a huge scale and is fuelling racist, antisemitic and sexist abuse, pictures of people’s genitalia being sent around, name calling, bullying, online fraud, misinformation, scams, and the evasion of the law. It is much scarier to receive such abuse when people do not know who is sending it. That is why we have to tackle these issues.
It is not rocket science to understand how the online disinhibition effect makes anonymous users feel less accountable and less responsible for their actions. Recent research by the charity Reset found that those in the much-fêted red wall seats see tackling abuse from anonymous accounts as a top priority for improving the experience of online life. The University of Sheffield and the children’s charity 5Rights, which has played such an important role, have found that the ability to create anonymous accounts is a risky design feature. I urge the Minister to look again at the work of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, which is a doughty champion on this issue. We know that our Jewish communities have suffered dreadfully, with increased abuse and threats in recent years. Issues surrounding the categorisation of platforms and risk factors are well known, but we need to use this opportunity to bring about change.
Our proposals would require social media platforms to give users the choice to verify their own accounts. They would make it very obvious if someone is verified and there would be the option to follow or be followed by only verified accounts. That would not stop the ability to be unverified. People could remain unverified, and that would assist whistleblowers, journalists and anyone in a marginalised group who wants to remain anonymous. In our plans, users could still be Princess or President So-and-so with a funny Twitter handle, but they would know that there is information behind the scenes.
Let me be clear: social media as it stands is damaging free speech. If someone is going to get a rape threat for saying what they think, they will not speak freely. We have to make these changes. The Minister is so brilliant in this policy area, and I urge him to make changes as soon as possible.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate. It is a hackneyed phrase, but the Online Safety Bill is important and genuinely groundbreaking. There will always be a balance to strike between allowing free speech and stopping harms. I think we are on the right side of that balance, but we may need to come back to it later, because it is crucial.
I want to cover two topics in a short amount of time. The first is online harms through social media platforms, touching on the legal but harmful and small, high-harm platforms, and the second is fraud. Starting with fraud, I declare an interest, having spent a decade in that world before I came here.
I thank my right hon. Friend for clarifying that for me—although I would be better off now had I been on the other side of the fence.
Fraud is at epidemic levels. Which? research recently found that six in 10 people who have been victims of fraud suffered significant mental health harms as a result. I use this example repeatedly in this place. In my past life I met, through a safeguarding group, an old lady who accessed the world through her landline telephone. She was scammed out of £20,000 or so through that phone, and then disconnected from the rest of the world afterwards because she simply could not trust that phone when it rang anymore.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world where we are pushing our services online. As we are doing that we cannot afford to be disconnecting people from the online world and taking away from them the services we are opening up to them. That is why it is essential to have vital protections against fraud and fraudulent adverts on some of the larger social platforms and search engines. I know it is out of the scope of this debate but, on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), that is also why it is crucial to fund the law enforcement agencies that go after the people responsible.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire is right: banks have a financial motivation to act on fraud. They are losing money. They have the incentive. Where that motivation is not there, and where there is a disincentive for organisations to act, as is especially the case with internet advertising, we have to move forward with the legislation and remove those disincentives.
On harms, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire is right to mention the harmful but legal. We have to act on this stuff and we have to do it quickly. We cannot stray away from the problems that currently exist online. I serve on the Home Affairs Committee and we have seen and examined the online hate being directed at footballers; the platforms are not acting on it, despite it being pointed out to them.
When it comes to disinformation and small, high-harm platforms—
If it was not intimidating enough to be with the great and the good of the Online Safety Bill, trying to say everything I want in three minutes is even more of a challenge.
I will be brief. I came to this issue through body image; that is why I learned what I have on this subject. I simply ask for two things. In his speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said that this is about frameworks. I have two suggestions that I think would make a huge difference in respect of future-proofing the legislation and providing a framework. The first is to build on the fantastic work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie). We are talking about having authenticated anonymous and non-anonymous accounts. Giving the end user the choice of whether they want to go into the wild west is fundamental.
Now that, through the Content Authenticity Initiative —to which 800 companies around the world have signed up—the technology exists to have an open standard of transparency in respect of how images are taken, from the camera to how they are put in place, we have a framework that runs around the world that means people can make the same choice about images as about accounts. If we future-proof that in legislation, we simply allow the user to choose to switch on that tool and see images that we know are verified on an open source. It is not about someone making a decision; it is simply about understanding where the image comes from, how it got there, how it was made and who passed it on. That is an incredibly powerful and incredibly simple way to create a protective framework.
That leads me to my second, possibly more important, point, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage). Algorithms are king when it comes to social media. Controlling them is very difficult, but someone should be responsible. In schools we have safeguarding leads for dealing with vulnerable people, and in councils we have financial named people, so why on earth do we not have a named person legally responsible for the algorithm in a company? We have it with GDPR. That would allow anyone in this debate, anyone in the police force, anyone in Ofcom or any member of the public to go that person and say, “Why is your algorithm behaving in the way it is?” Every time I have tried to do that, I have been told that it is commercially sensitive and that there is a team somewhere else in the world that deals with it.
I know that Ofcom has the power to deal with this issue, but it is a one-off notice when it is requested. I simply think that stating that there is a named person legally responsible for the algorithm would change behaviours, because their head would be on the chopping block if they got it wrong. This is about responsibility. That is what the Bill provides, and that is why I am advocating for those two points.
I want to offer some help to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) in looking further afield for evidence of this sort of thing working well. That evidence comes from the Council of Europe, which has been very active in this policy area for many years. It works with its 46 member states, the private sector, civil society and other actors to shape an internet based principally on human rights. It aims to ensure that the internet provides a safe and open environment where freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, diversity, culture, education and knowledge can all flourish.
The key pillar for the protection of human rights online is the European convention on human rights. The European Court of Human Rights, which rules on applications, has already delivered landmark judgments concerning the online environment—in particular, in connection with the right to freedom of expression, the right to access information and the right to privacy.
The Lanzarote convention, which we have already ratified, deals in particular with child abuse, which is of great concern to me. It deals with the fact that the form of online abuse keeps changing by involving children in the whole of the process. That is adjusted according to their age. Children and young people who exercise their right to freely express their views as part of this process must be protected from harm, including intimidation, reprisals, victimisation and violations of their right to privacy.
I urge my right hon. Friend and the Minister to look at what the Council of Europe has been doing. It is not part of the EU—they do not have to get tied up with all that—and it represents 46 countries. The issue has been looked at in great depth across wider Europe. They could learn a lot from that experience.
Another day, another Westminster Hall speech.
When I was the Pensions Minister I saw, sadly, hundreds of our constituents being defrauded of millions of pounds every single day by fake advertisers, primarily on Google, Instagram, Facebook and various other social media providers. The offences that have been added in clauses 34 to 36 of the Online Safety Bill are welcome, but I want an assurance from the Minister that there is provision against unregulated advertisers.
I give the example of Aviva, which gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee. It indicated that there were 55 separate fake Aviva sites advertising on Google for financial services. Constituents, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable, were being misled by those people and were signing away significant proportions of money. I hope the provisions in clause 36 cover that situation, but I would be nervous that the Minister would rely on consumer protection in respect of the unfair trading regulations and the actions of the Competition and Markets Authority. I mean no disrespect, but those provisions are pretty ineffective and do not really address these points.
To deal with such issues, the answer is clearly to have a burden of proof on the recipient of the advert that they are vicariously liable for the content they have on their site. That would have the massive benefit, as identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), of putting the burden on the site to justify the content on its site, and there should be consequential fines that should be significant and repeated in their actions. It is very important that the Minister works with the new Home Office teams and that the police forces that are going to take these issues forward are beefed up considerably, because there simply is currently not enough resource to address these issues.
I thank organisations such as The Times—Matt Dathan has done good work on this issue. A lack of implementation will not be for a lack of money. We should bear in mind that Google, or Alphabet, made $14 billion profit last quarter. Its ability to regulate and follow through—to take the work that it is required to do by the Bill and to check advertisers and be responsible for the content, to put it bluntly—is very do-able, under all circumstances. I strongly urge the Minister to double-check that unregulated advertisers are covered in clause 36 and that there will be genuine fines and vicarious liability going forward.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Dowd. I follow a number of excellent speeches. The most excellent was from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). He said many of the things that I would say, which is just as well given the time constraint I face.
Many people have said that the Bill will be back on Tuesday. I do not expect the Minister to confirm the business for next week, but if it does not come back next Tuesday, we will have a difficulty. The delay to the Bill must be either because people in the Government believe that it can be made perfect, or because they believe that it can be made less difficult. Neither of those two things are possible.
The Bill will always be imperfect. However hard many of us have worked to get it there, it will never be perfect, and it needs to be brought forward anyway. If people think the Bill’s fundamental choices will become easier by the passage of time, they are fundamentally mistaken. This will always be a difficult set of choices, but those choices need to be made. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said, when it comes to the most contentious part of the Bill—which is only about eight, nine or maybe 10 clauses of 190 or so—on what we shall now refer to as “harmful but legal” material, three things need to be understood by those who believe that that part of it is unacceptable.
First, as others have said, we should start with what the Bill actually says—always a good place to start. There is an important balancing duty on all platforms to protect freedom of speech, in addition to the duties they have to protect others from harm.
Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said, the platform is required to describe how it will handle harmful material; it is not required to remove that material automatically. That is not well understood. I would add that if the Government are to do any more work on the Bill, a definition of what is meant by harmful would be helpful and necessary.
We must understand that we regulate in other environments beyond the confines of the criminal law. The objective of this legislation has always been to create a more level playing field between the online world and every other world. We should remind ourselves that that is where the Bill starts and continues.
Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend also said, the status quo does not restrict the platforms from taking down whatever they like now. Anyone worried about freedom of speech should worry about the situation that we have today, not the situation that we will have under this legislation.
The fundamental point is that we have to get on with it. People have talked about the Bill being world leading, and it is, but we can only lead if we go first. Many others are also developing legislation. If we do not succeed in being world leading, we will miss an opportunity to set the standard in this legislation and regulation. Most importantly, we will let down our own citizens, who have a right to be kept safer online than they are.
I thank the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing the debate. As he said, it is the right time to have this discussion, as one of the last opportunities to do so before the legislation leaves the House of Commons. He mentioned a number of organisations that have been in touch and have assisted with information. I do not think he mentioned—I apologise if he did—Refuge and Girlguiding, which both do excellent work and have provided an awful lot of useful information, particularly on how women and girls experience the online world. I accept that he could not possibly have covered every organisation in the time that he had to speak.
I apologise to hon. Members for the lack of Scottish National party colleagues here, which is not intentional: three others were supposed to attend, but for genuinely good reasons that I cannot pass on, they did not. I apologise for the fact that I am the only representative of the SNP—it was not intentional.
I want to pass on a comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who highlighted to me what happened to St Albert’s Primary School at the beginning of this month or the tail end of last month. The First Minister of Scotland went to visit the school on 30 September to celebrate the work that it was doing on tackling climate change. As a result, the school was subject to horrific racist abuse. Thousands of racist messages were sent to St Albert’s Primary. I want to highlight that, because it is one of the reasons that we need this legislation. That abuse was aimed specifically at children and was genuinely horrific. I urge the Minister to look at that case so that he is aware.
The Bill has been needed for 30 years. It is not just something that we need now; we have needed it for a long time. I am very pleased that the Commons stages are nearly completed. Along with all other voices here, I urge the Government to please let the Bill come back to us so that we can finish our debate on it and it can complete its Commons stages. I feel as though I have spent quite a significant portion of my life dealing with the Bill, but I recognise that that is nothing compared with the hours that many hon. Members, organisations and staff have put in. It has been uppermost in my mind since the commencement of the Bill Committee earlier this year.
The internet is wonderful and brilliant. There are so many cool and exciting things to do on it. There are so many ways in which it makes our lives easier and enables people to communicate with each other. I can be down here and Facetime my children, which would not have been possible had I been an MP 20 or 30 years ago. Those things are great. It is brilliant for children to be able to access the internet, to be able to access games and to be able to play. It is amazing that there is a new playground for people—one that we did not have 30 years ago—and these are really good things. We need to make sure that the legislation that comes in is permissive and allows those things to continue to happen, but in a way that is safe and that protects children.
Child sexual abuse has been mentioned. I do not want to go into it too much, but for me that is the key thing about the Bill. The Bill largely covers what I would hope it would cover in terms of child sexual abuse. I strenuously resist any suggestion that we need to have total end-to-end encryption that cannot be looked at even if there is suspicion of child sexual abuse, because it is paramount that we protect children and that we are able to catch the perpetrators sharing images.
We have talked about the metaverse and things in the future, but I am still concerned that some of the things that happen today are not adequately covered by the scope of the Bill. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) said about amendment 159, which is incredibly important. It would allow Ofcom, which is the expert, to classify additional sites that are incredibly harmful as category 1. It would not be down to the Government to say, “We’re adding this one site.” It would be down to Ofcom, the expert, to make those decisions.
Social media is not just Facebook or Twitter. It is not just the way that older adults interact with each other on the internet. It is Fortnite, Discord, Twitch, Snapchat and Roblox. I do not whether Members heard “File on 4” last night, but it was scathing in its criticism of Roblox and the number of horrific experiences that children are subjected to, on a platform that is supposed to be safe. It is promoted as a safe space for children, and it is absolutely not.
I am still massively concerned about clause 49, which talks about exempting
“one-to-one live aural communications”.
If one-to-one live aural communications are exempted, a one-to-one communication on Discord will be exempt from the legislation and will not count as user-generated content, even though it is user-generated content. I understand why the Government have put that in the Bill—it is about exempting telecoms, and I get that—but they have accidentally exempted a platform that groomers use in order to get children off Roblox, Fortnite or whatever they are playing and on to Discord, where they can have a conversation with those children. I am absolutely clear that clause 49 needs to be sorted so that the things the Government want to be exempted are still exempted, but the things that need to be in scope are in scope.
A point was made about the level of addiction, and the level of harm, that can be caused by algorithms. The idea of having a named person is very smart, and it is something that I would wholeheartedly support. It makes a huge amount of sense to include that in the Bill.
We have had an awful lot of chaos in the past wee while. Things have not looked as we expected them to look on any given day—things are changing in a matter of hours—but whatever chaos there is, the Government need to be clear that this issue is really important. It transcends party lines, arguments within the Conservative party and all of that. This is about protecting children and vulnerable people, and ensuring that we have protections in place. We need to make sure that legal but harmful is included in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Leeds East talked about ensuring that vulnerable adults are included in the Bill. We cannot just have provisions in place for children when we are aware that a huge number of adults are vulnerable for various reasons—whether that is because of mental health conditions, learning difficulties or age—and are potentially not protected if legal but harmful does not make it over the final hurdle. I urge the Minister to do that. The key thing is to please bring the Bill back so that we can get it into legislation.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to be here representing the Opposition in this important debate. This is the first time I have overwhelmingly agreed with every single excellent contribution in this Chamber. That goes to show that, as my friend the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) said, this does cross party lines and is not a political issue—at least, it should not be. There is huge cross-party consensus in this place, and the other place, about getting the Bill on the statute book and in action to protect everybody on the internet.
I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) who, as a former Education Secretary, comes at this debate with a huge breadth of knowledge and experience. He is a former colleague of mine; we sat together on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, where we scrutinised this legislation and these issues in depth. I know it is an issue he cares very deeply about. I echo his and other Members’ sentiments on the reappointment of the Minister, who comes at this with a breadth of experience and cares deeply. I am very pleased to see him in his post.
Regulation to tackle online abuse was first promised many years ago. In the initial White Paper, the Conservatives promised world-leading legislation. However, when the draft Online Safety Bill was published in May 2021, those proposals were totally watered down and incomplete. The Bill is no longer world leading. Since it was first announced that this Government intended to regulate the online space, seven jurisdictions have introduced online safety laws. Although those pieces of legislation are not perfect, they are in place. In that time, online crime has exploded, child sex abuse online has become rife and scams have continued to proliferate. The Minister knows that, and he may share my frustration and genuine concern at the cost that the delay is causing.
I recognise that we are living in turbulent political times, but when it comes to online harms, particularly in the context of children, we cannot afford to wait. Last week, the coroner’s report from the tragic death of Molly Russell brought into sharp relief the serious impact that harmful social media content is having on young people across the UK every day. Let me be clear; Molly Russell’s death is a horrific tragedy. I pay tribute to her father Ian and her family, who have, in the most harrowing of circumstances, managed to channel their energy into tireless campaigning that has quite rightly made us all sit up and listen.
Molly’s untimely death, to which, as the coroner announced last week, harmful social media content was a contributing factor, has stunned us all. It should force action from the Government. While I was pleased to note in the business statement last week that the Online Safety Bill will return to the House on Tuesday, I plead with the Minister to work with Labour, the SNP and all parties to get it through, with some important amendments. Without measures on legal but harmful content—or harmful but legal, as we are now referring to it—it is not likely that suicide and self-harm content such as that faced online by Molly or by Joe Nihill, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), will be dealt with.
Enough is enough. Children and adults—all of us—need to be kept safe online. Labour has long campaigned for stronger protections online for children and the public, to keep people safe, secure our democracy and ensure that everyone is treated with decency and respect. There is broad consensus that social media companies have failed to regulate themselves. That is why I urge the Minister to support our move to ensure that those at the top of multi-million-pound social media companies are held personally accountable for failures beyond those currently in the Bill relating to information notices.
The Online Safety Bill is our opportunity to do better. I am keen to understand why the Government have failed to introduce or support personal criminal liability measures for senior leaders who have fallen short on their statutory duty to protect us online. There are such measures in other areas, such as financial services. The same goes for the Government’s approach to the duties of care for adults under the Bill—what we call harmful but legal. The Minister knows that the Opposition has concerns over the direction of the Bill, as do other Members here today.
Freedom of speech is vital to our democracy, but it absolutely must not come at a harmful cost. The Bill Committee, which I was a member of, heard multiple examples of racist, antisemitic, extremist and other harmful publishers, from holocaust deniers to white supremacists, which would stand to benefit from the recognised news publisher exemption as it currently stands, either overnight or by making minor administrative changes.
In Committee, in response to an amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), the Minister promised the concession that Russia Today would be excluded from the recognised news publisher exemption. I am pleased that the Government have indeed promised to exclude sanctioned news titles such as Russia Today through an amendment that they have said they will introduce at a later stage, but that does not go far enough. Disinformation outlets rarely have the profile of Russia Today. Often they operate more discreetly and are less likely to attract sanctions. For those reasons, the Government must go further. As a priority, we must ensure that the current exemption cannot be exploited by bad actors. The Government must not give a free pass to those propagating racist or misogynistic harm and abuse.
Aside from freedom of speech, Members have raised myriad harms that appear online, many of which we tried to tackle with amendments in Committee. A robust corporate and senior management liability scheme for routine failures was rejected. Basic duties that would have meant that social media companies had to publish their own risk assessments were rejected. Amendments to bring into scope small but high-harm platforms that we have heard about today were also rejected. The Government would not even support moves to name violence against women and girls as a harm in the Bill, despite the huge amount of evidence suggesting that women and people of colour are more at risk.
Recent research from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate has found that Instagram fails to act on nine out of 10 reports of misogyny over its direct messenger. One in 15 DMs sent to women by strangers were abusive or contained violent and sexual images. Of 330 examples reported on Twitter and Instagram, only nine accounts were removed. More than half of those that were reported continued to offend. The Government are letting down survivors and putting countless women and girls at risk of gendered harms, such as image-based sexual abuse—so-called revenge porn—rape threats, doxxing and tech abuse perpetrated by an abusive partner. What more will it take for meaningful change to be made?
I hope the Minister will address those specific omissions. Although I recognise that he was not in his role as the Bill progressed in Committee, he is in the unfortunate position of having to pick up the pieces. I hope he will today give us some reassurances, which I know many of us are seeking.
I must also raise with the Minister once again the issue of online discriminatory abuse, particularly in the context of sport. In oral questions I recently raised the very serious problem of rising discrimination faced not just by players but their families, referees, coaches, pundits, fans and others. I know the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) tried to make this point in his contribution. Abuse and harm faced online is not virtual; it is real and has a lasting impact. Labour Members believe it is essential that tech firms are held to account when harmful abuse and criminal behaviour appear on, are amplified by and therefore flourish on their platforms.
There are genuine issues with the Government’s approach to the so-called legal but harmful provisions in the Bill that will, in essence, fail to capture some of the most harmful content out there. We have long called for a more systems-based approach to the Bill, and we need only to look at the research that we have had from Kick It Out to recognise the extent of the issue. Research from that organisation used artificial intelligence to identify violent abuse that falls below the current criminal thresholds outlined in the current draft of the Bill. There is no need for me to repeat the vile language in this place today. We have only to cast our minds back to 2020 and the Euros to recall the disgraceful abuse—and more—targeted at members of the England team to know the realities of the situation online. But it does not have to be this way.
Labour colleagues have repeatedly raised concerns that the current AI moderation practices utilised by the big social media giants are seemingly incapable of adapting to the rapid rate at which new internet-based languages, emojis and euphemisms develop. It is wrong of the Government to pursue an online harms agenda that is so clearly focused on content moderation, rather than considering the business models that underpin those harmful practices. Worse still, we now know that that approach often underpins a wide range of the harmful content that we see online.
The Times recently reported that TikTok users were able to easily evade safety filters to share suicide and self-harm posts by using slang terms and simple misspellings. Some of the content in question had been online for more than a year, despite including direct advice on how to self-harm. TikTok’s community guidelines forbid content that depicts or encourages suicide or self-harm, and yet such content still remains online for everyone to see.
We have concerns that the Government’s current approach will have little impact unless the big firms are held more accountable. What we really need is a consistent approach from the Government, and a commitment to tackling myriad online harms that is fit for the modern age and for emerging tech, too. There is a widespread political consensus on the importance of getting this right, and the Minister can be assured of success if only his Department is prepared to listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. This is my first appearance as a Minister in Westminster Hall, and your first appearance in the Chair, so we are both making our debuts. I hope we have long and successful reigns in our respective roles.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and to his excellent opening speech. He feels strongly about these issues—as he did both in Government and previously as a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee—and he has spoken up about them. I enjoyed working with him when he was a Minister at the Home Office and I chaired the prelegislative scrutiny Committee, which discussed many important features of the Online Safety Bill. One feature of the Bill, of course, is the inclusion of measures on fraud and scam advertising, which was a recommendation of the Joint Committee. It made my life easier that, by the time I became a Minister in the Department, the Government had already accepted that recommendation and introduced the exemption, and I will come on to talk about that in more detail.
My right hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and other Members raised the case of Molly Russell, and it is important to reflect on that case. I share the sentiments expressed about the tragedy of Molly’s death, its avoidable nature and the tireless work of the Russell family, and particularly her father, Ian Russell, whom I have met several times to discuss this. The Russell family pursued a very difficult and complicated case, which required a huge release of evidence from the social media companies, particularly Instagram and Pinterest, to demonstrate the sort of content to which Molly Russell was exposed.
One of the things Ian Russell talks about is the work done by the investigating officers in the coroner’s inquest. Tellingly, the inquest restricted the amount of time that people could be exposed to the content that Molly was exposed to, and ensured that police officers who were investigating were not doing so on their own. Yet that was content that a vulnerable teenage girl saw repeatedly, on her own, in isolation from those who could have helped her.
When online safety issues are raised with social media companies, they say things like, “We make this stuff very hard to find.” The lived experience of most teenagers is not searching for such material; it is such material being selected by the platforms and targeted at the user. When someone opens TikTok, their first exposure is not to content that they have searched for; it is to content recommended to them by TikTok, which data-profiles the user and chooses things that will engage them. Those engagement-based business models are at the heart of the way the Online Safety Bill works and has to work. If platforms choose to recommend content to users to increase their engagement with the platform, they make a business decision. They are selecting content that they think will make a user want to return more frequently and stay on the platform for longer. That is how free apps make money from advertising: by driving engagement.
It is a fair criticism that, at times, the platforms are not effective enough at recognising the kinds of engagement tools they are using, the content that is used to engage people and the harm that that can do. For a vulnerable person, the sad truth is that their vulnerability will probably be detected by the AI that drives the recommendation tools. That person is far more likely to be exposed to content that will make their vulnerabilities worse. That is how a vulnerable teenage girl can be held by the hand—by an app’s AI recommendation tools—and walked from depression to self-harm and worse. That is why regulating online safety is so important and why the protection of children is so fundamental to the Bill. As hon. Members have rightly said, we must also ensure that we protect adults from some of the illegal and harmful activity on the platforms and hold those platforms to account for the business model they have created.
I take exception to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Pontypridd that this is a content-moderation Bill. It is not; it is a systems Bill. The content that we use, and often refer to, is an exemplar of the problem; it is an exemplar of things going wrong. On all the different areas of harm that are listed in the Bill, particularly the priority legal offences in schedule 7, our challenge to the companies is: “You have to demonstrate to the regulator that you have appropriate systems in place to identify this content, to ensure that you are not amplifying or recommending it and to mitigate it.” Mitigation could be suppressing the content—not letting it be amplified by their tools—removing it altogether or taking action against the accounts that post it. It is the regulator’s job to work with the companies, assess the risk, create codes of practice and then hold the companies to account for how they work.
There is criminal liability for the companies if they refuse to co-operate with the regulator. If they refuse to share information or evidence asked for by the regulator, a named company director will be criminally liable. That was in the original Bill. The recommendation in the Joint Committee report was that that should be commenced within months of the Bill being live; originally it was going to be two years. That is in the Bill today, and it is important that it is there so that companies know they have to comply with requests.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd is right to say that the Bill is world-leading, in the sense that it goes further than other people’s Bills, but other Bills have been enacted elsewhere in the world. That is why it is important that we get on with this.
The Minister is right to say that we need to get on with this. I appreciate that he is not responsible for the business of this House, but his party and his Government are, so will he explain why the Bill has been pulled from the timetable next week, if it is such an important piece of legislation?
As the hon. Lady knows, I can speak to the Bill; I cannot speak to the business of the House—that is a matter for the business managers in the usual way. Department officials—some here and some back at the Department—have been working tirelessly on the Bill to ensure we can get it in a timely fashion. I want to see it complete its Commons stages and go to the House of Lords as quickly as possible. Our target is to ensure that it receives safe passage in this Session of Parliament. Obviously, I cannot talk to the business of the House, which may alter as a consequence of the changes to Government.
On that point, will the Minister assure us that he will push for the Bill to come back? Will he make the case to the business managers that the Bill should come back as soon as possible, in order to fulfil his aim of having it pass in this Session of Parliament?
As the hon. Lady knows, I cannot speak to the business of the House. What I would say is that the Department has worked tirelessly to ensure the safe passage of the Bill. We want to see it on the Floor of the House as quickly as possible—our only objective is to ensure that that happens. I hope that the business managers will be able to confirm shortly when that will be. Obviously, the hon. Lady can raise the issue herself with the Leader of the House at the business statement tomorrow.
Could the Minister address the serious issue raised my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)? There can be no excuse for search engines to give a prominent place, or indeed any place, to fake Aviva sites—scamming sites—once those have been brought to their attention. Likewise, unacceptable scam ads for Aviva, Martin Lewis or whoever are completely avoidable if decent checks are in place. Will the Government address those issues in the Bill and in other ways?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The answer is yes, absolutely. It was always the case with the Bill that illegal content, including fraud, was in scope. The question in the original draft Bill was that that did not include advertising. Advertising can be in the form of display advertising that can be seen on social media platforms; for search services, it can also be boosted search returns. Under the Bill, known frauds and scams that have been identified should not appear in advertising on regulated platforms. That change was recommended by the Joint Committee, and the Government accepted it. It is really important that that is the case, because the company should have a liability; we cannot work just on the basis that the offence has been committed by the person who has created the advert and who is running the scam. If an intermediary platform is profiting out of someone else’s illegal activity, that should not be allowed. It would be within Ofcom’s regulatory powers to identify whether that is happening and to see that platforms are taking action against it. If not, those companies will be failing in their safety duties, and they will be liable for very large fines that can be levied against them for breaching their obligations, as set out in the Online Safety Bill, which can be up to 10% of global revenues in any one year. That power will absolutely be there.
Some companies could choose to have systems in place to make it less likely that scam ads would appear on their platforms. Google has a policy under which it works with the Financial Conduct Authority and does not accept financial product advertising from organisations that are not FCA accredited. That has been quite an effective way to filter out a lot of potential scam ads before they appear. Whether companies have policies such as that, or other ways of doing these things, they will have to demonstrate to Ofcom that those are effective. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) want to come in on that? I can see him poised to spring forward.
I would like to touch on some of the other issues that have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and others made the point about smaller, high-risk platforms. All platforms, regardless of size, have to meet the illegal priority harm standard. For the worst offences, they will already have to produce risk assessments and respond to Ofcom’s request for information. Given that, I would suspect that, if Ofcom had a suspicion that serious illegal activity, or other activity that was causing serious concern, was taking place on a smaller platform, it would have powers to investigate and would probably find that the platform was in breach of those responsibilities. It is not the case that if a company is not a category 1 company, it is not held to account under the illegal priority harms clauses of the Bill. Those clauses cover a wide range of offences, and it is important—this was an important amendment to the Bill recommended by the Joint Committee—that those offences were written into the Bill so that people can see what they are.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd raised the issue of violence against women and girls, but what I would say is that violence against everyone is included in the Bill. The offences of promoting or inciting violence, harassment, stalking and sending unsolicited sexual images are all included in the Bill. The way the schedule 7 offences work is that the schedule lists existing areas of law. Violence against women and girls is covered by lots of different laws; that is why there is not a single offence for it and why it is not listed. That does not mean that we do not take it seriously. As I said to the hon. Lady when we debated this issue on the first day of Report, we all understand that women and girls are far more likely to be victims of abuse online, and they are therefore the group that should benefit the most from the provisions in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) spoke about cyber-bullying. Again, offences relating to harassment are included in the Bill. This is also an important area where the regulator’s job is to ensure that companies enforce their own terms of service. For example, TikTok, which is very popular with younger users, has in place quite strict policies on preventing bullying, abuse and intimidation on its services. But does it enforce that effectively? So far, we have largely relied on the platforms self-declaring whether that is the case; we have never had the ability to really know. Now Ofcom will have that power, and it will be able to challenge companies such as TikTok. I have raised with TikTok as well my concern about the prevalence of blackout challenge content, which remains on that platform and which has led to people losing their lives. Could TikTok be more effective at removing more of that content? We will now have the regulatory power to investigate—to get behind the curtain and to see what is really going on.
I will just touch on a couple of other points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and other Members raised the point about the abuse of footballers. The abuse suffered by England footballers after the final of the European championship is a very good example. Some people have been charged and prosecuted for what they posted. It was a known-about risk; it was avoidable. The platform should have done more to stop it. This Bill will make sure that they do.
That shows that we have many offences where there is already a legal threshold, and we want them to be included in the regulatory systems. For online safety standards, it is important that the minimum thresholds are based on our laws. In the debate on “legal but harmful”, one of the key points to consider, and one that many Members have brought up, is what we base the thresholds on. To base them on the many offences that we already have written into law is, I think, a good starting point. We understand what those thresholds are. We understand what illegal activity is. We say to the platforms, “Your safety standards must, at a minimum, be at that level.” Platforms do go further in their terms of service. Most terms of service, if properly enforced, would deal with most of the sorts of content that we have spoken about. That is why, if the platforms are to enforce their terms of service properly, the provisions on traceability and accountability are so important. I believe that that will capture the offences that we need.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) rightly said—if I may paraphrase slightly—that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will always be new things that we wish to add and new offences that we have not yet thought about that we need to include, and the structure of the Bill creates the framework for that. In the future, Parliament can create new offences that can form part of the schedule of priority illegal offences. On priority harms, I would say that that is the stuff that the platforms have to proactively look for. Anything illegal could be considered illegal online, and the regulators could take action against it.
Let me finish by thanking all the Members here, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage), another former Minister. A very knowledgeable and distinguished group of Members have taken part in this debate. Finally, I thank the officials at the Department. Until someone is actually in the Department, they can never quite know what work is being done—that is the nature of Government—but I know how personally dedicated those officials are to the Bill. They have all gone the extra mile in the work they are doing for it. For their sakes and all of ours, I want to make sure that we pass it as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered online harms.
Kettering General Hospital Redevelopment
I beg to move,
That this House has considered redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital.
It is a genuine pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. The redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital is the No. 1 local priority for all residents in Kettering and across north Northamptonshire because our hospital is a much-loved local institution. It has been in the town of Kettering since the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, in 1897. That was a great year for Kettering because of the establishment of not only the hospital but the much-loved local newspaper, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph. Here we are, 125 years on, with an extremely exciting programme of investment going into the hospital. It is such an important issue that this is now my ninth debate on Kettering General Hospital and my sixth since September 2019. We really want this redevelopment programme to succeed.
I want to start by acknowledging the Government’s commitment to the hospital, because they have pledged a massive amount of money, totalling £563 million. That includes the write-off in 2020 of £167 million of trust debt; an award of £46 million, initially to develop an on-site urgent care hub; and the main investment of £350 million—which was always going to be for 2025 to 2030—under health infrastructure plan 2 funding, for the major redevelopment of the hospital. I welcome that very much indeed. However, pledges of investment are one thing; actually delivering the cash is another. That is why this is now the sixth debate since September 2019. I see it as my role to constantly prod the Government to ensure that the investment is forthcoming.
We need that investment because Kettering and north Northamptonshire are among the fastest-growing places in the country. The hospital serves the population of Northamptonshire and south Leicestershire, which has already grown by double the national average over recent years. The latest Office for National Statistics data estimates above-average percentage population growth of up to 40% over the next 30 years in all three components of population change—net within-UK migration, net international migration and net births and deaths. Corby also has the country’s highest birth rate. The hospital expects a 21% increase in the number—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was explaining before our debate was interrupted by votes in the House, the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital is badly needed. Corby has the country’s highest birth rate, and the hospital expects a 21% increase in the number of over-80s in the local area in the next five years. The area has committed to at least 35,000 new houses over the next 10 years, and the local population is set to rise by some 84,000 to 400,000 people. The accident and emergency unit already sees up to 300 patients every single day in a department that is sized to safely see only 110. Over the next 10 years, the hospital expects the number of A&E attendances to increase by 30,000, up from 100,000. That is the equivalent of almost 80 extra patients a day.
Basically, the A&E is full. It was constructed in 1994 to cope with just 45,000 attendances each year, but 170,000 attendances are expected by 2045. Seventy per cent. of the buildings on the main site are more than 30 years old, and there is a maintenance backlog of £42 million. Sixty per cent. of the hospital estate is rated either poor or bad. Local people all know that investment is badly needed, and the Government have rightly accepted that.
I was delighted when the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and the newly reappointed Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), came to visit the hospital on 22 July. The Minister has a photograph, which I have shared with him, of the Health Secretary standing in front of the temporary power plant, which is now 10 years old. It was hissing, spluttering and sneezing in front of us. That is why the newly redeveloped hospital needs a new energy centre.
One month after the visit, I was delighted to get a nice letter from the Secretary of State, which stated:
“Further to my visit on 22 July to Kettering General Hospital. I write to confirm approval of the funding you requested for enabling works for the next phase of the new hospital.
We discussed how the hospital presently relies on a temporary steam boiler plant and your concerns with the main high voltage electricity supply. You made a compelling case. I can therefore confirm that up to £34m is approved for investment in the new Energy Centre and enabling works, together with a further £4.1m for the high voltage cable. This will now enable this work to commence, and is a positive step forward in providing the facilities staff and patients need.
At our meeting we also discussed the scope to apply the new Hospital 1:0 design, through which the NHS will now procure and build new hospitals, enabling a quicker Treasury approval process, economies of scale delivering better value for money, and faster construction timescales unlocking earlier operational delivery. I look forward to working with you on this as we progress the wider programme of work at Kettering General Hospital.”
That is fantastic news, and we need the project to start as soon as possible. The present timescales that the hospital has provided me with suggest that the electrical work for the new high-voltage cable, for which the hospital has the money, can start in April or May 2023 and be complete by the end of the year. As for the energy centre itself, between now and January 2023, the hospital intends to appoint a construction partner. It aims to complete its final business case by early summer next year, with subsequent approval by the Department of Health and Social Care. Construction will potentially start in December 2023 and be complete by December 2024. The good news is that local residents can expect to see works starting on site in the spring of next year.
The trust has received written approval, not only from the Secretary of State but from the joint investment committee of the Department of Health and Social Care, to progress with the next stage of its plans to build the new energy centre. The next stage is to appoint a construction partner to take the scheme to the final stage of design and to submit a full business case. The total cost is £38.2 million, which includes £4 million for upgrading the electrical intake to the site. To manage the risk of further inflation—which is running at 10% nationally—the trust is looking for commitment from the Department’s new hospital programme team to work on the final business case together, in order to prevent delays in later approvals. I would welcome the Minister’s support for that.
There is also a number of other small enabling works that are “final scheme option agnostic”—in other words, whatever the final design of the newly redeveloped hospital after 2025, those enabling works will be required. They are on a critical path for the hospital to start now in order to keep things on track. Those costs, including the £38 million that has been allocated, are all covered by the initial allocation of £46 million already awarded to the trust. They sit outside the national new hospital programme budget. However, the trust has been told by the new hospital programme team that it cannot proceed with those additional small enabling works. I seek the Minister’s intervention to try to unblock that refusal.
The national new hospital programme team has stated that it is not reviewing overall outline business cases for the main build after 2025 until the end of this year at the earliest. That is a shame; I think it should be sped up. The 2025 timeline for the main new building works to start therefore remains at risk. Will the Minister support Kettering hospital trust with £400,000 of capital in this financial year to progress a small number of other works that are on the critical path? That is not a huge sum of money, and it would enable the scheme to be completed earlier.
Will the Minister encourage the new hospital programme team to co-produce, with the hospital trust, the full business case for the energy centre to minimise further inflation risk related to delays? Will he recognise the advanced position of the overall Kettering scheme, its minimal risk and its ability to make visible, significant progress faster than bigger, more complex schemes, by prioritising it among the current wave three and four schemes?
Since the Secretary of State’s visit, the trust has received official approval from the joint investment committee of the Department of Health and Social Care for the energy centre business case. That approval understandably came with a number of conditions, which the trust and the national team are proactively working through together. That is based on the estimated cost of £38 million. Importantly, it has been agreed that the trust can start the procurement process for a ProCure23 construction partner to develop the energy centre scheme to the next level of detail, and to build the centre.
Following a question from the joint investment committee chair, the trust itself has made a proposal for how it could work with the national team to co-produce the full business case for the energy centre, so that the approval process can be as speedy as possible and inflation and procurement matters can be best managed. That was warmly received by the joint investment committee chair. Timescales for completion remain late 2024, but they could be advanced through such an approach. I encourage the Minister to actively support us in that bid.
In terms of moving other smaller enabling works forward, the trust has set out which elements are on the critical path for a main build start date after 2025. All elements are agnostic about which final option is approved for the main build, but if they do not start soon, they will affect the trust’s ability to make visible progress on the main scheme once approved. Those elements include the creation of a new car park for patients and staff to replace those lost once construction starts, and moving staff and clinical services into Kettering town centre to free up space on the site for any new build to begin. That also supports the levelling-up agenda and the regeneration of Kettering town itself. I remind the Minister that Kettering is a priority 1 area for levelling-up funding.
The trust is requesting £400,000 in the current year to help to progress those elements, but it will require a total eventual early drawdown of around £8 million for the essential enabling works across the calendar years 2023 and 2024. It is worth noting that adding that £8 million to the £38 million for the energy centre brings the total to the original £46 million sustainability and transformation plan wave 4b funding, which is already part of the trust’s allocation. It is not subject to the larger new hospital programme budget; however, up to this point the trust has so far been told that it cannot progress the additional enabling works.
The hospital’s business case for the main £350 million clinical scheme was submitted on 6 July, and the current national position is that none of the waves 3 and 4 schemes is being considered or reviewed. The trust scheme is a wave 4 scheme, and therefore the hospital is unable to progress any further until the timescales are improved. I emphasise to the Minister that the Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust scheme continues to be ready to progress to the next level of detail, and remains a relatively low-risk scheme to deliver visible progress for the national programme quickly. The hospital already has pre-application planning approval. It does not require public consultation or new land negotiations. It is fully supported by the relevant clinicians and the local integrated care board, and it meets all the key national requirements in terms of net zero carbon and digitalisation.
The hospital is confident that, compared with other larger, more complicated and less advanced schemes, the Kettering scheme offers the national programme an excellent opportunity to push forward a scheme to construction stage by early 2025. Kettering General Hospital and its redevelopment is the No. 1 local priority for local residents. The Minister’s own constituents use Kettering General Hospital on a regular basis. This is a nimble scheme that will deliver early clinical benefits to local patients. I urge him to get fully behind it, so that Kettering can have the redeveloped hospital that all local residents want and need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), on securing this important debate. The fact that he has managed to trigger so many debates on this subject shows what a relentless champion he has been for the project. It was pleasing to hear about the good progress that is being made, in no small part thanks to his help. As he says, I should declare an interest: many of my own constituents use the hospital; and, as I come through his constituency on the train each night, I see the expansion of Kettering that he described, and which makes the investment so necessary.
My hon. Friend asked a number of technical questions that I am afraid I will have to take away and come back to him on, because I want to give precise answers rather than ones that are wrong; however, I undertake to do that with the Department. Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust continues to work closely with our new hospital programme team as part of the plan to deliver 48 hospitals by 2030. I am pleased to see that, to date, the scheme for Kettering General Hospital has received £4.4 million, and on 14 October—these are live events—we wrote to the trust confirming £38.2 million for the package of enabling works that he talked about, including the new energy centre, which as he said is much needed, and the high voltage cable.
On 20 October, just six days ago, officials from the new hospital programme met with the trust to discuss the next steps for the enabling works, to ensure that the funding can be accessed swiftly. It was a very positive meeting and, subject to some technical assurances being met, which are progressing rapidly, we are working towards a memorandum of understanding that will be signed to enable the drawdown of the funds. That will enable the works to commence and is a positive step forward in providing the facilities that the staff and the patients need. All the hospital projects that are part of the new hospital programme, including the one at Kettering General Hospital, will work with that central team with the support of regional system and local trust leadership to design and deliver that new and exciting investment.
The collaborative approach is intended to help each trust to get the most from its available funding, while avoiding repetition of works. For example, modern construction methods and net zero techniques will be embedded in the programme from the outset, as my hon. Friend called for. That will maximise the benefits of the programme and ensure that we get the best value for money for taxpayers in Kettering and across the country. The commitment to fund a programme of new hospitals is an exciting opportunity to build the next generation of intelligent healthcare facilities, as well as to embed a long-term capability to manage future capital investment into the NHS, which is much needed.
We are working closely with Kettering on how it will deliver better and more efficient design through the standardisation that comes from the approach we are taking. The intention is that end-to-end delivery timescales will be reduced and we will be able to deliver more quickly. That will also allow the new hospitals to benefit from efficiencies and economies of scale and from being built concurrently with others of the same kind. For Kettering General Hospital, that will mean state-of-the-art facilities to ensure world-class provision of healthcare. That will improve patient outcomes, which is what we all want to see.
The Government have been doing ambitious work, providing substantial capital investment to support the biggest hospital building programme in a generation. In October 2020, an initial £3.7 billion of funding was confirmed to support the delivery of 40 new hospitals, with a further eight schemes invited to bid for future funding to deliver 48 hospitals by 2030. I am pleased that six of the hospitals in the programme are already in construction, including the Royal United Hospital in Bath, which is the first of the 40 new hospitals to begin construction. In addition, in August last year, the northern centre for cancer care opened, the first of the eight hospitals confirmed by the previous Government. This hospital building programme comes in addition to significant upgrades to over 70 hospitals worth £1.7 billion, and a wider programme of capital investment.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. He has done such good work in continuing to push in such a constructive way to ensure that the meetings are happening as quickly as they need to, that everyone is playing their part and that both sides are working together to fix the issues that he has talked about, to deliver the opportunities that he sees so clearly. I am delighted that we have now approved the business cases for the £38 million-worth of enabling works for the energy centre and the cable, which will enable the work to commence at the site. We will make sure that this ambitious and innovative approach to building new hospitals is a success, not only at Kettering General Hospital, but across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
Pension Credit and Cost of Living Support Grant
I beg to move,
That this House has considered pension credit and the cost-of-living support grant eligibility period extension.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am not going to go through all the stats that demonstrate that far too many older people live in poverty. I expect others might do that, but I also think we are all in agreement about it. I know that we are all in agreement that the uptake of pension credit—the social security payment that goes only to the very poorest of our pensioners—is, at around 60%, far too low. I know this because the Conservative UK Government have an annual pension credit awareness day and, whenever we have talked about it in Westminster Hall or in the main Chamber, everyone says something more has to be done.
My ask today is for the Government to agree to something that could see the biggest ever increase in uptake of pension credit. I published an early-day motion to that effect, I presented a petition on the Floor of the House and I wrote to myriad Chancellors and Ministers, so far to no avail. My ask, as the motion says, is to extend the deadline for eligibility for the £650 cost of living payment, because the deadline for that crucial help has passed. Anybody applying after 19 August 2022 may well get pension credit, but crucially they will not get that £650. That, I believe, is what could make all the difference in convincing people to apply. It is not enough, in my view, but it is a significant amount that could act as a real incentive when we are all collectively trying to increase uptake.
I have a few other asks before I come to the substance of the debate. I appreciate that those who successfully apply by a date in December will receive half of the payment, which is £324. Although I will argue that they should get the full amount, I would like to know the exact date in December, because there is confusion about that. What strategy will the Government put in place to raise awareness of that entitlement? I do not mind if they do not know yet, as long as they agree to look at it seriously and urgently.
I am concerned about that, because I question what strategy was in place to make people aware in the run-up to the 19 August deadline. I certainly did not see any evidence of it, which makes it something of a missed opportunity. In my constituency, I had a strategy to let people know; when people knew, four of my team spent a day and a half helping a steady stream of constituents make their applications. What did the Government do to raise awareness?
I am sure there are pensioners who would also be grateful if the Minister could tell us what the situation is with the triple lock guarantee on pensions.
Pensioner poverty is a significant issue, particularly in my constituency, where 25,000 people receive the basic state pension. I am very concerned at how hard it is to find out how many of those 25,000 are eligible for pension credit but are missing out on that vital support, which could be the difference between putting food on the table and turning the heating on this winter or not. At one time, the Department for Work and Pensions monitored eligibility for pension credit—
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. It is really important that we monitor it. We are talking about the people in these four countries who are the very poorest and really need that help.
The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), clearly said at Prime Minister’s questions last week that the triple lock would apply. That seemed to be a little surprising to the Chancellor. Now that we have a new Prime Minister, but the same Chancellor, does the Minister know whether they will renege on that or keep to the Government’s word?
Finally, something that pensioners and others are desperately worried about is the uprating of social security entitlements—or benefits, as they are called here. Can the Minister tell us what is happening with that? Coming back to the main thrust of the debate, I believe that if the deadline is extended and anyone who successfully applies for pension credit by 31 March next year is also entitled to the £650 cost of living payment, it will act as a significant incentive and will enable us, together, to convince people to apply.
Let us look at some of the reasons why 40% of those who are entitled to pension credit do not apply for it, why £7.7 million goes unclaimed in my constituency of Glasgow North East and why £2.2 billion goes unclaimed in the UK every year. On that £2 billion, I appreciate that if everyone took up their entitlement it would cost the Treasury a lot of money. However, failing to deliver pension credit to every eligible person costs the UK an estimated £4 billion a year in increased NHS and social care costs. That is according to research commissioned by Independent Age and carried out by Loughborough University. That sounds to me like we would be almost £2 billion better off. More importantly, it would eradicate pensioner poverty almost entirely.
There are lots of reasons why people do not apply, but I will look at the three main reasons: stigma, a perception that the process is complicated and not knowing about it. I thank Independent Age, Age Scotland and Age UK for all the work they do and for meeting me on Monday to discuss the debate. The one thing that they had all repeatedly found was that many older people who do know about pension credit, and who even know how to apply, still do not because they are too embarrassed. They talk about the stigma and how they believe they should be able to cope. They talk about not accepting charity handouts.
Some politicians and some sections of the media have got a lot to answer for here. I have not heard anyone calling pensioners workshy, greedy or layabouts, but that is how so many talk about other people who are in receipt of benefits. If is rife, it goes largely unchecked and, while they may not be talking specifically about pensioners and pension credit, the impact on pensioners and the resulting feeling of shame among them is real. It is stopping people applying and we need to stop that. The rest of us need to call it out when it happens.
The Government have to say as loudly, as clearly and as often as possible, exactly what I said when I toured bingo halls, lunch clubs and pensioner groups in my constituency in the summer, trying to get people to apply. The Government need to say, “This is your legal entitlement. This is not charity. You have worked for this. You have brought up families. You have made your contribution to society. Thank you. Now please apply for your legal entitlement.” That is what the UK Government have to say when rolling out the awareness-raising strategy I mentioned earlier. Although I did not see any response from the Minister at that point, I sensed agreement that that would happen.
The second issue is that it is perceived to be complicated to apply. Between them, my team applied for around 60 people and found the online process to be fairly straightforward, but that is because they are au fait with technology. Many older people do use it, but many more are frightened by it. I realise that there are other ways to apply, but there is the perception that it will be difficult. We need to work on that, and we need to fund those organisations that help people make their applications when they are struggling.
There are a lot of other reasons why the 40% not apply, but the final one I want to talk about is simply not knowing that pension credit exists. I leafleted thousands of people in my constituency. I focused on some of the poorest parts of Glasgow North East, letting them know about pension credit and offering to help them apply. The phone rang off the hook. We were truly overwhelmed by the response, but also taken aback by the number of people who said, “I have never heard of pension credit. What is it?” There is clearly a massive job to be done to let people know.
I raised this matter in the Chamber in 2020 and was told that there was a poster campaign in GP surgeries, but nobody was getting into GP surgeries then because of lockdown. It did not sound as though anything else was being done to make people aware. A proper professional strategy would look at multiple ways to let people know. Industry professionals will say that someone needs to see something advertised between seven and eight times before it properly sinks in. One day of action a year is not nearly enough.
Age UK has a fantastic briefing on how to get the message across to the right people. The Work and Pensions Committee has called for a proper strategy. Wales and Scotland have benefit uptake strategies. Indeed, in Scotland it is a statutory duty: sections 8 and 9 of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 say that Scottish Ministers must prepare, publish and lay before Parliament strategies to promote take-up of Scottish social security assistance. We need a full strategy for pension credit uptake, and there is no better time to do that than this winter.
That brings me to why I want the deadline to be extended, effectively to the end of winter. When I started talking to people in the constituency about the deadline of 19 August, I got lots of blank looks. A lot of people paid lip service and said they would have a look and maybe apply, but when I mentioned the £650 cost of living payment they would get if they were successful in their application, many of them started to take it more seriously, because they were starting to be concerned about predicted rises in energy costs.
Notwithstanding the fact that so many people do not know that it exists or how to apply for it, for those who do but feel they should be able to manage and are too embarrassed about taking money, it might be only this winter that the message really hits home. If someone is told in the middle of summer about help they can get for heating later in the year, it does not have the same impact as finding out about it in the dead of winter. It is easy when the sun is shining to think, “I’ll be fine.” That is especially so if the mindset, as it often is with this generation, is, “I should be able to manage.” But when someone is sitting at home, so cold that their bones are aching and they have had their one hour of heating, and they now have to hope that the cardigan and blanket are enough to keep them alive, and despite that frugality they are staring at a massive bill they cannot pay, that is when we will be able to get the message across that they could get an extra £650 of help, as well as extra money every week. That is when, for those people who are desperate to manage without so-called handouts, it will stop being a choice. They will have no option but to apply for pension credit—the thing we all say we want them to do.
If the Government do not change their mind, and do not extend the deadline to the end of winter, those people will still be sitting, freezing, in pain. They will still be being frugal, and will still be hit with eye-watering bills that they cannot pay. Then, all they will have is the knowledge that they could have had an extra £650, had they not been too embarrassed to apply back in August.
What about those older people who just did not know? With the pain of the cold reducing them to tears, nobody to turn to for help and no way of paying their bills, someone tells them about the pension credit that they knew nothing about. Then they say, “But you’re too late for the £650.” How will that help to dry their tears? It will not. It will simply devastate people further to know that the money was there, that the Government believed that they needed it, that they had been entitled to it, and that, despite needing it, they will be denied that help. How will that make them feel, and how are they supposed to survive this winter?
What I am asking for is simple. Currently, any pensioner who was entitled to pension credit by 25 May this year and applied for it by 19 August will get an extra £650 to help with the cost of living crisis this winter. Any pensioner who was entitled to pension credit by 25 August this year and applied for it by December will get half that amount—an extra £324. Let us recognise how hard this winter will be, and how much literally freezing will concentrate people’s minds. Let us extend the deadline from 25 May, before the summer, to the end of winter: 31 March 2023. Let us say that anyone who becomes entitled to pension credit before 31 March next year and applies for it by then will also get the full £650. Let us do it without interruption to the payment dates for those who are currently entitled.
Then, let us get in the professionals and get a proper advertising strategy up and running. Let us tell people, “This is your legal entitlement.” I want to hear the Minister say that with passion and conviction. Let us help people to apply. Let us not look back on this year as the year that the UK Government completely neglected the pensioners of our four countries, just when those pensioners needed the Government the most. Instead, when we are through the cost of living crisis, let us look back and be proud that there are hundreds—hopefully thousands—more pensioners receiving the pension credit to which they were always entitled, and which enables them to enjoy life a bit more.
There is no excuse for not extending the deadline. It would make all the difference to whether older people eat, heat and live or die. If the Minister cannot say yes today—I understand that this is a new Government—I implore him to at least agree to give it serious consideration. If he is says no, can he tell us what possible justification he has?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) for securing this important debate. I fully support her call for the Government to extend the eligibility period for the £650 pension credit cost of living grant to the end of the financial year.
Independent Age’s analysis of Government figures shows that around one in six older people in the UK live in poverty. Many are already struggling to afford essentials, and with spiralling energy prices and the general cost of living, that is set only to get much worse. I welcomed the support grant itself, and the plan for an additional £300 pensioner cost of living payment. However, sadly, as hon. Members have heard, Independent Age suggests that more than 850,000 pensioners in the UK do not even receive the pension credit to which they are entitled. That is likely due to a combination of digital exclusion, apprehension about applying and social stigma—and that is before they are even eligible for the extra cost of living payment. We must remember that pension credit is a financial top-up for some of the pensioners who are most in need in this country. In many cases, it means that people do not have to choose between heating their homes and eating. Nobody in the world’s fifth biggest economy should ever face that choice.
A great campaign run by Greater Manchester Housing Providers, Independent Age, Age UK Salford and Citizens Advice Salford has been supporting people to take up their pension age benefits. As of June 2022, it estimated there is over £6.3 million of pension credit unclaimed this year in Salford alone. Independent Age estimated that if everybody who is eligible received pension credit, roughly one in three pensioners in poverty would be lifted out of it. That is the impact these payments have on people’s lives.
The Government must step up to ensure that our pensioners—our grandmothers, grandfathers and elderly friends—receive the support they are entitled to in the first place, as well as the additional crisis support. They certainly should not be excluded due to short, strict deadlines when we know that these exclusion factors are already at play. This is not just about compassion; as we heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, Independent Age estimates that low uptake of pension credit costs the Government £4 billion a year in increased NHS and social care spending. These deadlines are an arbitrary, cruel barrier that the Government are choosing to impose, but they can easily amend them in this time of crisis.
Alongside that, the Government should confirm as a matter of urgency that they will increase income top-ups such as pension credit, not just the state pension, in line with inflation according to the consumer prices index or the higher rate of the pensions triple lock. They should also look urgently at increasing all benefits in line with inflation. According to recent figures from the Resolution Foundation think-tank, the number of all people living in absolute poverty in the UK is projected to rise by 2.9 million between 2021-22 and 2023-24. A real-terms benefit cut would add another 600,000 people to that rise, including 300,000 children.
These are our most economically vulnerable households, and if the magical, mythical unicorn of compassionate conservatism that the Chancellor referred to recently is to be given any meaning at all, the Government can start today by extending the pension credit cost of living grant deadline and uprating benefits and pensions in line with recent inflation figures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) on securing this important debate.
We have already heard about the considerable benefits of pension credit and the support it can provide to pensioners in need. I am proud that the previous Labour Government introduced pension credit to tackle the Tory legacy of pensioner poverty. Worryingly, the Department for Work and Pensions itself admits that almost 1 million pensioners are failing to claim money that they are owed. We need to be clear that this is not charity or a handout; this is money that people are entitled to. An eye-watering £1.7 billion in pension credit is left unclaimed. Just think about the difference that would make to pensioners across the UK who are dealing with the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis. It really is deplorable that the Government allow so much money to go unclaimed, especially at such a difficult time.
I want to reflect on an event I held at the beginning of this month, a pension credit day of action, with my two local citizens advice bureaux in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. I contacted more than 6,000 people who were likely to be under-claiming pension credit and encouraged them to attend an open day, where Citizens Advice staff helped them to apply. I am delighted to report that over 200 people attended, with many more making contact before and after the event. In fact, during a door-knocking session last Friday, I spoke to another lady who was unable to attend the action day itself, but she will be contacting Citizens Advice to seek its support. In addition to making applications for pension credit, the amazing staff and volunteers at Citizens Advice identified unclaimed eligibility for attendance allowance, personal independence payments and council tax reductions. Incredibly, in just one day we were able to increase income via benefit take-up by over £200,000. As my local citizens advice bureaux stated, in a cost of living crisis that support is simply invaluable. That shows that the Government could, if they chose, take a more targeted approach to ensure that no one eligible for pension credit misses out.
I hope that the Minister can tell us a little more about what the Department for Work and Pensions can and will do. I know, it knows, we all know, that many people are eligible but not applying. The DWP knows far more of the detail of who may be eligible, so why does it not contact them directly to encourage them to apply? That would, as we have heard, help to eradicate pensioner poverty and, in a cost of living crisis, make a life-changing difference to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. The DWP can do more. The question for the Minister today is: will it?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) for securing this important debate. She spoke incredibly eloquently and framed this debate extremely well. She is a passionate advocate on this subject, and is truly a champion of the cause.
The Back Benchers who have spoken today are correct: pensioners are facing the brunt of this cost of living crisis, which has been exacerbated by Tory mismanagement of the economy. It is imperative that we do all we can to support pensioners. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East noted, pensioners across all four nations of the UK receive the lowest state pension, as a proportion of pre-retirement wages, of any country in north-west Europe. In a recent report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2.1 million pensioners, almost a fifth of all pensioners, across the UK were classified as living in poverty. That number continues to grow and is a direct result of a decade of brutal Tory austerity.
As the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) stated, the cost of living crisis has left pensioners making the difficult decision of whether they can afford to buy essentials. Age UK has warned that pensioners have had to switch off vital medical equipment to save on energy costs. This is not pensioners spending their money on luxury items. This is a crisis that threatens some of the most vulnerable in our society, and it is likely to worsen as we approach winter.
Although the support announced by the UK Government, particularly the £650 cost of living payment, is welcome, it is important that decisive action be taken to ensure that all those eligible for payment receive it. As has been stated, to qualify for that support, people must first be eligible for pension credit, but only seven in 10 of those entitled to the credit claim it. That means that each year more than £1.7 billion goes unclaimed; that represents more than 800,000 families not receiving the money to which they are entitled.
As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) mentioned, it is vital that we do more to ensure that all those eligible for pension credit receive it. It is deeply worrying, given the difficult financial times that we face, that so many families are not receiving the support for which they are eligible, so I echo the calls from all Back-Bench MPs today—well, the two Back-Bench MPs from Opposition parties, because there is none from the Government party. I echo their calls for the UK Government to take decisive action to ensure greater uptake of pension credit. It is critical that people understand that support is available to them.
As Member of Parliament for Airdrie and Shotts, I receive regular correspondence from pensioners asking for advice. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney spoke of citizens advice bureaux. The Airdrie citizens advice bureau does a fantastic amount of work helping pensioners; actually, today it has its annual general meeting. However, studies have found that 45% of people in my constituency are worried about the future of their pensions. That is why it is so important for the UK Government to extend the eligibility period deadline to ensure that those who have failed to apply in time receive the extra payment. The level of support available can make all the difference during these times.
The Minister must commit to introducing a proper strategy to ensure that the benefits reserved to Westminster are given to those who are entitled to them. The UK Government would do well to copy the strategy of the Scottish Government, who see welfare payments as an investment in society, and so implement strategies to ensure the maximum uptake of benefits. I ask the Minister to agree to the ask of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, and to specifically clarify what steps he will take to ensure that pensioners are aware of the financial assistance available to them.
It is clear that the only way we can ensure that Scottish pensioners and those across all four nations can receive dignity and fairness in retirement is by having full powers of independence. Time and again, the Westminster-based Tory Government short-change pensioners, whether it be through cutting pension credit for mixed-age couples, which costs some people thousands of pounds, or through the injustices faced by Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign women. It is clear that Scotland cannot wait for Westminster to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) on securing the debate, and I thank everybody who has spoken on this important subject.
Families and pensioners across the country face an unprecedented cost of living crisis. They need help and support at this difficult time, and it is important that questions be asked about the nature of the Government response. I turn first to the scale of the cost of living crisis. There is no doubt that we face a crisis, the like of which has not been seen since at least the 1950s. Costs faced by families and pensioners have risen dramatically: the cost of energy is going up, the cost of food is going up, and the overall cost of living is going up.
I want to focus on some specifics, including the recent data on inflation. We learned yesterday that everyday foods have risen by over 10%, which hits pensioners and others on low incomes very hard. For example, the price of a loaf of bread has risen by 37.6%, and the cost of tea has risen by 46%. These are dramatic rises that show the importance of pension credit. The benefit was designed to help pensioners on very modest incomes, and it is an important legacy of Gordon Brown’s leadership, both at the Treasury and as the UK’s Prime Minister, during the last Labour Government. The current Government are failing to encourage sufficient take-up of this important benefit, and we should bear in mind that many of the recipients of pension credit are women, while others are disabled.
As discussed earlier, nearly 1 million pensioners are eligible for this important benefit but go without it at the moment. That is a total of £1.7 billion unclaimed—to put it another way, that is £1,900 for every qualifying household missing out. It is a staggering sum of money that could make a real difference. This is particularly important because pension credit unlocks other benefits, such as free TV licences for the over-75s. Questions to the Department for Work and Pensions have revealed that the Department is spending approximately £1.2 million on increasing the take-up of pension credit, yet it is still failing to achieve a sufficient level of awareness, as we have heard. A Labour Government would treat this issue very seriously. It would be one of the key priorities for the Department, and we would work really hard to encourage take-up.
In the remaining time available to me, I ask the Minister three questions. As we have heard, there is a lot that the Government should be explaining. First, what is the Government’s plan to support pensioners and working families, in both the short and long term? Secondly, how will the Government control inflation and bring down the spiralling cost of living after causing this cost of living crisis? Thirdly, how will Ministers increase the take-up of pension credit for those who urgently need it? I hope the Minister is able to respond to those questions, and to the other points made in the debate. I ask him to commit in writing to responding to me on this issue.
I appreciate that time is pressing and the Minister needs to respond. Let me reiterate the scale of the crisis that we face, and the need for a clear and consistent response. I urge the Government to do a much better job of encouraging take-up of this very important benefit.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me; I am losing my voice, but I will try to speak as clearly as I can into the microphone. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) for securing this important debate on an important subject. I pay tribute to her campaigning work, because helping people to realise the benefits to which they are entitled helps everybody in society. I know she understands that.
My Department will always welcome opportunities to explain what we are already doing to support pensioners. We know the importance of ensuring that people up and down the country are looked after, post retirement. This topic is particularly pertinent given the recent increase in the cost of living. We are taking this challenge incredibly seriously, which is why we have spent more than £37 billion this year on cost of living support, as well as delivering on the energy price guarantee.
This financial year, total expenditure on benefits for pensioners will be well over £134 billion, which represents about 5.4% of GDP. This high investment ensures that the basis of our safety net for pensioners—the full yearly basic state pension—remains strong. It has brought the British state pension in line with that in other OECD countries. The amount that we provide is higher than it is in countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Germany. One of the major successes of this Government, auto-enrolment, has led to over 10.7 million extra employees paying into a workplace pension, so that they can save for a safe and secure future. The issue is particularly pertinent today, because it is the 10th anniversary of auto-enrolment.
I certainly pay tribute to the last Labour Government, as well as the Pensions Commission, which had cross-party support, and the support of organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice, which I used to work for. Steve Webb, formerly of the Liberal Democrats, also contributed to that work. It was, however, the coalition Government, led by the Conservatives, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who made it happen. All that good work has had a demonstrable effect: in 2021, 400,000 fewer pensioners were in absolute poverty than when the Conservatives came to power. That is a remarkable achievement of which we are rightly proud.
To complement the state pension, pension credit—mentioned a number of times in this debate—offers an extra layer of support for people over state pension age and on a low income. Pension credit provides an invaluable top-up to a person’s state pension, ensuring that single pensioners receive a minimum of £182.60 per week and couples receive at least £278.70 per week. Crucially, as other hon. Members have mentioned, pension credit acts as a passport to other help, including for rent, council tax and heating.
A comprehensive benefit package including pension credit is only worth while if claimants access the support. We are aware that, historically, take-up of pension credit has been too low. To increase pension credit awareness, in April we launched a comprehensive paid advertising campaign, including a promotional video fronted by Len Goodman of “Strictly Come Dancing” and my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who did so much in his five years in the job to improve opportunities for people planning for their pensions and claiming them. That campaign has now been viewed well over a million times. The campaign further focused on encouraging the private sector to help drive up claims and reach those who may be reticent about claiming pension credit.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said, no one should feel ashamed about claiming this money. The reason why we have it is so that people can come forward and take it. We want them to have it. Success for us is 100% of people claiming it. I do not think she was implying that the Government sought to stigmatise people who claim benefits—we absolutely do not. We have created a benefits system that is designed as a safety net to support the most disadvantaged in society, but also to help people who are capable of work to move into work.
To clarify, I was blaming individual politicians and sections of the media for besmirching the character of people in receipt of social security payments. I am not suggesting that the UK Government are doing that. What was the increase in the number of people applying for pension credit after that campaign? What was done in the run-up to the crucial deadline of 19 August, and what will the Government do in the run-up to December, because that is an important incentive for people. It is not enough to have the £324, but it will act as an important incentive.
I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification. I have not heard any colleagues use that sort of language. I will answer her point in my speech.
We continue to work closely with a whole range of stakeholders, including Age UK, Independent Age and Citizens Advice, which have reach and expertise to identify other practical initiatives that will help encourage eligible pensioners to claim. On 15 June, the DWP had a second pension credit day of action with the media, in which we encouraged the media to reach out to pensioners, their family and friends. Thanks to that day of action, we recorded a 275% increase in claims in the week of 13 June this year, compared with the same week in 2021. The DWP has received unprecedented volumes of new claims for pension credit. Weekly claims tripled between December 2021 and August 2022, so we are seeing a genuine increase in traffic. Obviously, the quoted figures for uptake are about 70%, and the uptake for guarantee credit, which is the main safety net within pension credit, is 73%. Those figures are from 2019-20, before the current days of action and the campaign push, so we very much hope the next set of figures will be some way above that.
Prior to that campaign, the previous Minister for Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, wrote to all MPs to request their support. It has been heartening to hear all the Members who have spoken today give evidence of how they responded to that request. I know there is still work to do. The latest available estimates show that there are still substantial numbers of people who may be eligible for pension credit but are not claiming it. That is why we continue to encourage everyone to reach out to their own networks and use resources such as the pension credit calculator on gov.uk. By working together, cross-party, we can ensure that those eligible for pension credit receive the support they need.
It is particularly important that we encourage those eligible to make a claim because for those above state pension age, eligibility for the means-tested benefits cost of living payments is determined through pension credit entitlement. The £650 cost of living payment will help to ease the pressures that pensioners are currently facing. The payment was designed to target those on low incomes, which is why a household will automatically receive a cost of living payment if they are eligible to receive a pension credit payment during the qualifying period. We did this because we needed to get a big system up and running at high speed. We found it was the quickest and most effective way to deliver support to more than 8 million people on the lowest incomes.
I appreciate the Minister taking another intervention—I am doing so to help his throat and give him the chance to have a glass of water. If he is saying, “It was set up quickly because we had to help people as a matter of urgency,” that is good. However, we have now had time to think about it. I have written several times and been campaigning on this, but he has not yet answered the question: will he extend the deadline to 31 March, or will he consider extending it? Will he not say no today? Will he give people a little hope that they might get it? He is making the clear point that it is for households in absolute need. Well, they are still in absolute need—
Thank you, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East for her lengthy intervention, which enabled me to get another bottle of water.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, this is a complex system that was set up at pace in order to reach about 8 million people. I understand the point that she is making: if the deadline were extended, more people would have a chance to apply. We are looking into a range of measures to encourage people to take it up before the final deadline. She asked earlier when that deadline would be. I am pleased to tell her that it is 19 December.
The £650 payment has been split into two payments with different qualifying periods to reduce the chance of someone missing out completely. If a household did not receive the first payment of £326 in July, it might still receive the second payment of £324 in November. To qualify for the second cost of living payment, individuals must be entitled to a payment of pension credit for any day in the period 26 August to 25 September 2022.
As pension credit claims can be backdated up to three months, however, if the person is eligible for the three-month period, it is not too late to qualify for the second cost of living payment. We therefore urge people to get their applications in as soon as possible and by no later than 19 December, as I said. That will ensure that, if they are eligible for pension credit for the previous three months, they will also qualify for the second cost of living payment. In that way, we can ensure that those eligible will receive the support they need at the earliest opportunity.
We are not changing the qualifying dates for the second tranche of the cost of living payments for any of the means-tested benefits. The eligibility period must remain consistent, so it is simple to deliver the payments quickly and on a scale to support millions of people on low incomes.
I remind Members that cost of living payments are just one part of the welfare support available to pensioners this winter. A key part of the support that we offer is the energy price guarantee, which will reduce energy bills significantly this winter. Also, owing to the impact of higher energy costs on pensioners, the Government will pay an additional £300 in a pensioner cost of living payment as a top-up to the winter fuel payment. Those payments of £500 or £600 per household will be sent out from mid-November. That is in addition to the cold weather payments, which helped more than 4 million people last year. Also, we must not forget the £150 council tax rebate earlier this year.
Finally, for those who need additional support, we recently extended the household support fund, which will now run until the end of March 2023, bringing total funding for that support to £1.5 billion. In England, that will take the form of an extension to the household support fund, backed by £421 million. The devolved Administrations will receive £79 million through the Barnett formula, with Scotland allocated £41 million of that.
As a Department, we will continue to work to increase take-up of pension credit to ensure that vulnerable pensioners receive the support they need this year and beyond. I am happy to talk to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East about it again in future.
I thank the Minister for his response. He said that the number of claims increased by 275% during the week of pension credit awareness day. That seems to me to be an argument in favour of having more than one such week. If everybody who was entitled applied and the number of claims increased, how many weeks would it take to eradicate pensioner poverty? Perhaps I will go and work that out.
The Minister said that the deadline is 19 December. On the strategy of telling people, “Apply for this because you will also get an extra £324”—which is a real incentive, though not as much as £650—he said that a range of measures are being looked at. I would like to know more about them, so perhaps he could write to me. The advertising campaign that he mentioned sounds great, but I could not find it on YouTube, so it was not that high profile.
The Minister said that the Treasury is spending £134 billion on social security and extra cost of living payments this year. An extra £2 billion of support is a drop in the ocean for the UK Government, but not for the individuals who receive it. Let us not forget that it costs us £4 billion extra not to pay that money. I could introduce the Minister to people who told me how pension credit enabled them to live life again. They are not talking about partying or living the life of Riley; they are talking about being able to relax and be part of society. Do they not deserve that after working hard all their lives?
This might be because of the Minister’s throat, but I did not hear him say a hard no with conviction. I will take that as a sign that, at some point, he will accept that pension credit is different from other social security payments, in that it has incredibly low uptake, in part because people think that they should not have to ask the Government for money. I will continue to argue that the Minister should make a special case and extend the deadline to 31 March. I look forward to continued discussion with him.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered pension credit and the cost-of-living support grant eligibility period extension.