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Westminster Hall

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 November 2022

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Social Security Support for Children

I beg to move,

That this House has considered social security support for children.

This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have successfully secured, and I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am also delighted to see my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), next to me; it would not be a Westminster Hall debate if he was not here.

I am here to be the voice of the voiceless. This is a debate on social security support for children. The Tory Government came into power at Westminster in 2010, and at that point the use of food banks across all four nations was negligible. The Trussell Trust had around 35 food banks at that point, but in 2022 it estimates that it has around 1,400. That is an increase of almost 4,000%.

In the last six months, 320,000 people have had to use a food bank in the Trussell Trust network for the first time. Research found that one in five referrals was for working households. Does the hon. Member share my concern that the lack of support for working families is pushing the burden away from the Government and on to charities?

It is as if the hon. Member has seen my speech; I will come to that point later.

Of course, it is not only the Trussell Trust; there are a number of independent and locally run food poverty groups. In my constituency, for example, we have Paul’s Parcels, which serves Shotts and the surrounding villages. We are living in food bank Britain, where almost 1 million children receive some sort of help from food banks. The Food Foundation also found that around 4 million children have experienced food insecurity in the past month. Some people will argue that there has been an increase in food bank use due to wider awareness, but I would argue that consecutive Conservative Governments are the reason for that increase. It is their financial mismanagement of the economy, and now austerity 2.0, as set out in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, that are pushing people further and further into poverty.

We face the reality that there are more food banks than McDonald’s in the UK. The richest MP in the House of Commons double-jobs as the Prime Minister. Rather than extending a lifeline to the average punter in the street, the Government are handing out bankers’ bonuses. Who benefits and, crucially, who are the losers? Many groups are victims of the financial mismanagement of the three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors just this year. My concern is for children and young people. They are largely voiceless and are rarely actively involved in the decision-making process.

In Scotland, we have a completely different approach to target help for children. It starts from the basic notion of referring to benefits as social security. In 2021, the SNP Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment, which is a groundbreaking piece of policy. Since then, the payment has doubled in value to £20, and on 14 November 2022 it automatically increased to £25 per week for those already in receipt of it. Based on March 2022 modelling, that increased payment is estimated to lift 50,000 children out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by 5 percentage points.

That is a phenomenal piece of legislation, and I am so proud of it. Many Members here might argue, “Anum, you’re biased; you’re an SNP MP, and that’s the SNP Scottish Government.” However, that is not just my belief. Chris Birt, associate director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“The full rollout of the Scottish Child Payment is a watershed moment for tackling poverty in Scotland, and the rest of the UK should take notice.”

Will the UK Government do so? In fact, would the Minister care to intervene and announce that they are following the Scottish Government’s lead? No, he is furiously writing away. When he replies, I hope he will announce that the Scottish child payment is being implemented across the UK.

That is where the issue lies: the SNP Scottish Government consider social security as an investment in people that is key to their national mission to tackle child poverty. We do that with the limited economic levers that the Scottish Parliament holds.

The Scottish Government have implemented a number of other policies. I will go through them and ask whether the UK Government will commit to follow suit. The Scottish Government are offering free school lunches in term time to all 281,865 pupils in primary 1 to 5 and in additional support needs schools. That saves families an average of £400 per child per year. That will be extended to primary 6 and 7 during the Parliament. Will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government are massively expanding the provision of fully funded high-quality early learning in childcare. They are providing 1,140 hours per year for eligible children aged two, three and four. In fact, if eligible families were to purchase the funded childcare provided by the Scottish Government, it would cost them about £5,000 per eligible child per year. Again, will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government have increased the school clothing grant to at least £128 for every eligible primary school pupil and £150 for every eligible secondary school pupil from the start of the 2021-22 academic year. Again, will the UK Government follow suit?

The Scottish Government are bringing forward those policies with the limited economic levers that they hold.

I declare an interest as a massive fan of my hon. Friend’s constituency—if not the Shotts part, then certainly the Airdrie part. I commend her for securing the debate, and I want to back up the point she is making. Although the Scottish Government are doing a huge amount of incredibly ambitious things to tackle the scourge of child poverty, 85% of welfare spending remains under the control of this institution. Does she, like me, believe that it is absolutely abhorrent that, under the devolution settlement, the Scottish Government have to use their devolved budget, which would normally be used on things such as trying to reduce class sizes, to try to plug the gaps in an inadequate state support system that is the result of a Conservative Government—something that people in Scotland have not voted for since the 1950s?

My hon. Friend’s point is incredibly valid. The Scottish Government hold limited economic levers, but they often have to use their budget to mitigate Tory austerity.

In debating topics such as social security for children, it is essential to reaffirm that a societal approach must be considered when formulating policy. Social security for children is about so much more than targeted support. We must consider what support is in place for parents. This week, I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren from Pregnant Then Screwed, which has revealed some harrowing statistics. Out of 1,630 women it interviewed who had had an abortion in the past five years, 60.5% said that the cost of childcare influenced their decision, and 17.4% said that childcare costs were the main reason for their decision. A separate survey found that 48% of pregnant mothers have to cut their maternity leave short due to financial hardship. Those are not simply statistics; that is the reality for many women.

In Scotland, childcare and policies relating to children are seen as lifelong investments for society. It has been said before that an investment in our children is an investment in our future, and I wholeheartedly stand by that. It is crucial that the UK Government take a societal approach to social security for children. The wider economic implications of child poverty are significant, with a 2021 study estimating the cost of child poverty in the UK at £38 billion a year.

There is a cost to not addressing child poverty, and I am not just talking about the direct financial implications. We face the harsh reality of children who are upset and anxious as a result of their parents worrying about household finances. That is not the type of society that I wish to live in.

In Scotland, different policies have been introduced. For example, before a baby is born, the Scottish Government provide expectant families with a baby box. Baby boxes include essentials for bringing up a child, such as clothing and digital thermometers. That not only provides essentials at a time that can, in any case, be physically, emotionally and financially challenging; it sends a clear message to families that the state cares about them. Some 93% of Scots who are eligible have taken up the scheme. Ireland has a pilot scheme, and the baby box has been hailed internationally. The UK Government would do well to mirror that approach, and if the Minister cannot commit today to introducing the baby box, I hope he will take the information on board and give it serious consideration.

We know that parents are having to make unimaginable financial decisions—to return to work early or to leave their jobs altogether if they cannot afford the cost of childcare. We know, too, that the cost of child poverty can disproportionately impact women. Typically, women assume the main role as caregiver and are the first to give up their jobs when childcare becomes unaffordable. The Scottish Government are massively expanding the provision of fully funded, high-quality early learning and childcare, providing 1,140 hours a year for eligible children aged two, three and four. In Scotland, we have we have taken a different path—one that puts children and families first, with lifeline policies providing help to those who need it most.

Over the past 12 years, the Tories have systematically dismantled the social security system. It is clear that the Tory-run system is not designed to help those in need. Rather, it pushes a poverty-inducing austerity agenda. I have described what the Scottish Government are doing to reduce the harmful impact of Tory austerity-driven Government, but the reality is that 85% of social security expenditure remains reserved to Westminster, so the change that is desperately needed must start here.

We are at a point at which meaningful and tangible policy can be implemented to make a difference to millions of children and families, and it is an active policy decision not to make those changes. That is costing all of society financially and socially. The limitations imposed on social security by the Tory Government are sickening. The freezing of the benefit cap since 2016 has disproportionately impacted lone-parent families, the majority of whom are women, as well as larger families and ethnic minority families. Official Department for Work and Pensions statistics have shown that more than 100,000 households have had their benefits capped since May 2022. Of that number, 87% are households that include children.

There is much that we could do to help families that are struggling. The Tory Government could start by looking at social security as an investment in society and future generations, rather than something that needs to be cut and limited. There are many clear ways to do that. First, the Minister could commit to removing the abhorrent two-child limit on universal credit and legacy benefits, as well as ending the benefit cap, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. My SNP colleagues and I have been campaigning tirelessly to eradicate that regressive measure, and we will continue to push for it to be removed.

The Government could do more than simply remove the cap. Following the Chancellor’s recent fiscal statement, the Child Poverty Action Group has reported that, even with the uprating of benefits in line with inflation, families will be worse off in 2023-24 than they were after universal credit was cut last year. That weak attempt to reverse 12 years of austerity will have a marginal impact on children, as the entire UK Government’s social security system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Other fundamental issues with universal credit impact children. Policies such as a five-week wait for first payments, the bedroom tax and the cruel sanctions regime all push families on universal credit towards destitution. If we reversed the policies introduced by the Tory Government since 2015, we would lift 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty by 2024.

It is not the job of food banks and charities to uphold a crumbling social security system. I am honoured to represent the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, which has dedicated community organisations. Since my election last year, I have worked tirelessly and closely with many organisations to support them in delivering an essential lifeline to constituents who face destitution as a result of Tory-made austerity.

The cost of living crisis is disproportionately impacting children, with families having to cut back on both essential and luxury items. In this festive period I am working alongside four constituency-based organisations: Paul’s Parcels, Diamonds in the Community, Airdrie food bank and Airdrie community school uniform bank. We are asking people to donate advent calendars for the four organisations to deliver across the constituency. A simple item such as an advent calendar is unaffordable. Sadly, many children will not enjoy the typical Christmas festivities, because their parents or carers cannot afford simple luxuries.

In my contribution I have outlined a number of asks, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I imagine that there will not be much in the way of concessions, but I hope he will sincerely take on board the approach of the SNP Scottish Government and consider following suit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) on securing this important debate.

At this time of year it is natural for people’s minds to turn towards Christmas. I am sure that the Minister, like many of us, is looking forward to a well-earned break, the company of family and friends, and all the comforts and trappings of the season. But I must warn him that, for the more than one in five children in my constituency who live in poverty, the coming festive season holds none of the joy that he surely takes for granted. Indeed, for many of the children that I represent, 25 December threatens to be a day like any other—plagued by cold, hunger and fear.

Our multimillionaire Prime Minister has at least had the sense to look beyond the walls of his country mansion and acknowledge the crisis facing millions of ordinary people this winter. Addressing the Cabinet yesterday, he is reported to have said that we are entering

“a challenging period for the country, caused by the aftershocks of the global pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.”

But he is deluding himself if he believes that he can ignore the central role that the Conservative party has played in making this crisis. Even before the pandemic began, nearly 4 million British children were growing up in poverty, 75% of whom live in a household with at least one working parent. While the fallout of Putin’s war is hitting all of Europe’s major economies hard, none is being forced to grapple with the depth of deprivation we now see in the UK. That is a distinctly British ailment.

A quarter of a century ago, a Labour Government set out on a moral crusade to end poverty. They recognised that spending formative years in poverty is the single most important determinant of life chances in everything from educational outcomes to life expectancy. That is why, when Labour was in power, we lifted 1 million children out of poverty, which is an historic achievement. However, today we bear witness to scenes of destitution and misery that we thought were a thing of the past. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has recently said that he is now seeing more children going hungry than at any time in his 40 years in public life.

Many of the support measures announced in last week’s Budget were temporary, but long-term support is required if we are going to provide all children with the best start in life. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government need to review this urgently?

The hon. Member makes a good point. We hope that the Government will take cognisance of what we are saying today.

What the former Prime Minister has said is a stark indictment of 12 years of Tory failures. When the Minister launches his inevitable feeble defence of the Government’s record in a few moments’ time, he will undoubtedly point to the measures contained in last week’s Budget. It is true that after weeks of equivocation, the Chancellor has at last bowed to pressure and agreed to an uplift in the benefit cap and benefit payments, but for the thousands of young people in my constituency for whom poverty has become a fact of life, it is nowhere near enough. After 12 years of real-terms cuts to benefits and punitive sanctions, the idea that they should be in any way grateful to the Chancellor for the limited action he has taken is an insult.

The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that while benefits will be 14% higher in the next fiscal year, prices will be 21% higher for the poorest families in towns such as mine, and although a lifting of the benefit cap is long overdue it fails to even begin to undo the damage that has been wrought as a result of it being frozen in 2016. In fact, in communities such as Birkenhead, it would need to increase by a further £942 a month just to erase what has been lost since 2013, but still the Chancellor has the temerity to patronise hard-working families by saying that the best way out of poverty is through work. I want the Minister to know that most of the struggling families that I meet work harder and longer hours than either of us; the reason they are claiming benefits at all is the scourge of poverty pay.

Last week, the Chancellor spoke of the need to treat the vulnerable with compassion, but a truly compassionate Government would recognise that the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the pernicious sanctions are just not working. They are trapping millions of our most vulnerable citizens—our young people—in poverty. Things cannot go on like this. For 12 long years, this Government have pursued a policy of slashing benefits, squeezing families, and inflicting punitive sanctions that drive people past the point of desperation. The result is that the hard-won progress we made in tackling child poverty between 1997 and 2010 has been almost entirely undone. That is a public policy failure almost without precedent. An entire generation of young people who have known only poverty and misery under a Tory Government is about to come of age; we cannot allow more to follow.

As always, it is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) for securing it, and congratulate her on her first Westminster Hall debate—I am convinced that it will not be her last, and we look forward to her future contributions.

I was very impressed by the hon. Lady’s contribution today, which laid out the strategy of the Scottish Government and the work they have done outside this place for their own people. One cannot fail to be impressed by the clear commitment that the Scottish Government have to supporting children. The summary that the hon. Lady gave was illuminating and helpful; it is a guide for us in other regions across the United Kingdom to take note of, as I often do. I am a great believer in noting things that are done well in one region and taking them on board in my own region, and if we do something well, I like to share that. I know the Minister is of the same opinion.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place, as he knows—I have said so to my colleagues this morning. I always look forward to his contributions and his answers; I think he understands the points that we are trying to put forward, and hopefully from that understanding will come the answers that we seek. I am sure the Minister will tell us what has been done for children and social security across the United Kingdom. I want to replicate the contribution of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts from a Northern Ireland perspective; many of the things that she mentioned are happening in my constituency as well, as I will illustrate.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts is right that the cost of living crisis is having a knock-on effect on children’s development. With the rising cost of electricity, oil, foodstuffs and school items such as uniforms and school meals, parents are struggling to make ends meet each month. That is greatly impacting parents and children. Social security services across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a role to play in ensuring that children are given the best start in life. It is great to be able to discuss those matters.

We all recognise that families are struggling. I do; I see it in my office every day. I find it distressing to see a family in need, or to see a mother distressed over her children and how to make ends meet. For me, the question is how we help. I know that that is also how the Minister will respond: how can we help? What can we do?

Society is often marked, and should be marked, by its attitude to those in need. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts referred to being a “voice of the voiceless”. That is what I want to be as well: a voice for the voiceless—for those who do not have the opportunity to come to Westminster but expect their MP to come for them. I am happy to do that.

Increasing numbers of families are truly struggling through this winter. In my office, I have seen large numbers of families seeking assistance from food banks. I am always encouraged—I say this respectfully—that the first food bank in Northern Ireland was in Newtownards, in my constituency of Strangford: the Thriving Life Church food bank. We do between 20 and 25 referrals to the food bank every week, so we get a fair perspective on who is coming to the office.

The manager of the food bank tells me that he foresees that this winter will be the hardest ever, and that is after 10 or 12 years of the food bank being in my constituency. It is not just the working class—I use that terminology to describe, rather than anything else—who come to the food bank. The working class will probably always be there, but the manager tells me that he now sees the middle class coming. I see that all the time. I see those who are squeezed by their mortgages and car repayments, who are living on a fine budget. They do not live in luxury, but they have a standard of living that they wish to have. They are being impacted, and I see that more than ever.

Almost all the families who come to my office have young children of school age. People want to do the best for their children. That is what a father and mum do, and it is what we have done all our lives. Reports have shown that Northern Ireland has the worst poverty rates, including for child poverty, in the United Kingdom. One in four children—24%, or around 95,000—are growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland. A massive two thirds of that group are growing up in families where parents are working. Some 12% are in absolute poverty, which means exactly that: absolute. People face situations that they never thought they would face. They need help from food banks, churches and their families: mums and dads, grannies and grandas, and probably uncles and aunts will step in to help out as well.

That highlights how dire the situation is. Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane are among the places with the highest volumes of child poverty in Northern Ireland at over 26%. The average for Northern Ireland is 17%, so in those areas it is even worse. Social security plays a crucial part in assisting people in Northern Ireland, especially families. Child maintenance is proven to help children’s wellbeing and the quality of family relationships. The parent who is not responsible for day-to-day care—the paying parent—pays child maintenance to the parent or the person who does: the receiving parent. Single parenting is a major factor in explaining why families are suffering. Looking after children as a single parent can be quite a challenge when one’s income has not increased along with inflation.

In addition, universal credit is a widely used benefit that assists in living costs for those on low incomes. One of the girls in my office deals with nothing but benefit issues, because of the magnitude of the issue. That is a five-day week on universal credit, employment and support allowance, personal independence payments, disability living allowance, income support and even housing benefit.

I know, having visited the hon. Gentleman in his constituency office in Newtownards last Easter, just how hard the staff in his office work. Does he agree with me that, even though we are in a crisis moment, now is quite a good time for a fundamental root-and-branch review of the social security system? Universal credit sometimes gets a bad rap. The concept in itself is not necessarily bad, but we need to look at how we can reform it to make it work. Churches do the right thing in terms of scripture—they look after our children and feed people—but that is not necessarily the role of churches. We should do a fundamental review of the social security system to ensure that churches can get on with their work rather than having to fill the void that has been created by the state.

As always, the hon. Gentleman brings knowledge to these debates, which is helpful. That is a knowledge that he has gained through practical and physical work on the ground. That can probably be said of everyone present, in fairness, but it is an illustration of that work. What do I think about the universal credit system? It was designed, by its very nature, to help. From what the lady in my office who deals with benefits issues tells me, I often find we have to advise that it might be better for people to stay on what they have at the moment. They should not necessarily transfer to universal credit because that, in theory, could disadvantage them.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there is a need to look at universal credit, and I think that the answer is yes, with respect. It should not be a disadvantage to go on to universal credit. It should not hurt people’s benefits. We must remember that the benefits are there for a purpose: they are there to help the person because they have a disablement. They may have care or mobility issues—serious issues. To make the change and lose out financially just does not make sense. I, the hon. Gentleman and probably all Members in the Chamber would be happy to give illustrations of that.

Sometimes our advice has to be that what is available is not necessarily the best thing to go on to. That is the issue, unfortunately. I know that universal credit is there for a purpose, but it may not suit everybody. In addition, it is a widely popular benefit to assist with living costs for those on low incomes. The issue with universal credit is that it is a combination of many benefits and often families will receive less money. That is making it increasingly hard to cope with the rise in the cost of living. The Government, through the autumn statement, indicated that they wish to give people in the benefits system more opportunities to work. I welcome that, but that will not work in every case. It cannot work in every case because people have disability issues that mean they cannot work. In theory, it may help people, as they can gain universal credit and have a job at the same time. There are opportunities, but it does not suit all.

The rise in the cost of living is also having a detrimental impact on people’s mental health. Any parent’s main priorities for their children are good health, housing and education. There has also been an increase in free school meals and uniform grant applications as parents are struggling to cope with the cost of school payments. This year has been horrendous. I have seen more and more people apply for the grants for free school meals and for uniform. A total of 97,000 children in Northern Ireland are on free school meals. There are consistent delays in processing the claims. The Minister is always keen to assist, so I ask, please, for some urgency when the applications are being processed. Let me give him an example. In September, one of my constituents applied for a school uniform grant. Eight weeks later—about two weeks ago—that money eventually came through. Again, at the time that it was needed, it was not there. It was not that it was not coming; that was not the issue. The issue is the processing of it.

I hesitate to interrupt esteemed colleagues in their speeches, because clearly I will try to address as many points as I can in closing. However, as always with any local constituency issue raised by colleagues from any political party, I ask the hon. Gentleman please to write me directly and I will look into it. Although that particular case may have taken eight weeks and the milk has spilt on that delay, I will look into it to try to see what I can do to ensure that the matters are processed an awful lot more quickly. We all accept that such delays are not acceptable.

The Minister has just demonstrated what I said earlier—he is a Minister who wants to help. I appreciate that, and I will take that opportunity. I think we all will. As he said, the milk is spilt and time has moved on, and the lady has got the payment, but she had to cover the full cost of uniform payments and free school meals herself for two months. The point is the pressure that is put on.

I know the Minister is always there, and I thank him for his intervention. He is keen to reach out and always does; he has done so in my constituency. I appreciate that. Could some discussions take place with the Northern Ireland Assembly Minister to get a feel for the situation back home? That could be used to develop a policy that would be helpful for us all.

There must be elements of dignity and fairness in social security support for children. Universal credit will rise by 10.1% in April 2023. I welcome that the Government have shown a willingness to support people. We thank them for the support, not just for children but also for senior citizens. My constituency has an ageing population and we also need to help them.

That help for everyone is welcomed, including those in my constituency of Strangford, but the reality is that people are struggling now. There are ways to tackle that, with more and better jobs and a benefits system that enables people to gain extra work. I think the Government said that in the autumn statement, which the Chancellor delivered last week, but I would like to see how that will work; we need more information, because we advise people.

Whenever we advise someone on benefits, we have to do that in a way that is to their advantage. It cannot be done without knowledge of the subject matter, because that could be detrimental. I am always conscious of that, and we have a very simple policy to always advise the pros and cons. The final decision is up to the applicant, but we have to advise them if there is a negative impact and they have to understand that.

The rise in the cost of living is having an impact on everyone, but some are more vulnerable than others. As the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said, we are a voice for the voiceless—those vulnerable people, those parents and children in need. We must do better to help them through this time.

I thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing the debate today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) on bringing forward the debate and I thank all hon. Members for taking part.

My hon. Friend made some points about individual organisations in her constituency. I absolutely agree that we should thank those organisations for all the hard work they do, because they are absolutely necessary, but we can do that at the same time as saying they should absolutely not be necessary. It was good to hear about Paul’s Parcels and the work that my colleague is doing to support those organisations and the eradication of poverty in her constituency. I hope that all hon. Members are doing what they can in their constituencies, as well as putting pressure on the UK Government to try and ensure a sufficiency of social security.

Social security is about security; it is about having a secure situation where people can have positive mental health—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about people’s mental health—rather than spending every moment worrying about whether they are going to be able to feed their children tomorrow, next week or next month, and whether they will be able to afford food. We need the social security system to work and provide the safety net that it is supposed to. After a decade of Tory Government, it continues to fail and it is not getting better.

I have less optimism now for the futures of my constituents than I have ever had at any point in this job and in my previous job as a city councillor. In about 15 years in an elected role, I have never seen the levels of hardship that I see coming through the door in my constituency office, on the news and in our communities. This has not happened before.

The problem is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel right now, no matter what the Government have announced in terms of inflationary upgrades, for example. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, that is a temporary measure; it is not permanent and does not provide the level of structural reform people need to afford to live. What could be more important than ensuring that kids are fed and warm? There is nothing more important.

Our Scottish Government are now into their second child poverty action plan. We had “Every child, every chance”, which ran from 2018 to 2022; we now have “Best start, bright futures” from ’22 to ’26. These plans are about putting tackling child poverty at the heart of the decision-making processes of the Scottish Government. I do not think it is too much to ask that the UK Government replicate that, and say that they care about eradicating child poverty, and therefore will have a strategy to do that and make it a central aim of their plans.

More fundamental to that, though, would be if the UK Government could even start measuring child poverty, which is part of the issue. Yes, it would be great if they had a strategy to deal with it—that would be absolutely fantastic—but does my hon. Friend agree that it is alarming that the Government do not even measure child poverty? They do not realise the scale of it, other than by measuring it anecdotally, as I am sure the Minister does in his Hexham constituency when people come through the doors at his surgery on a Friday morning.

I agree. The fact that the Government are unwilling to even measure child poverty shows the lack of importance they give to this issue. If they cared as much about it as they should, they should be willing to explain, “This is what the current situation is. This is the measurement. This is how bad it is. This is how many people are suffering and how many children are in poverty in the UK in 2022”—in the UK in 2022! How can we be saying this? The UK Government need to stand up, hold up their hands and say, “This is the current situation and this is how we are going to improve it.”

I want to set out a few specific asks, some of which have been made already. As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts mentioned, 87% of those affected by the benefit cap are families with children. The benefit cap would need to increase by £942 to reverse the loss since 2013. Despite the fact that the Government are looking to increase it, this is only the fourth time that social security payments have risen with inflation in 10 years. If we in Scotland can find an extra £25 a week in order to provide the Scottish child payment, the UK Government, with their far vaster budget and flexibility in dealing with their fiscal situation, can surely afford to do the same. They can afford it, but they choose not to match the payments we are making in Scotland.

There is the issue of the sufficiency of social security. One in four people on social security skipped meals this summer. That was in the summer—before the additional price cap increase on electricity and gas; before the upcoming winter months when people will need to put their heating on; before people had to buy school uniforms for their children when school started again in August or September. That situation is set only to get worse, and the promise of a temporary increase in universal credit will not fix it. There is currently no way out of this. We have no certainty that there is not going to be a cost of living crisis next year. Certainly none of my constituents has that level of certainty.

Let me turn to the issue of debt repayment deductions that are made from universal credit and other benefits. We have a situation where the UK Government can take 25% off the standard allowance to reclaim debts. Sometimes, those debts are caused by overpayments that are no fault of the person, but entirely the fault of poor decision making in the DWP or job centres. To be fair, that does not happen all the time; I am just saying that sometimes it is an issue.

If the UK Government have done an assessment of social security payments and believe them to be sufficient—that people can afford to live on them—how can they justify putting in place a benefit cap or taking 25% off the standard allowance? They are saying, “This is what we believe is sufficient for people to live on, but we are just going to take a quarter of it away.” It does not make any sense. People already cannot afford to live on the social security payments they are receiving. When the amount people are getting each month is reduced because of those reductions or the benefit cap, it is even less sufficient. Again, the conditionality and sanctions in place reduce that basic minimum level of payment that people should be entitled to.

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. There have been occasions where overpayments have been made to my constituents. The money has to be paid back, and they understand that. Reducing payments by 25% is very unfair. In the past, my staff and I have managed to negotiate a reduction of 10%. That option is more manageable and should be given to the person at an early stage. Does the hon. Lady feel that is the right way forward?

I am glad that the hon. Member has managed that on behalf of his constituents. That is actually not the preferred route that I would take. I would prefer to look at whether people can afford payments rather than coming up with an arbitrary percentage, which is the UK Government’s preferred choice. I would look at affordability. How much are their outgoings and incomings? Can they afford to make the debt repayments? That is what we do, and when organisations like StepChange are managing debt, they look at whether people can afford it.

In my time working for Glasgow Credit Union before I was a politician, one of the things we regularly had to do when determining whether someone was eligible to borrow loans was calculate their debt ratio. Although that is required by the Financial Conduct Authority and imposed on things like credit unions, part of the problem is that the DWP does not routinely look at people’s income and expenditure. Does the hon. Member agree that the Minister should look at a debt ratio when making these decisions?

I absolutely agree. That is the way this should be taken forward, rather than setting an arbitrary percentage—whether it is 25%, 10% or whatever level. It should be done on the basis of affordability, and a debt ratio would be the preferred method; it would make sense.

One thing that I do not think has been mentioned yet is those people with no recourse to public funds. They are not in receipt of social security payments or the vast majority of payments that are available to others. We are seeing the most drastic and extreme levels of poverty experienced by some of those families, particularly refugee and asylum-seeking families. We are seeing children and families who literally cannot afford any food, and I just cannot believe that the UK Government are unwilling to make any change to the system of no recourse to public funds, because what people are going through is horrendous.

The UK Government stand up and say, “Oh well, it’s fine. They can just go home to whatever country they came from.” Generally, people who are here having made an asylum or human rights claim are here because it is worse in the country they came from and because their children are in danger if they go back. In fact, no recourse to public funds sometimes applies to people who are stateless—they have no country to go back to. It is a horrendous situation, and the UK Government need to fix it.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution. On that specific point, I recently visited Manston and saw harrowing scenes of a tent full of families with young children. Those kids should have been playing in nursery; they should have been in a safe area. Instead, they were with dozens of other children in one tent. Does my hon. Friend agree that the wider issue at play is that the UK Government are spending their time othering communities? They are pitting communities against one another—whether they are refugees, working class, gay, lesbian or trans—when in actual fact we should all be uniting and campaigning to get that lot of Conservatives out.

I absolutely agree; I could not have put it better. No matter where they were born, the colour of their skin, their religion, their sexuality or gender identity, those children and families deserve a basic level of human dignity and fairness. That point about dignity, fairness and respect was made earlier. The UK is, in all our names, failing to provide that. It is choosing to make a differentiation between those people who are in slightly different communities and to treat them differently, and it is therefore trying to make that okay.

In Scotland, we are putting wellbeing at the heart of what we do. We are one of the founding members of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. We are not choosing to levy austerity on the most vulnerable people in our society; we are choosing to provide respect, dignity and fairness. We are choosing to provide as much as we possibly can within our limited budgets. Our five family payments, including the Scottish child payment, can be worth over £10,000 by the time a first child turns six, and £9,700 for subsequent children. That compares to £1,800 for an eligible family’s first child in England and Wales, and under £1,300 for subsequent children. The difference is £8,200, and it highlights the Scottish Government’s major support in the early years for low-income families.

This is an incredibly important debate. We need a social security safety net that works. I would rather our social security system accidently pay the few people who are not eligible—who do not meet the criteria—than miss any one child who should be receiving those security payments and that Government support. The ideological choice that I and the SNP would make is to put dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of the decision-making process. We need to make sure that children are not in poverty, and that our guiding mission and our choices go towards eradicating child poverty.

It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) on securing this debate. We have heard a small number of contributions, but powerful ones, in which people have reflected not just on the strategic issues of poverty but on the impact of hardship on their constituents. Everybody has said that we are going into a hard winter; for millions, it will be the hardest winter in my 30 years in politics. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) for making the point that we are going into the festive season, which many look forward to, but this year people will dread it because of the hardship that they face.

Even with the energy cap announced by the Government, all families will be spending a significant amount on their energy bills. It will be a cold and grim Christmas for many. Does the shadow Minister agree that support for families—and therefore for children—needs to be reviewed as a whole, not just single benefits?

I will come to that later, but it is obvious that we need to look at the system as a whole. Indeed, we have to look at the issue of hardship and poverty not just in terms of the social security system, although that is the subject of today’s debate and money is crucial, and lies at the heart of tackling poverty; I have never had any doubt about that. We also know that the conditions in which people live and the conditions in which children are brought up reflect poverty in a wider sense.

Only this week, we have been discussing in particular the terrible tragedy of Awaab Ishak, who died in a cold and mouldy flat. That coroner’s report should be mandatory reading for anybody with an interest in poverty, because the issue of growing up in a damp and cold home is an issue of poverty. If people are not able to heat their homes or access half-decent accommodation in which to live, that is a matter of poverty, as is not being able to secure food and not being able to go to school in a uniform—not being properly clothed, shod and so forth.

I do not think that this is a theme that has particularly emerged in this debate, but all of these issues of poverty cost money—they cost the state billions and billions of pounds. Bad housing alone, which is a condition of poverty, costs the national health service at least £1.4 billion.

The issue of mental health has been referred to. Poverty drives poor mental health; worry and anxiety about money is known to do that. It costs the national health service millions and millions of pounds to respond to it. It also feeds into educational underachievement and impacts on our criminal justice system. We could go right across the issue of state spending, at a local level and a national level, and we would see that money is poured into the costs of poverty. Therefore, when we consider how much we spend on social security, we also need to consider what we will save in the medium and longer term.

The debate is timely, because this time last week we were waiting anxiously to see whether the Government would do the right thing in the middle of a cost of living crisis—something that would, only a few years ago, have gone without saying—which is to uprate social security benefits in line with inflation. As much as we all welcome what happened last week, because we were all very anxious to know what the Government were going to do about uprating, we should not allow the Government to normalise the idea that simply maintaining the real-terms value of social security benefits is an optional extra. If routine uprating of benefits with inflation is evidence of a turn towards compassionate Conservatism, I fear that the bar for compassion has been set very low indeed.

We have been through 12 years in which the Government, as a matter of policy, have repeatedly and permanently reduced the value of social security for working-age adults and children—and, yes, it is a permanent reduction, because the impact of below-inflation uprating in one year does not wash away if benefits are uprated from a reduced baseline the following year. The period of austerity for social security did not end with George Osborne’s four-year benefit freeze in 2019 and it did not end last week.

Let us take child benefit alone. It has been uprated this week—again, that is welcome—but it has lost 30% of its real-terms value since 2010. All the Government did last week, welcome though it is, was to decide not to erode the social minimum even further than they already have, and that is before we consider the many ways in which Governments since 2010 have sought to reduce payments even below the social minimum.

The social security infrastructure around children who live in families—whatever shape those families come in—is tough and has been getting tougher. We have heard about debt and deductions for debt repayments being built into the universal credit system through the five-week wait for the first payment. On top of that, we have benefit caps, the bedroom tax and the two-child limit, and crucially, let us not forget, we have a system of support for housing costs that has been frozen since 2020 and remained frozen in the autumn statement. The failure to uprate the local housing allowance with inflation undoes a great deal of the good that the uprating of social security payments elsewhere achieves, because people live in homes and they have to pay for those homes.

Let me give an indication of how far entitlements can fall below what might be expected to be the social minimum. There are 325,000 households in the private rented sector alone that face a shortfall between their rent and their universal credit housing support and also have a deduction for an advance payment or an overpayment. The median rent shortfall that they have to make up is £100 a month and the median deduction is £65 a month. We congratulate ourselves on the rate of payment of social security, but hundreds of thousands of people are trying to survive on less than even that minimum.

We have a permanently reduced baseline for the social minimum and a policy-driven multiplication of ways in which families can receive even less, and the Government expect to be praised for deciding not to drive down the minimum even further. They like to point to international factors beyond their control as drivers of the cost of living crisis, but they come on top of 12 years in which the social security system for working-age adults and children has been undermined not by the Ukraine war, not by the pandemic, not by international energy prices, but by domestic policy choices.

It suits the Government to pretend that social security policy affects only a minority of families. In fact, the family resources survey shows that, as of 2019-20, nearly 40%—four in 10—of all children in the UK were in families receiving universal credit or one of its legacy equivalents. The great majority—almost three quarters, at 72%—were in working families, and that is just at one point in time. The share of children whose families receive those benefits at some point during their childhood is now higher again.

It is, then, unrealistic to see universal credit and legacy benefits simply as a safety net for the most vulnerable. Of course, that is one of the purposes they serve, and they can serve it considerably less well now than they did before the Government embarked on permanently reducing the value of the safety net. They are also one of the instruments by which our society redistributes resources to families with dependent children, as any modern society needs to do under any economic circumstances.

It is only through social security that we can provide support on a basis that fully takes account of need by basing payment on family size and composition. That basic principle represents yet another way in which Governments since 2010 have broken with the approach of all modern UK Governments since the social security system was established in 1946. As the Child Poverty Action Group points out, the two-child limit already affects 1.3 million children, and cuts income by up to £2,935 a year.

Of course, it is welcome that flat-rate payments are addressing the energy crisis, but by definition they do not take account of family size and circumstances, so they are not a substitute for an adequate social security system. When YouGov surveyed universal credit claimants for the Trussell Trust this summer, it found that was exactly what was happening. Despite the survey being conducted in mid-August, almost 70% of people surveyed who had received a cost of living payment said that they had already had to spend all the £326 they received from the Government in mid to late July, and 64% had had to use the money to buy food.

We have entered into a cost of living crisis with a weakened social minimum, a system that seems designed to leave hundreds of thousands of families with even less than the minimum, and the principle of matching support to needs in shreds. However welcome the uprating was last year—sighs of relief were heard right across the country—families in their millions are dreading this winter because they will have to choose between feeding their children or heating their homes. It is well past time for the Government to recognise the damage that has been done since 2010 and set it right on a sustainable and permanent basis.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) on her first ever Westminster Hall debate. I confess that it is my first ever Westminster Hall debate in my new role, which I have been doing for just over three weeks. I have not had an opportunity to congratulate her on winning her by-election; it was a worthy win. I send my best wishes to her predecessor, with whom I did huge amounts of work when I was in the pensions brief at the Department for Work and Pensions for five years. I was battle-scarred after five years of working at the DWP. I had a brief sabbatical in the summer when I returned to the Back Benches before the Prime Minister asked me to take on this role. By my count, I have approximately 20 issues to respond to; I will do my best over the next 15 to 20 minutes.

Although the debate was introduced by a Scottish Member of Parliament, it is about social security support throughout the country, and it is timely, given the context of the illegal invasion by Mr Putin of Ukraine, the consequences of the aftershocks of covid, the rise in energy prices, the inflationary impacts that are clearly happening, and last week’s autumn statement. Although the autumn statement, which I am sure we will discuss, tried to address many of the issues that have been raised today, it would be naive not to accept and acknowledge that all countries in the western world are attempting to deal with difficulties in respect of the war in Ukraine, the energy price hikes, the fact that we are effectively in an energy war, the consequential impacts on national income, and the impacts of inflation.

The Government are responding to the challenges we face, and in last week’s autumn statement we showed a clear commitment to helping families and the most vulnerable. That includes a further £26 billion of cost of living support, on top of the £37 billion set out in spring last year by the then Chancellor. I will try to address the relevant points in a variety of ways. I have been in this role for only approximately three and a half weeks, but I have had the opportunity to go to jobcentres and meet DWP staff at locations ranging from Canvey Island and Birmingham to Hackney earlier this week.

I have previously visited a variety of jobcentres from Banff to Belfast, from Hastings to Amlwch in north Wales, and from Redcar to Blackpool, and I put on the record my desire to return to some of those locations. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has headed off, but I well remember visiting Shettleston and the Tollcross advice centre in his patch in 2019, and I deeply enjoyed the famous visit to the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is not a good thing to advertise the fact that I have been ambushed by a cake, but when I walked into his constituency office his staff literally ambushed me with a lemon drizzle. Obviously, that did not endear me to the previous Prime Minister bar one, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), but I hope to be back in Northern Ireland soon and I take on board the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I will endeavour to look into the matter when he gets back to me on it.

As the Minister for Employment I cover this brief and others, although not all the matters that have been raised today, and it is certainly my intention to try to visit all parts of the UK shortly. I hope to visit Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland within the next three or four months, depending on parliamentary diaries, negotiations with my good lady wife and various other things, as well as visiting a variety of locations up and down the country, to enable me better to understand the issues that have been raised.

In respect of support for children, the fundamental starting point should surely be the fact that the UK supports children and families throughout the country through child benefit. We need to begin with an assessment of that. It has continued under successive Governments, and as of August 2021 there were 8 million families claiming child benefit and 12 million children in receipt of child benefit. In Scotland alone, 532,000 families and 878,000 children were in receipt of child benefit.

I have a lot to try to address. Let me make a little progress, then I will give way.

Child benefit is available to anyone responsible for bringing up a child aged 16 or under, or 20 if they are in approved education or training. From April 2023, the weekly rate will increase by 10.1%, from £21.80 to £24 for the eldest or only child and from £14.45 to £15.90 for every other child. The UK child benefit bill for 2022-23 is almost £12 billion, and obviously there are other benefits with respect to claiming child benefit, such as national insurance credits, which protect future entitlement to the state pension and can be transferred to grandparents who provide childcare. Claiming also enables children to get their national insurance number automatically at 16.

The Minister knows that I have a lot of time for him because he sat through proceedings in the Chamber on my private Member’s Bill when he was pensions Minister. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, last year a couple working full-time on the minimum wage and a lone parent working full-time on the median wage were able to reach a minimum standard of living. That is not the case today, although the report was published before the autumn statement. What reassurance can the Minister offer lone parents for whom the cost of raising a child is already higher than it is for couples?

The hon. Lady and I spent nearly six months campaigning to ensure that there was a serious and legitimate change to women’s pensions entitlements in certain private sector pensions. I thank her for her work on the private Member’s Bill that she brought forward and that is now in law, having been signed by Her Majesty the Queen. I welcome the fact that she worked on a cross-party basis to ensure that happened. I will try to address the child poverty issue that was raised by several colleagues. I want to deal with it in a variety of ways. I will then segue on to the in-work progression point—namely, people who are working but also suffering from poverty.

Let me start with the background. The fundamental point is that the Government are committed to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackle child poverty in supporting low-income families. We spent £242 billion through the welfare system in the United Kingdom in 2022-23, including £108 billion on people of working age. We have made permanent changes to universal credit worth £1,000 a year on average to 1.7 million claimants, and have given the lowest earners a pay rise by increasing the national living wage by 6.6% to £9.50 from April 2022. From 1 April 2023, the national living wage will increase by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour for workers aged 23 and over. That is the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage. It represents an increase of more than £1,600 to the annual earnings of full-time workers on the national living wage, and is expected to benefit more than 2 million low-paid workers.

I will address the poverty statistics. The latest statistics show that poverty fell for nearly all measures in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20. In 2021 there were 1.2 million fewer people in absolute poverty, before housing costs, than in 2009-10, including 200,000 fewer children. We will come to workless households in a second, but since 2010 there are nearly 1 million fewer workless households in the United Kingdom. The number of children growing up in homes where no one works has fallen by 590,000 since 2010—

May I just finish? I will also come to the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts. That number has fallen by 590,000 since 2010, and 1.7 million more children are living in a home where at least one person is working. I give way first to the shadow Minister.

On the issue of absolute poverty, in a previous debate I raised the fact that the absolute poverty figures for larger families—those affected by the two-child limit—have been worsening, rather than improving, as the Minister claims. Will he go away, have a look at that, and inform himself about it when thinking about where to go next on policy?

Obviously, being three and a half weeks into the job I am looking forward to learning a great deal. I have merely recited the statistics on people in absolute poverty before housing costs. I will go away and think about the matter. I will give way to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts in a moment; I just want to make a little progress because I have not made much thus far.

I want to address the issue of work and emerging out of poverty. The Government believe, as did previous Governments under the Blair and Brown Administrations, that work is the best and most sustainable way to lift children out of poverty. That is in terms of the parents, I hasten to add. We hope there is then progression in work, which I will come to in detail. Clear evidence exists about the importance of parental employment, particularly when it is full time. The latest data on in-work poverty shows that in 2019-20 children in households where adults were in work were about six times less likely to be in absolute poverty than children in a household where no one was working. I have talked about statistics compared with 2010. Clearly, one job for the Department for Work and Pensions is to address the million-plus vacancies that affect us all in constituencies up and down the country. We certainly want to do that to help to support people to gain the skills that they need to find a job and improve their earnings.

I will try to address in-work progression, which was specifically raised by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts. There is clearly much that jobcentre work coaches are doing up and down the country. Members can go into their local jobcentre and meet and talk with them, and I urge colleagues to do so. I advocate a particular policy, which is called in-work progression. It started in April 2022 and was piloted in South Yorkshire. It was originally a voluntary offer, but it is now being fully rolled out, and approximately 2.1 million low-paid benefit claimants will be eligible for support to progress into higher-paid work. This support for people looking to progress in their current role or move into a new role—which we hope will pay them a greater amount of money, as they progress through the UC thresholds—is provided by work coaches, and focuses on removing barriers to progression and providing advice.

Jobcentres will be supported by a network of 37 progression champions, who will spearhead the scheme. The champions will work with key partners, including local government, employers and skills providers, to identify and develop local progression opportunities. They will also work with partners to address local barriers that limit progression, such as childcare and transport. This is being rolled out in South Yorkshire and Cheshire, and eight further districts will go live next week on 29 November, with champions to be in place beforehand—the recruitment is complete for those districts. Fourteen more districts will go live by 22 February 2023 and the remaining 13 districts will be rolled out by 22 March 2023. Across Scotland—to address the key point raised by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on in-work progression and support for people who are trying to make more money as they are on UC—that will be rolled out by March 2023, with six district champions.

When I met representatives from Pregnant Then Screwed this week, they told me of their concerns about the plight of women. We have women who want to work and are more than qualified to work, but the cost of childcare is holding them back. I mentioned this earlier, and I hope the Minister will answer this specific point: will the UK Government follow the suit of the Scottish Government and introduce childcare for children so that women can get back to work?

The hon. Lady has obviously pre-read my speech and the comments that I will make, because my fifth point was going to be about childcare. There are a variety of points, which I will address in their totality; I will then try to deal with the specifics, particularly for those on universal credit.

It is patently obvious that for some parents childcare costs present challenges—at the very least—to entering employment. As the father of a 15-and-a-half-week-old child, I can testify to the bitter experience of that. The Government’s 30 hours of free childcare offer entitles all parents of three to four-year-olds in England to 570 hours of free childcare per year, with many children also entitled to the additional 15 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year. In addition to helping parents to manage childcare costs and working patterns, free childcare supports children’s development.

I will deal in particular with universal credit and childcare, in respect of which there is a massive role for Members of Parliament. Bluntly, those on universal credit are entitled to a massive amount of childcare, but the take-up of that offer is not good.

They are entitled to 85% of childcare costs—that is absolutely true—but is the Minister aware that the caps set in 2005 have not been uprated, despite the fact that childcare costs have since increased dramatically? Will he take a look at those numbers?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), and I have had a preliminary meeting. The country wants to try to assist parents who want to go back to work. There is a real desire to address childcare on a long-term basis to ensure that parents who wish to can go back to work.

There are many discussions about all aspects of how we reform, improve and expand childcare in this country. The bit that I control is the ability of somebody on universal credit to access and take childcare. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts and I will go and look at that, but the blunt truth is that the take-up is low. That is the first problem. I am genuinely of the view that there is not sufficient knowledge that individuals on universal credit can claim 85% of their registered childcare costs each month, regardless of the number of hours they work. That is a significant increase on the previous 70% of costs that could be claimed back on legacy benefits.

Parents can claim up to a maximum of £646.35 per month for one child and £1,108.04 per month for two or more children. For families with two or more children, that could be worth over £13,000 a year. I take the hon. Lady’s point on board and will go away and look at that, but that is still £13,000 of subsidised childcare paid for by the state in circumstances. That support is also available to all lone parents and couples who satisfy both the childcare cost and the work conditions to qualify for help with childcare costs.

I am conscious that there is an issue with prepayment of childcare. Various support funds are used up and down the country. In my three-and-a-half week journey of understanding this issue, there seems to be patchy take-up, but I urge all local areas and individual job centres that are assisting parents in this process to ensure that the various support funds available can be provided. It is not a grant, but it is a provision to pay for the childcare deposit. That is definitely happening up and down the country and we should try to encourage and nurture that on an ongoing basis.

I am conscious of time and the desire to deal with a large number of other matters. The autumn statement saw £26 billion in total, as part of further support in 2023-24, to provide around 8 million households on means-tested benefits such as universal credit with payments of up to £900 to help their income stretch further. That is on top of the £37 billion of cost of living support for households in 2022-23. In addition, there are benefits increases in line with September inflation of 10.1%, worth £11 billion, to working-age households and disabled people. There is also the triple lock and support for pensioners.

We will continue to provide support to all households through the energy price guarantee, which caps the price paid for each unit of energy, saving the average UK household £500 next year. For those who require extra support, we are providing an additional £1 billion to help with the cost of household essentials next year, bringing total funding for this support to £2.5 billion since October 2021. In England, that includes an extension to the household support fund backed by £842 million for the 2023-24 financial year. Devolved Administrations will receive £158 million through the Barnett formula. I could go into detail about support for free school meals across England and about the Healthy Start scheme.

I will briefly touch on the funding and powers in Scotland. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts highlighted the extension to the Scottish child payment. The Scotland Act 2016 devolved significant social security and employment support powers to the Scottish Parliament, worth around £3 billion, as well as providing additional powers to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility, top up reserved benefits and provide discretionary payments. The UK Government provided the Scottish Government with a record £41 billion per year Barnett-based settlement at the 2021 spending review. That is the largest settlement since devolution. That record settlement provides the Scottish Government with around 25% more funding per person than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK.

In respect of various other matters, I will endeavour to write to colleagues. To conclude, I welcome today’s debate. I will attempt to work with colleagues on an ongoing basis. It is my job to ensure that there is ongoing support for children through the social security budget that operates throughout the United Kingdom. I commend the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on her first Westminster Hall debate.

I thank the Minister for his response; he should expect letters from me following up some of the points that I made. As I stated in my opening remarks, I wish to be the voice of the voiceless, which is why I applied for this debate to discuss social security for children. I was pleased to hear Back-Bench contributions from SNP, Democratic Unionist party, Labour and independent MPs, and I thank all Members present for attending. We heard incredibly powerful contributions, although I was saddened that no Back Bencher from the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats attended or contributed.

I did not find the debate adversarial; in fact, there was cross-party support, especially on this side of the Chamber, for collectively joining forces to eradicate child poverty and implement meaningful social security for children. Again, I call on the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government in increasing childcare hours and offering the baby box and the Scottish child payment. As I have said, the Scottish Government have introduced numerous policies; they hold only limited economic powers, yet they spend their time and money mitigating Tory austerity. Poverty is a political choice, and Scotland wants no part in it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered social security support for children.

Misuse of Nitrous Oxide

[Relevant document: e-petition 301247, Stop nitrous oxide (N2O/laughing gas) abuse in our communities.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the misuse of nitrous oxide.

As many people will know, nitrous oxide is a substance that has been available for many years. Known more familiarly as laughing gas, it has been used by the medical profession for some time, and in its form of gas and air it is used as a mild anaesthetic by both dentists and doctors—I believe I first came across it during the birth of my eldest son, when it was used to ease the pain of childbirth. It is also used to give a bit of extra whoosh to drag-racing engines: nitrous oxide systems designed to boost power outputs are used for competitive motor events, and of course, it is used in catering for both frothing whipped cream and frothing coffee in home appliances more usually found outside the UK. In that form, it is sold in 8-gram mini-cylinders.

Increasingly, however, nitrous oxide is used for recreational highs. Back in my day, solvent abuse was a problem; today, nitrous oxide—NOS, whippits, hippie crack, balloons; call it what you like—is being used for short-term highs by a new generation. It may be referred to as laughing gas, but in reality, it is no more glamourous than glue sniffing. This is not a new phenomenon. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 lists specific substances that are illegal; nitrous oxide is not listed, but it is covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. That Act, while not listing specific substances, covers those that fit specific characteristics and definitions. To fall within the remit of the Act, the substance must be capable of having “a psychoactive effect” that affects someone’s

“mental functioning or emotional state”

by stimulating or depressing their nervous system. Specifically, this includes effects that we associate with controlled drugs under the 1971 Act such as hallucinations, changes of alertness, changes of perception of time and space, changes of mood and empathy with others, and drowsiness.

The wide definition under the 2016 Act is intended to pre-empt new substances emerging in the drugs market by defining their effects, as opposed to their chemical structure. The Act is good news: it makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, or possess with intent to supply any psychoactive substance, with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. In short, it makes it illegal to sell nitrous oxide for recreational use. The available data tell us that there were 152 convictions in 2017, 107 in 2018 and 52 in 2019 under the Act, but we are trying to find more recent data. Slightly alarmingly, however, West Midlands police got in touch with me only this morning to tell me that since 2015, it has prosecuted only four people under the 2016 Act.

The Act was formally reviewed in 2018, and the review concluded that

“the use of nitrous oxide…does not appear to have been affected by the Act”,

with use by adults increasing to around 2.3% of the adult population, while use by 16 to 24-year-olds stayed steady at just under 9%. Indeed, nitrous oxide is now the second most commonly used drug in that age group, coming a close second to cannabis, but, as I say, the data are old.

Anecdotal evidence from the medical profession in the west midlands suggests that usage of nitrous oxide has increased markedly since lockdown. The medical profession is picking that up because of the appalling effects that it has on users. Its attractiveness is that it is easy to use. Historically available in small 8-gram cylinders—mini-cylinders—it is inhaled using, commonly, a balloon. Its effects are immediate and include euphoria, giggling, distortion of sound, and hallucinations. Those peak after 20 seconds and resolve after a couple of minutes. It is a quick high and leaves no immediate after-effects. Someone using it once would be able to sit down with, for example, their parents with no evidence that they had been using it in the minutes before. It appears to be harmless, but that is not the case. The reality is that people use it not just once, but for long periods. It used to be available in small 8-gram mini-canisters, similar in size to those of sparklets bulbs—

I thank the hon. Member for securing this really important debate and for making such a significant and poignant speech. I find it very distressing to know that young people are able to access these silver cylinders and that they have such a harmful effect on them. In my constituency, I have seen pockets of those cylinders in various places, and I am pleased that he has brought the matter to the Government’s attention. Does he agree with me that we need more work to be done on health and education as well as on enforcement to make sure young people are not able to purchase them?

I completely agree. I will be coming on to that, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right. With any legislation, part of it has to be to do with education, and it is important that people recognise that the high is insidious and not without consequences. The fact that it is called laughing gas means that it trivialises what is not a trivial thing.

I am really interested in the hon. Member’s speech and in the harms from nitrous oxide that he raises. As somebody whose lung was punctured as a result of using nitrous oxide during childbirth, I am keen for what he says about education to be at the heart of the proposals that he is making so that we tell people about the very real dangers they face if they misuse nitrous oxide. The only reason I came through it safely was because I was using it in a medical setting with medical professionals who could look after me.

That is an incredibly alarming story, because it was being prescribed presumably by an anaesthetist who knew exactly what they were doing. That was in the form of gas and air, but the people who misuse the drug use it neat, which is much more powerful and dangerous.

What used to require some effort to transfer smallish amounts from a canister to a balloon so that it could be used in a simple way is now something that can be inhaled all evening, sucking in huge quantities of nitrous oxide. Instead of being available in 8-gram canisters, it is now typically in canisters of up to 600 grams, which allows someone to sit there using it all night. The result is that doctors are now seeing an increase in cases of people being admitted to hospital with serious side effects.

Dr David Nicholl, a campaigner in my region of the west midlands—a local doctor and significant campaigner—tells me that he sees at least one new case every fortnight. Misuse of nitrous oxide creates a vitamin B12 deficiency. That is a vitamin vital for nerve function for both periphery in the hands and feet and in the spinal cord. Practical effects are numbness of the hands and feet and pins and needles, but longer-term use results in people being unable to walk and talk properly, relying on crutches and, in some cases, wheelchairs for, potentially, the rest of their life.

I add my thanks to my hon. Friend, who is also a Member of Parliament in Worcestershire. I have canvassed my local police force to understand the impacts on my constituency, as he has done. Is he aware that as well as the health impact that he is discussing, there is also the impact of anaemia in some users? Does he agree that that is a matter of resources for our NHS? We know that in Worcestershire we have problems with our NHS acute trust, so we should educate people not to engage in optional activity that burdens an already overstretched trust.

I completely agree. My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that I spoke to our local police and crime commissioner only this morning about the issue. I have engaged with him over a number of weeks, and he is acutely aware of it, but there are problems.

On the issue of crime, my constituents in Worcester have been inundated with concerns about Astwood cemetery, where vandalism and theft from graves has been taking place. One of the constituents who came to see me about it, Mrs McAuley, mentioned that the ground around the graves was littered with gas canisters. Is my hon. Friend concerned about the behavioural effect? People have these short-term highs, then carry out foolish and stupid activities, which can be deeply hurtful to people if it is something such as desecrating a grave in a churchyard.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Desecrating a grave is absolutely appalling. The last time I saw a pile of empty NOS canisters was outside the Royal Society on Carlton House Terrace, which is an unexpected place to see them. I am sure the members were not using it themselves. My hon. Friend is right that it brings about behaviour that, at the time may seem highly amusing to the person affected by it, but has incredibly profound long-term effects to other people around them. I will come to that later. The important point is that something that is used by trained medical professionals for beneficial medical outcomes, although not always without risk, is being misused to the level that it destroys the lives of the users and those around them.

How is nitrous oxide becoming so prevalent? The reality is that there seems to be no one controlling the selling of it. The Act is being ignored at worst, and at best it is very difficult to enforce. Users say that nitrous oxide is incredibly easily to get hold of, as it is freely available in corner shops. Moreover, it seems to be getting cheaper while everything else is getting more expensive. The 600 gram canister that I mentioned earlier has dropped from £50 to just £25, bucking the trend of the cost of living crisis. For communities that tend to avoid alcohol, it is an apparently guilt-free alternative.

The availability of nitrous oxide is extraordinary, given that it is being used as a psychoactive drug and is therefore controlled by the 2016 Act. You can google this should you choose to, Sir Christopher. There are websites that sell it nominally as a whipped cream additive, but brazenly give advice on its psychoactive effects and its legality or otherwise as a recreational drug. There is even one website that offers vitamin B12 supplements to counteract its effects. More alarmingly, one website that I looked at offers nitrous oxide not just in quantities for personal use—six 600-gram canisters can be bought for an attractive £130—but by the pallet load. Seventy-two cases of canisters cost an impressive £8,150, which will be delivered to the buyer’s door. Remember that the website starts by talking about it as a whipped cream additive but quickly goes on to its misuse. That is either an awful lot of whipped cream, or this is a wholesaler of misery for any number of people.

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House. The use of nitrous oxide in the community and the litter that comes from the canisters are constituency issues of great concern to me. I met my police and crime commissioner this morning, and we had a discussion about this. She is concerned about the impact on people driving following the use of these canisters. Would my hon. Friend comment on that?

Absolutely. There is definite evidence that people have been killed driving under the effect of nitrous oxide. Although it takes 20 seconds to kick in, and after a couple of minutes it resolves itself, we do not know what the long-term effects are on people’s acuity and ability to drive. I suspect that if someone has been taking the stuff all this evening and then gets into their car, even if they have come off the immediate high it surely has some longer term effect on their ability to check traffic lights and all the rest of it.

The website I was referring to looks like a wholesaler of illegal drugs under the 2016 Act. Importantly, the bottles that the nitrous oxide is being offered in suit neither the catering industry nor the medical profession. The medical profession buys it in very large quantities for its important uses. Those bottles can therefore only be being made for misuse.

Back in 2015, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs provided advice on the harms of nitrous oxide and public health and safety. It conclusion was that, although its harmfulness did not warrant control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it was important that it came under the 2016 Act. Back in September 2021, thanks to the British Compressed Gases Association—the trade association that covers the legitimate use of nitrous oxide—the then Home Secretary wrote to the advisory council asking it to review its finding. In her letter, the Home Secretary cited statistics showing that 550,000 16 to 24-year-olds had used nitrous oxide in the previous 12 months—that is significant use. The advice would inform the Government’s decision on whether nitrous oxide should be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 due to the long-term effects that its misuse can have, which, in theory, was quite a good move forward.

I understand, however, that the Home Office is still waiting for a reply. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what progress the Home Office has made in chasing up a response to that letter. I have learned from the British Compressed Gases Association that it has raised this again with the current Home Secretary, who has also written seeking guidance from the organisation in question. I gather that the Home Office is on to this, but it seems to be taking some time to get a response.

This issue was brought to my attention by the frankly brilliant campaign being run by BBC Hereford & Worcester—my local radio station—which has been working hard with local campaigner Dr David Nicholl, whom I have already referred to. It is just not David and BBC Hereford & Worcester who are on to this: not only have we had a petition in Parliament that has achieved more than 11,000 signatures, but the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published a report on Monday that highlights all the points raised here and more. The report, which lists seven case studies from Denmark, Ireland, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK, absolutely reinforces the concerns raised by Dr Nicholl, BBC Hereford & Worcester and my colleagues present.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, at a time when the BBC appears to be considering cutting back on local radio, this is an excellent example of the public service and duty that our local radio provides? The BBC should really reconsider its decision to target local radio for its cuts.

I could not agree more. I was going to come to this later, but my hon. Friend has raised it now: he is absolutely right: local radio is fantastic at every level. My hon. Friend and I both know what it is like trying to get around Worcestershire when flooding is coming in; were it not for BBC Hereford & Worcester providing that brilliant support, as other radio stations do, we would not have that help. He raises a brilliant point.

The report moreover reinforces the call by the British Compressed Gases Association for consumer sales to be banned in the UK. This advice has been followed by the Netherlands, which will introduce a ban in January 2023. It seems that anybody who knows anything about this is keen to tackle the problem, but there seems to be a problem with the Government and their agencies.

With all this official information, it is sometimes more meaningful to hear the views of those who have been affected. Earlier this week, I received an email in anticipation of this debate, which, I think, is worth reading out in full:

“Around 5 years ago, I found out that my brother had become addicted to nitrous oxide. He had been introduced to it as a party drug by a friend at university but soon became heavily reliant on it, to the point where he would do it all day, every day. Unfortunately, it turned him from a really kind, intelligent, outgoing and sociable person to a depressed recluse. He developed Psychosis, suffered from hallucinations and became confused. In one incident, he was convinced that I was impersonating his sister. He subsequently became violent towards my parents and me, and one Christmas tried to kill my father by repeatedly bashing his head with a portable speaker. We were all terrified of him. His nitrous oxide abuse led to him drinking alcohol heavily and gambling, and, two years after we learned of his addiction, he took his own life at the age of 25.

I am so angry that someone who had so much potential—he was an elite athlete, had won a scholarship to a top university in the USA and had just started a great job in finance—had his life destroyed by a drug, which many still consider harmless. We really need greater awareness of the harmfulness of the drug, especially amongst young people. Despite how damaging it can be, you will also know that it is freely available with no checks necessary. Indeed, my brother was able to purchase boxes of it on Amazon with next day Prime delivery and it was being openly sold by a shop around the corner from where he was living.”

We all know that drug use is not free from consequences, which vary from misery for users to misery for all the people, family and loved ones around those who have become addicted. If we agree that nitrous oxide is a drug under the 2016 Act, how on earth is it possible that Amazon can deliver large quantities of it and corner shops can sell it to kids? How is it possible that I can go to a freely accessible website that not only offers it by the pallet load, but provides advice on how to use it as a recreational high? How is it possible that the police are apparently not able to tackle this issue? As I say, my PCC is definitely on to it, but it is a problem.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that awful case, and our hearts go out to the family of those affected. The suggestion from Inspector Rich Field, my local police lead, is that it is very difficult to ban the sale of those sorts of things because, as has been pointed out, they are easily available on Amazon and eBay. The police are suggesting that it be made illegal to have possession of nitrous oxide in a public place for under 16s. What does my hon. Friend think of that idea? I hope the Minister has also noted that and will address it in his final remarks.

The answer to my hon. Friend is I think that is exactly the right idea. I have already spoken to the Minister about that, and I know that he is open to ideas—perhaps we will hear his thoughts on that when he makes his response. Importantly, why are we still waiting for an answer to two Home Secretaries’ request for more information from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? That is where a lot of the answers will come from.

I am grateful to the Minister for his time, and I look forward to hearing what plans he has to deal with this 21st century version of glue sniffing. We have already heard of the tragic consequences for somebody who became addicted. The Minister potentially has in his hands the ability to prevent further unnecessary misery. Finally, I congratulate David Nicholl and BBC Hereford & Worcester on their work. As we have heard, the BBC are introducing changes to local broadcasting that fly in the face of all logic. I will end on a point that is slightly unrelated to the main debate, but the work done by local radio is so important, and BBC Hereford & Worcester is such a good example of that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) for securing this important debate. I put on record my thanks to his local radio station, BBC Hereford & Worcester, for its tireless and energetic campaigning and investigative journalism in this area. As my hon. Friend said, work by local radio stations, such as BBC Hereford & Worcester, is extremely important in raising those issues and drawing them to the attention of local Members of Parliament, and, through them, the Government.

The Government share the concerns that hon. Members have raised about the use of nitrous oxide. We are very conscious about its growing levels of use recreationally, particularly by younger people aged between 16 and 24. We are concerned about the effect it has on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Often, drug consumption can have effects that take quite a long time to manifest For example, we know long-term cannabis consumption can lead to psychosis and psychotic episodes, but it takes quite a long time for that to manifest. With any sort of psychoactive substance there can be effects that are not immediately obvious, and only after the passage of time do they become clear.

This is a slight change of topic, but in Coventry we have had young people paralysed due to the neurological effects of this particular drug. Would the Minister speak to his counterpart in the Department of Health and Social Care about running a public health campaign to raise awareness about the effects of this drug?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the need to elevate public awareness. All too often we find that people make an assumption about something that, on the face of it, appears relatively innocuous but can in fact have serious effects, either over time, as in the case of cannabis and psychosis, or if consumed in excessive quantities. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest made about very large cannisters is concerning. The point she makes about people ending up paralysed by consuming huge amounts of this stuff is deeply concerning. I will write to my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care conveying exactly that suggestion. I think it is a good idea. It may be worth her raising it directly with Health Ministers, but I will certainly write on that point.

That is absolutely the right suggestion. With the public health campaign, could the Minister also speak to his counterparts in the Department for Education to make sure there is that connection between health and education, so that young people are receiving that information early?

I can see my job list growing with every passing minute of this debate. I am happy to raise that with Department for Education colleagues. Education is important so that young people understand the risks they are running when they take nitrous oxide. We support an organisation called Every Mind Matters, which is an online resilience-building resource aimed particularly at 11 to 16-year-olds and provides them with information to make informed choices. Raising concerns about these drugs is important. Children obviously get taught about it in schools through relationships, sex and health education. That teaching became compulsory in schools from September 2020, so part of the curriculum is set aside for messaging of the kind that the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) pointed to.

Let me turn to some of the questions raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest, for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) about the legal framework and where we are with that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest said, nitrous oxide is currently controlled under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 rather than the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and there are provisions in the 2016 Act that control the supply of it but do not criminalise possession. It is an offence to supply nitrous oxide if the person supplying it knows or is reckless as to whether it will be used for its psychoactive effect. There is a legal duty on the supplier not to act recklessly in supplying it.

I was very interested by the example my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest gave about an online company who were in his words acting as a “wholesaler” of this drug. He thinks it is not for legitimate purposes to do with whipped cream or other related commercial applications, but for use in a psychoactive context. He says the website sells it in forms of packaging that would appear to suggest it would be used for psychoactive effect, and there is content on the website pointing in the same direction, including suggesting people can take vitamin B12 supplements to counter the effect the nitrous oxide has. That all points to the fact that they may be supplying it for psychoactive purposes, not legitimate commercial purposes.

I have not seen the website, but were that the case, it would strike me that it probably would be reckless. The company acting in the way he describes would be acting recklessly as to whether or not it is being use to psychoactive effect. In fact, in some ways, the company might be implicitly encouraging it, considering the content he describes. I think my hon. Friend would have a case to refer that website to the police, drawing their attention to the provisions I pointed to. There might be grounds for investigation and prosecution under the law as it stands today for the reasons I just set out.

I am very grateful to the Minister for making that clear. He is right. Where there is concern about these things, the website should be referred. I have come across similar cases in relation to even more dangerous substances. He will know about some of the debates we have had previously about DNP—or 2,4-Dinitrophenol—which is a highly toxic and deadly substance, sometimes mis-sold as a slimming aid or exercise supplement. Does the Minister agree that we need stronger powers to ensure we can take action against websites that sell these substances, because I am concerned.

I have seen cases and cases have been raised by my constituents where drugs that can literally kill people, simply through being ingested, are being mis-marketed, or marketed in a way my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) described—where it explicitly says, “This is not the use for it,” but then goes on to imply that someone can buy it and use it for all those things. That is very, very dangerous, particularly for young people to whom these things are targeted. Can I urge him to take more action?

Yes, I think that is a very important point. Where the substance concerned has a psychoactive effect, it will fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and where people are supplying it recklessly in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester just described, there is basis for action. If there is no psychoactive effect but the substance has some other adverse medical effect, that would obviously not fall within the purview of that Act, but such substances are regulated separately through the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and other regulators, who can make regulations to restrict supply. If there is evidence that there is misuse of substances that are legal, either tightening that regulation or having them reviewed by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is the right way to go. If my hon. Friend has particular examples, he should write to me and I would be happy to take them up.

I am conscious that time is pressing upon us.

Thank you. That is very helpful, Sir Christopher; that was the clarification I was seeking, alongside your more metaphysical point about the pressing nature of time in general.

I return to the questions on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest eloquently and accurately put it, this matter was referred to the ACMD by the Home Secretary in September of last year, 12 or 13 months ago. We have not yet received its report. The Home Office has raised the matter. The ACMD is independent of Government so cannot be compelled, but it would be proper to draw its attention to this debate and the concerns that have been expressed from both sides on the issue, to make sure that it is aware of the strong parliamentary interest in this matter. That would be a proper and reasonable thing to do without trespassing on its independence. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue needs to be looked at urgently.

Generally, the Government follow the advice of the ACMD because it has the medical expertise, although we are not obliged to do so. It is within that organisation’s power to make a recommendation on how the drug should be classified. If it were to give advice that it thought the drug sufficiently damaging, it would be open to the Government to reclassify and bring it within the remit not of the 2016 Act but of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, at which point it would become a prohibited drug and would fall into class A, B or C. The Government take the ACMD’s recommendations very seriously because it is the expert in this area.

Will the Minister enlighten us, for the benefit of those of us not quite familiar with the role of this body? Does its recommendations include providing changes to the law and legal frameworks such as making it illegal to possess those substances in a public place, as I referred to earlier? How would that be enforced, based on those recommendations?

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs principally makes recommendations about how harmful a particular drug is and therefore how it should be classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That is the advice we have sought in this case. The consequences that then flow from classification are matters for Parliament to legislate; they are set out in law. There are obviously different criminal penalties depending on whether a drug is in class A, B or C, and there are different penalties for possession versus supply. The advice we are seeking is essentially medical advice on just how damaging the drugs are and therefore which regime they should fall within. I will convey to the ACMD how pressing Members of Parliament feel the issue is, quite rightly. The points raised have been very powerful and well articulated. I will undertake a third action to go and do that. This is an important issue, about which we are concerned.

I add a point before closing about the powers that local authorities have. One or two Members mentioned the associated antisocial behaviour and littering. There are powers available under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and other legislation to make various forms of order in this area, including orders on antisocial behaviour and dispersal. We also have public space protection orders, which are available to local councils to stop individuals or groups committing antisocial behaviour in a public space; such behaviour would clearly fall into that remit. Following consultation by councils with the police or the local PCC, councils can issue a PSPO, which would effectively prevent the activities taking place in a particular area. If there are Members who feel there is a problem in a particular location, I would suggest they get their local council to use PSPOs as an immediate measure and way of taking action. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest for the opportunity to speak on this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the misuse of nitrous oxide.

Sitting suspended.

Support for British Farming

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Welcome to this important debate about British farming. It is a delight to call Simon Jupp to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for British farming.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am delighted to have secured this timely debate, which is an opportunity for colleagues from across the House to voice their support for British farming. We have a lot to celebrate, alongside some concerns.

As the Member of Parliament for East Devon, I am proud to represent a corner of the UK with an extremely rich farming heritage. Devon’s farmers play a key role in the life of our county. Around 100,000 people get a snippet of that every year at the Devon County Show at Westpoint arena, which is held almost every July.

We know that the freshest, most sustainable and best produce is both local and seasonal. Local produce from across the south-west is found on shelves across the UK and around the globe. With that in mind, trade deals are of benefit to our region. We must take advantage of our Brexit freedoms, but we must also work harder to take the farming community with us. Leaving the EU allows the UK to leave behind a bureaucratic and inefficient farming policy. The Government rightly want to use our new-found powers to reward farmers for doing more to help improve the environment while also producing high-quality food.

However, the farming industry needs more certainty to both survive and thrive. I regularly hold roundtable events with the farming community in East Devon, and I hear that message about clarity loud and clear. Last month, I invited local farmers to a roundtable event with senior officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Rural Payments Agency. Farmers, agents and others are eager to see how various elements of the new farming funding system will underpin their sustainable and resilient businesses. Support schemes will need to be accessible and simple, and they will also need to reward farmers fairly for taking part in them.

So my first plea in this debate is that DEFRA looks to accelerate the development and roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive. Incentivising farmers to take part in rewilding schemes or to plant trees on prime agricultural land may seem a worthy policy in Whitehall, but it will not put food on the table in the west country. Farmers have said to me, “You cannot eat trees.” Needless to say, a balance is required. Food production and environmental sustainability are not necessarily in competition, and nor are they mutually exclusive, but support schemes should always encourage farmers to produce food. That is the only way to deliver on the ambition of the UK food strategy to maintain or increase our food self-sufficiency, which is all the more important given the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the challenges resulting from the war in Ukraine has been the increasing cost of energy and that one challenge for farmers is the cost of energy? In his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he would provide additional targeted relief for businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that those businesses must include farmers?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is incredibly important that the agricultural industry is recognised, because energy bills have shot up. Also, quite a few of our agricultural businesses in Devon and beyond rely on heating oil. We know that additional support is on the way, but we will have to wait and see whether that is enough for people to weather the storm. However, I and other MPs in the south-west of all party political colours will be listening to our farmers and representing their views back to Government.

Putting domestic food production first should also apply to trade negotiations. Britain is now free independently to strike new trade deals across the world, and colleagues should have enough time and opportunity to scrutinise such arrangements in the House. Giving Parliament more say in the process, in terms of both the negotiating mandate and the scrutiny of these trade deals, will strengthen the consent for them from the farming industry and the public. That is very clear.

I sympathise with the comments made by my right hon. Friend Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who recently criticised the path undertaken by the Government in signing the trade deal with Australia. The deal undoubtedly brings benefits, but as a Government we can and must do better in the future. In the summer of 2020, I supported an amendment on food standards tabled by the former Member for Tiverton and Honiton to the Agriculture Bill. The Government listened and acted, setting out that our high standards for domestic and imported products will remain.

I particularly welcomed the setting up of the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission, which must ensure that the voices of everyone involved in food production are properly heard. I would really like to see more engagement between commission officials and MPs, with the commission bringing back some of the regional evidence sessions that it held back in 2020. Those were invaluable in feeding back concerns from farming communities in Devon, the wider south-west and across the country.

There are many other topical issues I would like to touch on before I conclude my remarks, and which I am sure are high in the new Minister’s in-tray—not least rising input costs for things such as fertiliser, slurry rules and avian influenza. Those issues are playing on the minds of local farmers, alongside significant concerns about abattoir capacity in the south-west and across the country.

I will finish my remarks by talking about workforce shortages. Those are an acute issue across the agricultural industry, especially in the south-west, and DEFRA must keep working closely with the Home Office on a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce. Farming is a skilled career, and it is a labour of love for many. Excellent colleges, such as Bicton in my constituency, keep the flame alive in the younger generation, but is it enough and are we doing enough to encourage young people into these careers? There are ample career opportunities for UK workers in the food and farming sectors, but are we selling that dream to people who are thinking of joining the industry or who have an interest in working on our land?

The farming industry needs sufficient access to labour in the meantime, with the industry calling for the seasonal worker scheme to be increased to a minimum five-year rolling programme to help give farms certainty to invest. The Prime Minister committed to look at expanding seasonal worker schemes in his leadership campaign during the summer, and he was absolutely right to do so. I hope that that is something that DEFRA Ministers and the Home Office can take forward, particularly for the poultry and pig industries, which have faced real problems in the last 12 to 18 months.

The hon. Gentleman is making a proud defence of British farming. One of the challenges is around the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—that is certainly true in my constituency, where we will end up with food rotting in the fields, because there are not sufficient people to harvest it. The hon. Gentleman talked about training people from the UK and bringing them into the industry, but does he acknowledge that the changes to the scheme mean that those people from overseas who worked in the sector for a long time are now prevented from coming here and cannot pass on their skills to the next generation?

That is an interesting point and it needs exploring, which is why I am asking for more flexibility in the schemes the Government provide. We know that this is an acute issue in the area that my hon. Friend represents, but also in the area that I represent. The industry is very clear on this issue, which is why I am mentioning its views today.

Unprecedented events are placing a lot of pressure on our farmers, so today’s debate is a timely opportunity for the House to demonstrate its support for the industry, and I am glad to see so many people here who want to do so. Farmers are the custodians of our countryside. They create new habitats, protect wildlife, produce the raw ingredients that feed our nation, and export food around the globe. It is a seven-day-a-week profession and a labour of love across many generations. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions and to hearing from the Minister, who is experienced and knowledgeable, about his support for British farming.

Colleagues can see that the debate is well attended. There are nine colleagues wishing to catch my eye, and they will have about five and a half minutes each until the winding-up speeches begin.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary, and to follow the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp); he made an excellent speech, and I warmly congratulate him on securing this important debate.

I should say at the outset that I have a long-standing love of the countryside and have spent a lot of my life on farms over the years. For the purposes of transparency, I want to declare that my son is at agricultural college in Yorkshire, my parents-in-law are farmers, and I am the grandson of a farm worker. I should also say that a sizeable portion of the borough of Barnsley is in a national park, and I am proud that there are a number of farms in my constituency.

Let me say something about the challenges farmers face and what I think we should be doing to support them. The UK benefits from better food security if British farmers produce more food. The war in Ukraine has brought that into sharp focus, as it has caused an abrupt decline in global food production, but the UK has experienced a longer decline. According to the National Farmers Union, we now produce 60% of our domestic food consumption, down from 80% in the 1980s. The Government have an important role to play in reversing that trend, but we can all play our part by buying local produce.

A recent report by the CPRE showed that, pound for pound, spending in smaller, independent, local food outlets supports three times as many jobs as spending at supermarkets, and buying direct can be even better for some farmers. In my area, the Hill family, who run a local dairy farm, have shown entrepreneurial spirit by setting up a very sophisticated vending machine so that people can buy their dairy products directly. They call it “Milk From The Hills”—local milk from local cows helping local farmers.

Members who speak to their local farmers know that farming has rarely, if ever, been easy. So we must support farmers during difficult times, and the latest outbreak of avian influenza is a timely reminder of that. I acknowledge the need for the Government’s national housing order for poultry, along with steps to improve the compensation scheme, although there is some way to go to get that right. Ultimately, strong biosecurity will help prevent and mitigate many threats, but the Public Accounts Committee reported last week that the Government are not prioritising the significant threat to UK health, trade, farming and rural communities posed by animal diseases. That has led to the Animal and Plant Health Agency site in Weybridge having more than 1,000 single points of failure. The completion of the redevelopment programme, due in 2036, will be cold comfort to farmers, especially given that avian influenza is not the only threat.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the contribution of biosecurity to tackling avian influenza, but does he agree that, because of the interaction between the wild bird population and domestic birds, biosecurity will never be the whole answer to the problem? To be honest, I do not know what the answer is, but to put all our metaphorical and political eggs in the biosecurity basket risks leaving us with no solution in the long term.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I understand that there will be a debate on that subject in the House next Wednesday. That is a really important opportunity for Members to put points to the Minister, who takes these things very seriously. I hope that that debate will be well supported. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

On biosecurity, African swine fever is a real danger, but the Government have not yet shown that they appreciate the need for strong border checks. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about the need to keep it out of this country. It is in Germany, and many hon. Members are concerned about the potential for it to come here.

Farmers do diligent work to keep their livestock healthy, and we all respect the fact that farming can be physically demanding. Despite recent advances in technology, it can, as we heard from the hon. Member for East Devon, still require a significant workforce, crucially at harvest time. The seasonal workers scheme must secure the labour needed to ensure that we can produce the food we need.

In response to a written question that I put to the Minister back in October, he said:

“40,000 seasonal worker visas were available in 2022”.

However, the NFU says that farmers need between 60,000 and 70,000 seasonal workers. It is important to note that those workers are not the same as other economic migrants: they return home after performing critical work and filling labour shortages. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about what his Department is doing to ensure that supply meets demand.

Despite the large workforces sometimes required, we appreciate that farming can be a solitary experience, so we need to ensure that our young people see farming as an attractive option for their future. The Farm Safety Foundation reported in February that 92% of farmers under 40 rank poor mental health as the biggest hidden problem facing farmers. That is a concerning figure. I know that the Minister will understand this issue and take it seriously, so will he say something about the Government’s plans to target outreach to young farmers to make sure they get the support they need?

To conclude, it is very important that we nurture those who feed us and that we support the stewards of our countryside so that they can fill our national larder and protect our green and pleasant land.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for luring me back into Westminster Hall for such an important debate. He spoke eloquently about the importance of rural communities, which we all fundamentally believe in. I represent a part of Essex that is known for its rurality and for its coastal constituency values as well. Farming needs to be recognised as a strong, dynamic and entrepreneurial part of our economy, as well as for the agricultural quality that it brings. My hon. Friend also spoke about the fact many of our rural communities maintain our beautiful countryside and about some of the challenges that come with that.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) spoke about buying local produce, so I will advertise local produce from the Witham constituency, which can be purchased here in Westminster as well. There are the famous jams from Tiptree’s Wilkin & Sons, which holds a royal warrant. With Christmas fast approaching, I urge everyone to make sure they stock up on Christmas puddings from Tiptree.

Importantly, there are many other farms that supply produce, and my hon. Friend touched on the issue of trade—our ability to export around the world. Importantly, we also have the ability to feed our domestic population. In Essex, we have the fantastic Wicks Manor farm, which produces amazing pork products—sausages and bacon—much of which goes across the world. It is also the birthplace of the famous milkshake known as Shaken Udder. We also have Humphreys at Blixes farm; Daymens Hill farm, which has an amazing orchard with nearly 4,000 varieties of apples and pears; and Blackwells farm shop. In addition, this House has the privilege of selling Linden Lady chocolates, which are very famous, in its gift shop—I recommend them.

That is just a small taster of what my constituency’s farmers and producers have to offer. They want more trade and fewer barriers to trade. They want to ensure that they can grow their businesses and see much more progress. Of course, two years of covid have left many challenges. There is the pain of inflation and what that means not only for wages but rising global food prices. Higher petrol and diesel costs also have an impact on farmers’ ability to operate.

Farmers are also being squeezed by the supermarkets. Everyone will be aware of the margins that supermarkets chase. The Government must hold the supermarkets to account.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Groceries Code Adjudicator—the regulator for supermarkets, farmers and price controls—needs to be given more teeth and to have greater control so that our farmers are not suppressed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know the Minister has heard those comments, and he is familiar with the issue too.

Avian flu has been mentioned. I appreciate that the Minister has been involved in many debates, and there have been many meetings across the House as well, and I want to express my thanks for that support. But farmers face numerous pressures in terms of the regulations and some of the enforcement. I would welcome further details from the Minister on the measures that are being looked at to support farms.

In Essex and across the country, avian flu is very severe. One farm in my constituency has been left devastated by an outbreak. Despite the farm taking all the measures around biosecurity—I am pleased to hear that there will be a debate on that next week—the strain was still detected. As we know, it is causing disruption to the poultry supply chain, which will impact on the costs of poultry. I hope that we can continue to have constructive discussions and support our farmers around the implications of avian flu.

I would like to touch on investment in farming. I have picked up already the comments that have been made about the labour market, labour market reform, and the infamous seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has more than 40,000 available places. We should not always depend on overseas labour, not just in farming, but for our country and wider economy. There are active discussions, which I hope the House will welcome, around the development of the labour market strategy. That is something that I, with the former Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—had been pursuing in Government, and I know that the current Chancellor is also looking at that.

It is important that we support our entrepreneurs—our farmers are entrepreneurs; we have heard about the hard work and the graft that goes into farming—but we must be able to give farmers long-term security around investment in technology. When it comes to picking fruit or produce, capital allowances can help enormously, alongside a solid labour market strategy that attracts and develops the workforce.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. Farming and agriculture are the backbone of our country; they need to be nurtured and invested in. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and to be able to say—unlike, perhaps, on some occasions when she was in the Home Office and I shadowed her—that there was a great deal in her speech with which I agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) on getting this debate, and I am pleased at the measure of consensus, because consensus is very important for agricultural policy. In politics, we tend to work on a four or maybe five-year cycle. In agriculture and farming, that is but the blinking of an eye. I should, parenthetically, remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a farmer’s son and now a landowner myself.

The real support for agriculture that we need from Government is more certainty. That, of course, will come from the future of farm payments; they have hit difficulties south of the border. North of the border, we must still wait and see. We welcome the consultation that is outstanding. I share some of the frustrations of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, which came forward with proposals four years ago that would have put active agriculture at the heart of environmental policy; it feels there has been a missed opportunity. However, if we get what we need from that consultation, it would behove us all to welcome it.

In particular, in my community, I am keen to see a flexibility that shows an understanding of the local social and economic benefits from agriculture. We have two dairy farms left in Shetland; they have been whittled down—salami-sliced away—over the years. Last week, we had four days without ferries, so our supermarkets, Tesco and the Co-op, which would normally import much of the milk, were not able to do so. For those four days, we were reliant on those two dairy farms for milk for our communities. If there is not an opportunity there for public money for a public good, then I do not know where there is one.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the supermarkets’ dominance of our national food supply chains is now just too much? It is defeating the objective that he mentions, which I have long advocated for: local food, getting through local supply chains to local people, is the way forward.

The hon. Gentleman risks triggering me—if my children were here, I think that is what they would say—because that is a theme on which I have spoken many times. He is absolutely right. I was part of the Government who introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I am disappointed that it has not worked; it needs to be revisited.

There are other powers in the Agriculture Act 2020, and with the Competition and Markets Authority, that could be brought into force, and I think that the consensus in rural and agricultural communities across the country is that that should be done. There is an imbalance between the purchasing power of the supermarkets—which are maybe 10 behemoth commercial organisations, at most—and that of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of farmers across the country. The supermarkets have been allowed to take advantage of their market dominance for too long, and that absolutely must end.

There are a couple of other areas where the lack of certainty is becoming difficult for the agricultural sector. The progress of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is one. I know the Minister understands that, because I was with him when he heard from the National Farmers Union of Scotland about its concerns. There is a real concern that, because of the way the Bill is framed, we risk losing some of the most important legislation, almost by omission. There must be a more pragmatic and practical way to deal with the concerns that that Bill seeks to address that does not risk unintended consequences.

There are other areas in which agriculture, certainly in my community, could benefit from support, but that requires Governments in Edinburgh and Westminster to be prepared to listen. I see some of the debate about the transportation of live animals by sea and it scares me. The people who talk about that issue seem to have no interest in the fact that those of us in the Northern Isles, having years ago designed the state-of-the-art, blue-chip system for transporting animals by sea, risk being caught in legislation that frankly does not take account of our needs and circumstances.

I know the Minister is good at this, and he has a background that will allow him to do it: he must take his heft into Government and deliver. He must be prepared to listen to the people who know most about agriculture: the farmers. If he does that, the benefit is not just to farmers and farm workers, but to the rural communities across the countryside. Good agricultural policy makes for sustainable rural communities; it is as simple as that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and all hon. Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), whom I thank for securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I have been promoting him since I got here in 2010; I have been asking, “Why don’t the Government put him in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?” He, a farmer, is now here; I cannot believe it. Someone who understands what we are talking about, and what we want, is a Minister with the power to help us. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a landowner and farmer, so I speak with a lot of passion and experience in this field.

When I was selected as a candidate in 2006, one of my first tasks was to set up a farming group. It meets every quarter. That group started with two members, and now at least 50 or 60 appear. The Minister has often come along to it, either virtually or in real life. We hope this Minister will come long in real life soon, so that our farmers can talk to him and put across their concerns.

My hon. Friend is highlighting the same point as many colleagues: the importance of listening to local farmers on local issues. Farmers in my constituency have asked the Government to extend the policy of culling on a discreet basis for a further three years, when it ends at the end of this year, as part of the co-ordinated approach in Cheshire to tackling bovine TB. Does he agree that it is vital that we consider farmer-led approaches to such challenges?

My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth. In the dying moments of my speech, I will talk briefly about badgers and beavers, since I am slightly concerned about their presence in small Dorset rivers.

What we all want, and the public demand, is cheap food. If we as farmers are to produce cheap food, we need help—not to grow trees and all the other green things, although I totally accept that there is a place for that, but to grow food. We frequently hear Ministers refer to the public good; production of food should be at the top of the list of public goods.

As hon. Members have said, we have had a war, a pandemic, world food shortages and climate change, and there are terrifying predictions of food shortages around the world. We will have to become more and more self-sufficient, and farmers will have to farm more efficiently. Farming is an expensive game. Buying or leasing agricultural equipment—combine harvesters, tractors and all the rest of it—costs hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many farmers simply cannot afford it, not least tenant farmers. We would all like to see some form of grant, through which farmers could apply for money for those sorts of things.

As I said, the public need—and want—cheap food. We have left the EU. I was a Brexiteer; I was one of those crying to leave, and I am delighted that we have left. However, we face a danger if we do not help our farmers. Certainty is desperately needed, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, because as the basic payment scheme slides away and alternatives come in, there is a big hole there; and as a result, many famers, not least those in remoter parts of our country, will struggle. That hole needs to be filled. We need certainty, and they need reassurance. The alternative, which none of us wants, is cheap imports. That is not the way forward. That will not increase self-reliability, or counter all the threats that this country and the rest of the world face.

I will touch briefly on the badger cull. I understand that this is a contentious issue; the badger is a protected animal. I do not agree with that personally. I like to see badgers. We love to see deer, foxes, and every other wild animal, but these animals no longer have predators. If we do not maintain them, look after them and ensure that they are healthy by securing the right numbers, then —as we know—the badger population grows exponentially and disease spreads.

The culling practices have worked. The statistics are pretty impressive; we cannot refute them. They show that culling badgers reduces the impact of bovine tuberculosis, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, has devastated the beef and dairy industries. I urge the Minister to go back to this issue. I believe that badger culling will end, but I urge him to stop saying that we will end it. We must continue the cull, just as we cull deer and foxes, but in a balanced way, so that we have the right balance of wildlife in our countryside.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon mentioned that rewilding must not come at the expense of growing food. There is a place for green trees and rewilding. However, Scotland experimented with it, and once beavers had bred, they did not keep to the allocated space. They went all over the place. They are not appropriate for small rivers in Dorset.

I thank the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for setting the scene so well. Farming and agriculture are at the heart of both our areas. I declare an interest as a farmer. I am also a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and have been for many years; we are in regular contact. My main reason for joining, if I am quite truthful, is that the insurance premiums were excellent. I have been a customer for over 30 years as a result.

I am in full support of the farming industry; it is crucial for the UK and an integral part of our economy. It is great to be here to exchange ideas, and also to hear the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) speaking. I happen to disagree with him on one point: I think that all foxes—every one of them—should be controlled, but that is just my opinion. I will put that on the record. All foxes should be controlled. There should not be any foxes, but that is by the by. It is great to listen to other Members, and to see the Minister in his place; he has landed in the right job, and we are all very pleased to him there.

Agriculture plays a pivotal role in Northern Ireland; it brings an estimated income of £501 million as of 2021 —an increase of some 8.3% from 2020. Agriculture thrives in my constituency of Strangford; we have numerous companies that are bywords in the constituency. Willowbrook Foods, Lakeland Dairies, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces have a combined workforce of probably just over 3,000. I have mentioned before that Lakeland Dairies has four factories in Northern Ireland and five in the Republic; that highlights the importance of smooth and frictionless trade. There are countless dairy farmers across Northern Ireland who deal with Lakeland Dairies, and that has proven to be an incredible success in the dairy farming trade.

Employment is a major factor in the agrifood sector, hence the importance of securing funding and support from elected representatives. It does not matter if someone does not come from a constituency that is rich in farming; the supplies from farmers to other local businesses are equally important.

Furthermore, the sector employs some 70,000 people in Northern Ireland, so we cannot take away from the importance of those jobs for us in Northern Ireland. We export some 80% of our goods, so we depend on exports to survive. The Department for the Economy has concluded through economic modelling that there could be up to 10,000 fewer jobs, depending on the nature of the relationships established with the EU. I have to put this on the record, and the Minister knows it is coming: the Northern Ireland protocol disadvantages us in Northern Ireland. I know the Minister accepts that issue, but it is important for us that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill be agreed to. When it left the House of Commons for the House of Lords, it was where we wanted it. We hope it will return in a similar fashion.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on the protocol. We have heard today of the challenges facing famers. Would he agree that in Northern Ireland there are additional challenges because of the protocol? Look at the seed potato issue. We cannot get seed potato from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Some 50% of veterinary medicines will not be available to Northern Ireland in January after the grace period. Does he agree that the protocol needs to go? Great Britain’s farmers would not accept it, so Northern Ireland farmers should not have to, either.

I totally agree. My hon. Friend is our party’s agriculture spokesperson, so I am pleased to have that contribution made. Land use in Northern Ireland is now dominated by improved grassland management for dairy, beef and sheep production; there are also small pockets of cereals, mostly in County Down. I am privileged to have a farm that is agriculturally sound, and the land is very productive, as it is for many farmers across Mid Down and Northern Ireland. I have highlighted the importance of community farming numerous times, and nominated a constituent of mine, Emily McGowan, for the National Farmers Union community hero award. She is a young girl with a deep interest in farming, and I hope she does well.

Community and local farming are the backbone of business in Northern Ireland and the UK. Mash Direct supplies good, healthy, hearty food to numerous large retailers across the United Kingdom at an affordable price. ASDA and local Spars in Northern Ireland are some of their major retailers. That business started out of a kitchen 15 or 20 years ago. Mash Direct has been looking at becoming more sustainable and protecting the environment by installing solar panels at its family farm. It looks forward and has a vision for the future. This is another milestone in how farming can become carbon neutral. The farming industry is crucial to the UK economy, and we must support it. As stated, farming plays a major role in our achieving our environmental targets. It provides tens of thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom, and supports businesses with fresh and decent food for our constituents.

Finally, farmers face increasing stock prices on items such as fertiliser, due to inflation and Putin’s invasion of Russia, yet they still work hard and do their absolute best to provide for us. We should be incredibly proud of our farmers. I fully support them, especially those in my constituency, who I know work tirelessly to support their local community. If they can support us, we must do the same back.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) on securing this debate. We cannot speak enough about the need to support our farmers, who produce the food we need in a way that is good for the country and our health. We talk regularly about the need to support our farmers and landowners in producing more food. We also talk a lot about the need to protect and enhance our natural environment and countryside, which many of us are privileged to live in or represent; there does not need to be conflict between the two. Food production and biodiversity can complement each other; our mistake has been to give farmers the impression that they bear responsibility for our countryside and natural environment declining, and their job to fix it. I disagree, but there is no denying that consumers, driven by supermarkets and Government policy on inflation, hunger for ever cheaper food; they often want to pay less than the cost of producing it—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax).

Farmers face unparalleled challenges and are fighting fires, barely surviving each challenge as it rolls over them. They have little time to think, plan and change the way they produce the food we need. As a result, small farmers in Cornwall are handing over their land to large contractors to farm. I see a significant number of farmers reducing the amount of food they plan to produce this year and next, and lots of farmers are leaving dairy altogether. The production of potatoes and dairy, which are essential to our daily diet, has reduced enormously in Cornwall.

My hon. Friend makes the point that we need to build more national food resilience. It is preposterous that in the 1980s we were producing 78% of what we consumed, but now the figure has fallen to 60%. The grant funding discussed earlier would help farmers, particularly in respect of automation, and allow them, once they have become more productive and efficient, to challenge the power of the supermarkets, which have distorted the food chain. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to rebalance the food chain in favour of primary producers?

I do agree, and that was the subject of one of the first debates I ever secured in this place, back in 2015. Given how farmers’ plans have shifted in the last 18 months, I suspect that less than 60% of the food we consume is grown in the UK.

Urgent action is needed. I am glad to see the Minister in his place; I met him first thing this morning to discuss a similar issue. One thing that was said this morning, and with which I completely agree, is that food security should and must be adopted as a public good, so that we can focus Government funding and support for farmers in order to deliver food security across our nation.

As has been mentioned, we also need a determined effort to maximise high-quality food production—not just to feed our nation but to do so in a healthy way. We know that our NHS is not properly coping with the demands we place on it, and it will not get any better until we really look at our diet, the food we produce and our gut health. It is a massive issue, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, will be looking at soil quality and how it affects gut health.

We need to attract talent, especially in opening up the opportunity to embrace science and innovation, and to harvest the food we need. I go into schools all the time, and so much work needs to be done across the Department for Education, schools, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Government Departments to make farming and food production a key conversation in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and our homes. Parents also have a real opportunity to talk to their children about jobs in the food and farming sector.

Finally, we need to restore the relationship between the state, Government agencies and non-governmental organisations, so that farmers know they are vital and that we recognise they are vital to our national security and health. They should be supported to transition to modern, sustainable and productive farming and food production. We will not be forgiven by those living in the countryside if we fail to support them and to enable them to play the role they want to play, and are keen to play, in feeding the nation and making the countryside a place that is both secure at home and generous to the world around us.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp), who is almost my constituency neighbour, and congratulate him on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a tenant beef farmer’s son in my home constituency.

Although I could talk a lot about farming across the board, particularly beef and sheep farming, I want to focus my remarks on egg production and the effects we are starting to see. Some people say the situation has been caused by avian flu, but I would like to share some other aspects of the debate that may help to inform the discussion. The egg industry has been going through a period of turbulence for some time. In my opinion, it is because the supermarkets control the supply chain, totally dominate the market and force producers to accept a price at which they cannot afford to produce. I am afraid it highlights the fact that the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which I spoke so strongly in favour of in my maiden speech in February 2020, is proving to be totally ineffective.

Most of my local farmers in West Dorset tell me they do not want to receive Government subsidies, but they have to. Why do they have to? More often than not, they are forced into that position because the Groceries Code Adjudicator is not doing its job and is allowing supermarkets to dominate the field in such a way that farmers cannot continue to provide the goods that we all need to consume. In effect, in my opinion the Government are ultimately subsidising supermarket profits. That has to stop.

We all know that egg production costs have risen. Rising energy costs, the war in Ukraine and inflation have clearly all had an effect on that. But we cannot continue in a situation where large supermarkets’ strong yield-management policies are forcing this to occur. It is not new. Only a few days ago, the British Retail Consortium confirmed that

“some UK supermarkets are putting limits on egg purchases due to shortages largely linked”

to the avian influenza pandemic. Well, I do not agree with that. It is wrong. I think supermarkets are hiding behind that explanation a total failure in their yield-management strategies of probably many months, if not longer.

In West Dorset, a number of egg producers have told me that it is now so difficult for them to make money. Let me to put that into context: supermarkets broadly have raised the price of a dozen eggs by 50p over the past six months. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association says that farmers and producers are receiving just 18p of that, in the light of all the additional production costs they are having to bear. They cannot therefore do things like invest in pullets—new young stock—to ensure the future. This has basically resulted in a gradual 13% reduction in egg production over the past year alone. That is not solely because of avian influenza.

I have a number of egg producers in my constituency as well. If they sell their eggs locally to smaller shops, they can get a good price—for instance, £1 has been increased to £1.89. That is an increase that smaller shops have made, but the larger supermarkets are hellbent on screwing the producers to such an extent that they will no longer be in business. It is the big boys that need to be taken on.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, which concur with my thoughts. I am afraid this is the beginning of a ticking time bomb. If ever there was a time that this House had to urge the Government to give the Groceries Code Adjudicator the teeth it needs to sort this mess out, it is now. If we think there is difficulty in the market today, I can assure this Chamber that in less than 12 months’ time we will not be in a situation where we have a reduction in eggs available for sale to consumers—we will be lucky if we have any eggs on the shelves at all.

Before my hon. Friend concludes what is, as ever, a brilliant speech, I want to say that this does not just apply to eggs. The Groceries Code Adjudicator needs to intervene in respect of horticulture, cereals, livestock and a whole range of things in respect of which supermarkets are, as I said earlier, distorting the food chain. Will my hon. Friend ask this brilliant Minister —there is no one better in the House to do this—to use the powers that the Government already have to act in favour of farmers and growers?

Yes, I will. The Minister has heard that request.

Finally, the NFU has called for a DEFRA investigation into the egg supply chain. The NFU is a bit late with that call, but I think it is right. I hope the Minister will take that on board. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) makes a very fair point: this is not just about eggs. Milk was 49p a pint maybe 18 months ago; it has gone up now to more than £1 a pint in most shops. Ask our dairy farmers if they have received that difference—no, they have not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for securing this important debate.

It was not that long ago that throughout the House we were celebrating the Back British Farming campaign. I am conscious that I am probably one of the few people present who does not have a farming background or a link to farming, but as Members know the industry employs more than 4 million people and is worth around £120 billion to the national economy. In South West Hertfordshire, about 65% of our land use is for agriculture.

As someone who does not have many years of farming experience—definitely not as many as my right hon. Friend the Minister—I have proactively spent several months learning a lot more about the industry. Back in June, I held a roundtable in conjunction with the NFU, and I think that a lot of the issues raised then are common throughout the country. They included rising costs, especially for fertiliser; the VAT threshold for those who decide to have farm shops; and rural crime, especially the theft of tools and caravans and the police response. I am lucky that in Hertfordshire we have as our police and crime commissioner David Lloyd, who is very proactive on that.

In a follow-up meeting with farmers in August, I went to the P. E. Mead farm, where they farm more than 800 acres. Although it does not feel warm today, a key issue then was heatwaves and how the changing weather patterns will influence farming in the future. I am conscious that although the Minister is an excellent farmer in his own right, he may not necessarily have the answers, but I wish to put on his radar such important issues from across the industry. Where appropriate, we need to think about how the Government can best support farmers to deal with them.

One of the other things that I did during the recess was work experience: I spent a day with farmers at the PE Mead farm so that I could fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of farmers. As mentioned earlier, mental health is a really massive issue. The Office for National Statistics figures from back in 2015 suggested that suicide rates for male farmers were three times higher than the national average. That cannot be right. We need to think about what more we can do to support this vital industry. Unfortunately, we have seen with the war in Ukraine that food security will continue to be a massive issue. Although there is pressure for the development or change of land usage, my worry is that we are losing a skillset that is really important. Once it is lost, it is lost forever.

I have a personal plea to the Minister on education. One of the few pieces of casework that I have been really successful on is in respect of school catchment areas. I had the case of a young child whose parents were famers and had to live on the farm, but because of the farm’s location they were outside the catchment area for the school that the child wanted to go to. To me, that feels like penalising a family and their children for doing the right thing and ensuring that we have continued food security. I would be grateful if the Minister could take that point away and speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education about how we can ensure that when someone is involved in critical infrastructure related to things such as food production, they have the ability to make appeals about education catchment areas and have their situation considered.

I shall finish there because I am sure that my learned colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), has more to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) on securing this important debate.

I am proud to represent a large rural constituency, as a constituency MP and as a Member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. My constituency has a huge farming footprint. Our farmers in Cumbria and across the UK produce food to the highest standards with the highest animal welfare standards, and we should be very proud of that fact. I pay tribute to all farmers in Penrith and The Border and across the UK for all that they do. We must remember that during the pandemic farmers were classified as key workers, and they should be classified as key workers in the future.

The cost of living, which we have heard a lot about today, is really affecting the input costs for farmers. They are not immune to such costs, which include fertiliser, animal feed, fuel and energy. The Government support in recent months—such as the energy schemes, the bringing forward of the basic payment scheme payments, the new slurry grants and the fertiliser rule changes—has been very welcome and much needed, but I stress to the Minister that the Government need to continue to provide the support that farmers need during this crisis.

We have been supporting farmers through these challenging times, and as the funding systems change it is so important that we help farmers through those changes. I have seen at first hand in Cumbria how the new environmental land management schemes can work really well for local communities, and the farming in protected landscapes scheme is very welcome in Cumbria. This issue has been a big focus of the EFRA Committee. The current situation makes it even more crucial that the payments under such schemes are set at a fair and sufficient level and are a proper reward for producing the public goods that communities rely on. It is important—our Committee has been pushing the Government hard on this—that we support all types of farmers, including tenant farmers, commoners and upland farmers.

From talking to farmers in my constituency and across Cumbria, I know that there has been a lot of anxiety during this time. I have hosted regular roadshows with them, and I visit livestock markets regularly. I have triggered an EFRA Committee inquiry on the ELMS transition period. Sadly, I think some of that anxiety and negativity is being fuelled by people briefing against the payment system and misleading people on the levels of uptake.

I was pleased to question the Minister and Janet Hughes, the senior DEFRA official involved, at the EFRA Committee meeting last week. There is a 30% uptake of the environmental schemes, both existing and new. The uptake on the new sustainable farming incentive is not as high as that because it started only this summer. I would welcome the Minister reaffirming the point that we want to encourage people to enrol in those schemes and then inform them so the schemes can be improved. It would be welcome if the Minister said we were looking into levels of payment to help farmers through this period.

We have heard a lot about food security in this debate. The issue came into sharp relief in the pandemic and has been highlighted again by the war in Ukraine. Bolstering our food security is a prime priority for the Government. The EFRA Committee has been looking at this—we are in the middle of a food security inquiry—and has heard about supplies of fertiliser to the United Kingdom. We have two plants in the UK: the one in Ince has been mothballed and the other in Billingham has ceased ammonia production. That is critical infrastructure for our country, and I urge the Government to keep watching that. We must also remember that a by-product of fertiliser production is CO2, which is much needed by the food and beverage industry. It is also needed in the slaughter process for poultry and pigs, so there is an animal health and welfare implication. We need to secure that supply as well.

On animal health and welfare, I declare an interest as a veterinary surgeon. To support British farming, we need to have healthy animals. I welcome the Government’s progress in that area. The new animal health and welfare pathway scheme, as part of the new ELMS, is very welcome, formalising the partnership between vets and farmers. But more can be done, such as responding to the calls for investing in animal health infrastructure—we heard the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) make that point.

As a member of the EFRA Committee, I guested on the Public Accounts Committee for the inquiry on the situation at the Animal and Plant Health Agency headquarters in Weybridge. It needs a radical and drastic refurbishment, and I urge the Government to make that a key priority. I have seen this at first hand: I came into politics on the back of my experiences in the foot and mouth crisis, and I witnessed things that I never want to see again in my lifetime. The APHA needs to be funded. The Weybridge site is pivotal in our attack and defence against infectious disease. We see that critically now with the avian influenza crisis. I pay tribute to the vets, officials and farmers on the frontline in that horrendous crisis. Funding that infrastructure is so important; this is about animals and people. We have to remember that diseases can transfer from animals to people. That work looks at public health and antimicrobial resistance.

We have heard a lot about rural mental health; the impact of infectious diseases and outbreaks have a massive impact on our rural communities. I urge the Government to look at that.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to our farmers. It is possible to produce food and look after the environment at the same time. We produce food to the highest animal welfare standards. As a Government, we must keep our arms around our farmers and ensure we support them moving forward.

Thank you, colleagues for your co-operation; we have come in on time and on budget. We now turn to the Front Benches.

Thank you, Sir Gary; I will ensure that trend is kept to. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) on securing a thoughtful and fascinating debate. The conclusion of all this is that British farmers still need support, and what they have received thus far is not sufficient to ensure that we have good farming practice.

I feel like a veteran at some of these debates. I have only been doing this job for the past few weeks, but the same themes seem to come up. Quite rightly, there is a tension between food production and biodiversity, and there are issues about the costs of supermarkets and concerns about food security and poor mental health among the farming community.

There were a couple of things that did not come up. One that I want to mention, which only the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) brought up, is the concerns about ELMS payments. I thought that would be a focus of much of today’s debate, but until the hon. Member rose, there was no mention of it all. I am sure the Minister is more than aware of the some of the concerns and anxieties about ELMS. Farmers are saying clearly that they need to know what will happen, so that they can plan their businesses and know whether they will have a viable future, so I was quite surprised that that was not brought up.

I am absolutely not surprised at all that the other huge issue that did not come up—the one that probably has the most impact on agriculture and farming across the whole of Britain and UK—was Brexit. I am not surprised that Conservative Members do not bring it up, because they would have to acknowledge that the past few years have not been their greatest. Brexit has had such a negative impact on everything to do with agriculture, food security, the wellbeing of rural communities and exports—with everything to do with food and drink. We know that things are bad. We only need to listen to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), when he lamented the poor deal that was struck with Australia and said—this was testament to his powers of understatement—that it was “not…very good”.

That deal was more than not very good; it was a disaster for sheep and cattle producers, and for beef and lamb exports. The one-sided nature of the deal struck with Australia has allowed cheap imports to come flooding into this country and given nothing in return for the hard work of British farmers up and down the countryside. I am not surprised that Conservative Members do not mention Brexit, because if I was them, I would stay well away from it too, because it has been a singular disaster for our friends.

We heard a lot about animals, which quite surprised me. I always like a debate about animals. My constituency in Perthshire was one of the first to secure the introduction of beavers. I know that there is some despondency and negativity around this—I hear a lot of that from farmers, who are impacted quite severely—but there are also benefits to attractions. I represent the biggest river tributary system in the whole of the UK, in the Tay river and its tributaries, and some of the positive environmental outcomes of beavers are there to be seen. There is almost a small tourist industry set up around them, so that people can walk round and see some of the work of the beavers, so while there are issues and management is of course necessary, it is not all doom and gloom.

I heard the profound words of the hon. Member for East Devon —“You can’t eat trees”—but tell that to the beavers, the bears, the giraffes and the many insects that feast upon our woodlands on a daily basis, if not every minute of the day. Let us not be so negative and despondent about some of the reintroductions of wildlife, because this will be ongoing. There are proposals and plans for further introductions. The sea eagle in Scotland has been a great reintroduction. I know that there are issues—it all comes down to the tension between the introduction of wildlife and the management of land—but we have seen positive impacts, particularly through tourism and people coming to watch this magnificent bird flying the skies once again over Scotland, so let us not have all this doom and gloom when it comes to reintroductions.

I listened to the message from the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) about eggs, and he is right. The crisis in egg production did not start with avian flu; it has been ongoing for years, although it is most definitely exacerbated by avian flu. I know that we will have a debate next week, when we will probably all be back together again, including the Minister—I always enjoy our little get-togethers—and discussing this more at length, but avian flu has had a massive impact, and not just on the turkey and farmed poultry sector, but on eggs. I think it is the NFU that is now calling—and it is right to do so—for an urgent investigation into making an exceptional market conditions declaration under the Agriculture Act 2020, given the severe disruption to egg production that UK consumers are experiencing. I hope that is listened to very carefully.

But I will say one thing: we are different in Scotland. We are not run by DEFRA—for which we can give perhaps something of a sigh of a relief when it comes to these things. We are responsible for all the rural decisions that we make. We are responsible for Scottish agriculture, and it us who will make those decisions, which will be the right ones for the farmers and agriculture communities that we represent. Scotland has taken a different approach. We have not taken the three-pronged ELMS approach, which has been a feature of the Agriculture Act.

As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, we are currently consulting on our new piece of agricultural legislation. One thing, among a couple of others, to come out of that consultation so far is a decision to continue with a single payment that will match EU funding up to at least 2025. We have looked at the three prongs of the Agriculture Act and we feel that it is not the way to go. Indeed, we find that there are difficulties associated with much of that. We will do that differently. We will have food production at the core of how we take this forward. NFU Scotland came to the Scottish Parliament last week to tell us very clearly that this is what it wants to see when we design the new legislation. We listened very carefully, and I hope we will be able to satisfy NFU Scotland that a commitment to food production will be at the very heart of the legislation that we bring forward.

We have our own system of grants and support that we are putting forward in Scotland, and we are able to do that. I hope that will be recognised as we go forward.

I do not have time, I am sorry.

The last theme I want to mention comes up very often in these debates and that is the shortage of labour. I am sorry to Conservative colleagues, but this is another consequence of their Brexit. I think they know that. They are not prepared to accept it and say that this is a difficult issue because of it, but ending freedom of movement with Brexit has probably been the biggest single disaster that we have visited on rural communities.

I represent a huge rural constituency. I have got strath, fantastic agriculture farming, hill farming and many hospitality businesses. Every single one of them has told me that they cannot get the labour they require because we have ended freedom of movement. What has happened is that people they had who were stalwarts of their sector and businesses have left, and there is nothing there to replace it. In the Scottish Parliament, we want to establish a new rural immigration pilot.

One of the discussions we have had today is about the independence of Scotland. We cannot do this pilot, and we are so frustrated we cannot do this because we are bound by decisions taken in the Home Office, which we have very little influence over. We need to do something. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme has helped, but it is insufficient. We need more people to come across here. It is not just the seasonal staff, it is the permanent staff we have in the agriculture business, such as vets and people who work in abattoirs. All of them are suffering because they cannot get the appropriate labour. I am pleased that we are only partly impacted by decisions that are taken by DEFRA, but we are heavily impacted by decisions taken by the Home Office and some of the arrangements that were put forward around Brexit.

We will continue to work on our agriculture Bill, and maybe when we come back to discuss these issues in the future we will be able to detail more about how we are approaching this, the difference we are hoping to make and how we are hoping to serve Scottish farmers.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for securing this debate. We had many positive contributions from across the floor. They echo many of the points that have been made from Labour Benches over the last few years, whether that be on labour supply, trade deals or the importance of food production. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on echoing Labour’s cry to make, buy and sell more in Britain, and milk from the Hills will certainly be part of that. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on convening his farmers groups. I wish him luck with the Minister. Should he be unlucky, I am very happy to oblige whenever he requires.

I will come to the future later, but let us start with the present. What are we seeing, and where is the support for British farming? Frankly, farming is hurting at the moment. There may be good prices for some, but there is still no respite, particularly for those in the pig sector. It is a very grim time for poultry farmers. Avian flu is horrible, and we know the APHA is struggling. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central and the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), I am afraid that last week the Secretary of State ducked my question of what happens if we get another disease outbreak. Crossing fingers and hoping it does not happen does not constitute a plan.

We should not allow avian flu to be a cover for the longer term problems egg producers have been highlighting for many months. Back in the spring, egg producers warned retailers that costs were running ahead of prices. At the egg and poultry fair, retailers failed to show up. They were replaced with cardboard cut-outs. It is a failure in the food system. What have the Government done? Nothing. The Agriculture Act was supposed to produce action on supply chain fairness, but all we have had is consultations and no outcomes.

I ask the Minister once again: where is the dairy code? Where is the pork supply chain code? Can he confirm that the daft proposal to move the Grocery Code Adjudicator into the Competition and Markets Authority is dead? Or is that yet another thing that the “Department for Running Away From Any Problem”—DEFRA as it was formerly known—does not know the answer to? At first I thought the points the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) made about the GCA were slightly unfair, but he pointed out that it does not have the powers it needs, exactly as we argued during the passage of the Agriculture Act.

On trade, we know about the lack of support for British farming, because the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), did not mince his words last week. He said that

“overall, the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return…We did not need to give Australia or New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep—it was not in our economic interest to do so, and neither Australia nor New Zealand had anything to offer”—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]

I admire his candour. I just wish he had listened to the many organisations, including the Opposition, that made exactly the same points at the time, not many months after the Conservatives sold out British farming. No wonder so many are so furious; they are right to be.

There are more made in Britain—or rather made in Marsham Street—gaffes that are undermining British farming. Look at the meat export sector. I was at Lancaster auction mart last week to see the sheep auctions and to hear from farmers at first hand about the problems they face. There are not just high input costs, fertiliser costs and labour shortages, as if they were not enough. The latest is the gold-plating of rules for export into Europe. If that is not resolved by 13 December, it will kill the export trade. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to resolve the situation?

How do the growers feel about the support they are getting? The NFU published a report this week showing that many are walking away from contracts and cutting production by as much as 20%. They cite a whole range of extra costs, including fertiliser, wages, packaging and transport, but the killer is energy. Farmers in competitor countries have support from their Governments, but here there is no certainty beyond a few months. The Minister knows full well that farming is a long-term businesses in which decisions about whether to plant are made many months ahead. Without certainty, the only sensible decision for too many will be not to plant. The end result is that this country will be less secure and will depend more on imports, almost certainly produced to lower standards, just as we warned during the passage of the Agriculture Act.

I could give many more examples, but let me conclude by looking briefly at future prospects. To replace basic payments under the common agriculture policy, a new system was introduced under the Agriculture Act. The intellectual case for moving away from direct support was couched in terms of public money for public goods, and we agreed with the broad principle, but we argued then—we believe we have been vindicated by subsequent events—that food security is a public good. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) endorse that point.

Frankly, it was never clear whether the Government believed that a volatile and vital sector such as food production requires direct Government support or just indirect support through environmental schemes. The problem now is that they seem to be achieving neither. The ELMS saga has played out in public view over recent months. The headlines in last week’s Farmers Guardian screamed out: “ELM uproar” and “New Ministers tear up scheme plans”. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is going on. Perhaps the Minister can also tell us why Parliament is always the last place to be told. Is it true that there will be an announcement on 1 December? If so, are we invited?

Informed sources—I include the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border in that—tell me that the changes may not be as dramatic as the headlines suggest, but perhaps the Minister can clarify that. Is tier 2 ELMS being replaced by countryside stewardship? If so, is that the genuine nature recovery network system promised in the Environment Act 2021? If not, how is it supposed to work? What is happening with tier 3—the landscape recovery part of ELMS? Has it been postponed, scrapped or scaled down? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

Replacing more than 80,000 schemes under basic payments with just a couple of thousand so far under the sustainable farming incentive leaves a whopping almost £1 billion hole in the rural economy. To some extent, I echo what the hon. Member for South Dorset said. Frankly, is that what the Conservatives mean by supporting British farming? I wonder.

What assessment has been made of the impact of all this? Does the Minister know? I have asked him before and I ask him again: what assessment has his Department made of the economic impact so far on the rural economy? What assessment has been made of the environmental impact? I do not think we will get an answer because I know the answer: none and none.

Under this Government, support for farmers and the rural economy is haemorrhaging. The failures of this Government make them a threat to our farmers, undermine our food security and, despite the heroic efforts of the staff in the agencies, are leaving us dangerously exposed in the event of further animal disease outbreaks. Our farmers deserve support. They are not getting it at the moment, but they will with a Labour Government.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Simon Jupp) for securing the debate. I was going to start by saying that we have seen the Chamber at its best today: we have seen a huge amount of celebration of and positivity about UK agriculture. I am sorry that the speech made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) soured that mood, to be honest.

The truth is that if the hon. Gentleman looks around him, he will see how many members of the Labour party are here to provide support, and how many members of the Conservative party are here. Seeing how many Conservative Back Benchers have come to take part in this very important debate demonstrates how important rural communities are to the Conservative party and to this Government.

I will respond to the hon. Gentleman later; I will start by commenting on the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. He talked about how the new schemes are going to change the way in which we farm. This will be an exciting moment in UK agriculture: we will move in a direction where we can balance growing food—food security is a very important part of our agricultural production and our supply chains, and it will continue to be so going forward—with improving our environment and our biodiversity.

The good news is that UK farmers are very much up for that fight. They want to get involved in it, and are very proud of the landscapes they have created. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) who made reference to people criticising farmers and saying that they are the problem. He hit the nail on the head: farmers are part of the solution. The beautiful rolling landscapes that we see in Cumbria and in Devon are not there by accident, but because farmers have created those landscapes through the way in which they have produced food for generation after generation. The beautiful stone walls in North Yorkshire are not there for decoration, but to keep sheep in. We need to recognise that and celebrate it, and help and support our farmers through this process, because they are up for the fight.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon went on to talk about trade Bills. I would put a much more positive spin on this than the hon. Member for Cambridge.

The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), was a very good Secretary of State. He fought tooth and nail on behalf of UK farmers during those debates, and secured a number of concessions from the Government on that journey. What we have been left with is a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand that has brought those countries closer to us and allowed us to co-operate and work with them, which will give us huge opportunities in future. There are massive markets around the world in Asia and North America where we can sell top-quality UK beef and lamb, working with Australia and New Zealand—which have the opposite seasonal activity to us—to supply those markets. Bringing them closer through those trade deals is the first step on that journey, and I am very proud of what UK farmers produce. We should celebrate that and make the most of it in trying to exploit those markets moving forward.

Turning to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), I am delighted that his son is going to agricultural college—did he say Askham Bryan? I think he just said that it was a college in North Yorkshire, but I hope it is Askham Bryan, which I know is a very good college. If there was ever a moment when we needed bright young people to come into our sector—the next generation to take us forward—this is it, and I celebrate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has family getting involved in the sector. We should do all we can to encourage that. One of the first meetings I had when I took over as Minister was with the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, looking at some of the work it is doing to encourage young people into the sector. It is also very in tune with some of the mental health challenges that young people and farmers in rural communities are facing. Anything I can do in this job to help it on that journey, I will do.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central also talked about biosecurity, which is very important when it comes to dealing with avian influenza: anything we can do to increase the biosecurity of some of our professional poultry units is to be welcomed. He went on to talk about African swine fever, which is a challenge that is spreading across Europe. That is why on 1 August this year, we changed the rules: we did a spot check on items coming into the UK to see how much illegal or unregistered pork meat was coming in, and have now changed the rules so that no one can import more than 2 kg at a time. Border Force employees are on their toes, looking for any violations of those rules to make sure we keep the UK safe from African swine fever—it would be a disaster if we ended up with it.

There has been a lot of talk about seasonal workers; clearly, I am not in a position to announce those figures, but we are in close discussions with our friends in the Home Office and hope to give clarity on that issue as soon as possible. That neatly takes me to the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). She started with a series of massive plugs for her constituency and the great food producers of Essex, including Tiptree, which I do recognise as one of the premium jam producers in the world, not just the country. She went on to talk about avian influenza. It is fair to say that Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk have been at the epicentre of that disaster. My heart goes out to those poor farmers who have found themselves victims of that terrible virus. The good news, from a national point of view, is that we have robust supply chains in place. There will be turkeys for Christmas. There are some challenges in the goose market, but the chicken market is also fine.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who always attends these debates, is a great advocate for his farmers and fishermen. He was the first to raise the Grocery Code Adjudicator, along with my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who mentioned the adjudicator a number of times. It is important to understand what the Grocery Code Adjudicator can and cannot do. Their role is to ensure that contracts that are entered into are adhered to appropriately and not violated.

If an egg producer has signed a contract at X per dozen eggs, the supermarket has the right to expect the producer to stand by that price. The producer could procure and secure the feed supply for the same period as the life expectancy of a laying hen, which is about 14 months. The producer could sign the contract for X amount per dozen, secure the price per tonne of feed and therefore protect the margin. The price of feed has gone up exponentially and farmers have reached the point where they must make a decision on whether to enter into a new contract for a new price or at the same price. About a year ago, many of them voted with their feet and said that they were not willing to sign up to that level of contract. The retailers made a mistake when they did not to see the huge challenge coming in the egg-supply market, and we are now seeing that.

What is the role of the Government? It is to encourage conversations between retailers, primary producers and wholesalers on a regular, monthly basis. The Secretary of State and I meet the farming unions, the hospitality sector, retailers and the processing sector to ensure that those conversations take place. I hope that that will continue to bear fruit, but I acknowledge there are challenges in the sector that are not linked to avian influenza.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) has been a great advocate for farming for a long time. He was one of those who celebrated my elevation to this position. So many people celebrated my arrival at the Dispatch Box, I felt like Ronaldo must have felt when he joined Man U and all the fans celebrated. I reflect on how that worked out in the end—let’s see how that goes.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset talked about grant funding, and he will have seen today that we have announced some grant funding to help farmers improve slurry systems. We are very much committed to supporting farmers with capital expenditure to allow them to invest in new tech, especially if that will benefit animal welfare and the involvement of modern practices and technology in food production.

My hon. Friend went on to talk about bovine TB, of course. There is probably not enough time for me to get into that subject today, but what I will say is that we must use every tool in the box to fight bovine TB. That includes vaccinating badgers, it includes ensuring that we have improved biosecurity and it includes culling badgers where that is essential. We should be guided by the science and not by anything else—not by the calendar and not by political lobbying, but by the science. That is what the Government will do.

I think that, for the first time, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) managed to get to the right of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset when he committed to shooting every fox in Northern Ireland. I wish him well in his pursuit—[Interruption.] I know it was tongue in cheek. He is a huge advocate for the farmers of Northern Ireland, and they are great food producers. He also mentioned the price of fertiliser and the challenges with fertiliser, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who talked about CF Fertilisers. Yesterday I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to see what we can do to co-operate and work together to assist CF in ensuring that we continue to supply the nation with ammonium nitrate, nitric acid and carbon dioxide, which of course is very important.

I know that I am running out of time, but I want to make a couple of comments about my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, who talked about potato and dairy farmers leaving the sector and the importance of education. Education of our consumers is one area where we could criticise the agricultural sector. I do not think that we have done a very good job as farmers—I put my hand up as one of those farmers—of ensuring that our consumers understand how and where our food is produced. We have to do better to ensure that the next generation fully understands where and how our food is produced. Education was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra).

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border talked about grant schemes, which I hope I have mentioned. He also mentioned the work of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill). It continues to be a great critical friend of the Department, and I would encourage it to continue its great work.

My hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border also talked about the reward for—that is, payments for—hedgerows and so on. I hope that when we announce the new schemes, which I hope will be very soon, he will see the fruits of those discussions. I am very keen to ensure that farmers want to take part in the schemes and feel part of the solution. But money is not the only barrier. I think that we can help, assist with, and tweak some farming practices. Hedgerows are a good example. It is not just about money; it is about being able to get on to the land and cut the hedges at the right time. If we can fund and assist with wildlife strips by the side of the hedgerows, it is possible to cut a hedgerow in January and February without running on to the commercial crop. That has the added benefit of creating a wildlife corridor and leaving berries and so on the hedgerows for wild birds to feed on during that time.

I think I have run out of time—apart from for mentioning the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who gave us his rant about Brexit once again. We will have to come back to that on another occasion, but I enjoy the same loop of conversation we have with him every time.

Thank you, Sir Gary. I thank everyone who took part in the debate to demonstrate our support for the British farming industry. If I may, I will highlight a couple of people who made remarkable remarks. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) mentioned mental health. That is an increasingly big problem in the farming sector. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned supermarkets’ pricing structures. They have had their jam; it is time that farmers had some, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) mentioned uncertainties over subsidies and also made a plea to continue the badger cull—a message well heard in the west country. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not a fan of foxes, made a number of good points about agriculture in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) made excellent points about the Groceries Code Adjudicator, on which I have been informed this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) told us about his experience of working on a farm—I am sure it was udderly brilliant. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) talked about food security, and rightly so. I highlighted that issue in my speech. And finally, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) seems to disagree with the referendum result—’twas ever thus, Sir Gary.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for British farming.

Tourism Industry: Devon and Cornwall

I will call Kevin Foster to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates. I call Kevin Foster.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the tourism industry in Devon and Cornwall.

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.

Why this debate? Although our two counties might be bitterly divided over how to best eat a scone—our friends across the Tamar do not recognise that cream first is the only way to do it—we are united in a shared interest in seeing our tourism sectors thrive. After all, Devon and Cornwall are the most popular destinations for domestic tourism. That means tourism is a key employer for our two counties, representing 10% of all employment in Devon and 20% in Cornwall, with many jobs in other sectors relying on the trade created by providing services to that vital sector.

The scale of the visitor-related spend should not be underestimated; across the wider south-west peninsula, it was an estimated total of £7.3 billion in 2019. It is not only visitors from across the UK who make a big impact on Devon and Cornwall’s tourism sector. International travel contributed £2.5 billion to the south-west’s regional economy in gross value added, equivalent to 3.8% of total gross value added in the area. Given those numbers, it is encouraging to note that international travel in the south-west region is forecast to grow 15% by 2027 compared with 2019 levels.

Such debates often just list the problems, so I should mention the positives before I turn to the challenges. Today is not about asking for a Government subsidy for a failing business or an industry that has not adapted to changing markets and consumer choices. It is about how we can take forward a positive future for the tourism industry in our two counties and not lose it to some short-term challenges. For example, Torbay is seeing a level of private investment in building large new hotels that has not been seen for decades. Last year, a large new hotel opened on Torquay’s harbourside. Large new purpose-built hotels will shortly open on Paignton’s esplanade, the first to be built there since the modern borough of Torbay was formed in the late 1960s.

Other large hotel projects are either planned or already under construction, with the Fragrance Group alone investing approximately £140 million in Torbay—a real vote of confidence in our bay’s future. We are also seeing new businesses opening on our harboursides to serve customers looking for both traditional and more contemporary dining experiences, plus our attractions are innovating to attract new customers and respond to the challenges of the last two years, driven by the pandemic along with changing demand such as for online ticketing.

Tourism businesses can also have wider social impacts beyond the employment and business activity they create. For example, the Wild Planet Trust, which runs Paignton’s and Newquay’s zoos, is dedicated to helping halt species decline. Zoos that in decades past were simply attractions where, for a fee, we could see exotic animals or plants collected from the wild are now places that aim to inspire their visitors to think globally and ecologically while using the revenues generated to provide a vital safety net from extinction for many endangered species as well as, we hope, the reintroduction of some that have been lost to war, hunting or destruction of habitats globally. Similarly, Torbay’s status as a UNESCO geopark not only helps attract those who wish to have a holiday in a unique space but provides a superb location for the study of its detailed geology, with accommodation and services provided by our tourism sector to support it.

It would be odd not to at least briefly mention Torbay’s famous queen of crime writing, Dame Agatha Christie, whose legacy across south Devon still sees many sites visited by her fans to see the locations that inspired her, including the Paignton Picture House, one of Europe’s most historic cinema buildings, which, after a generation lying derelict, is now being revitalised by a combination of the passionate team at the Paignton Picture House Trust and about £4 million of support from the Government.

All that positivity must be seen against the challenges faced by existing and new businesses across our two counties, while bearing in mind that those challenges follow the impact of the pandemic, which saw an average decrease of 52% in turnover of tourism businesses in the south-west, with many businesses still facing repayments on loans taken out simply to survive. Only today we have heard news that the Devon Valley holiday park in Shaldon, south Devon, will not be opening for the 2023 season. Several factors behind the decision have been cited, including significant increases in the electricity bill.

Let me outline some of the challenges. The obvious one to start with is energy and rising prices. For many businesses, Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the resulting spike in energy prices have had a big impact—costs that cannot be recovered simply by increasing prices. Earlier this year I heard from many local businesses, big and small, that faced dramatic increases in their energy bills, with the price of gas potentially up more than tenfold compared with their previous fixed price.

The energy price guarantee has made a big difference; one business owner said that it meant that they would be staying open. However, the Government must look at the realities of the sector as they consider the review of the EPG, due in early 2023. Take, for example, the Meadfoot Bay hotel in Torquay. To compensate for an increase of £80,000 in utility costs, it would need to sell another 550 bed nights, or 1,700 covers in its brasserie, over the coming year. In a buoyant market, that would be a big target for a hotel with 14 bedrooms; in the midst of a recession, it is simply not going to happen. In short, the hotel could face making a loss not because it is not innovating or providing good services to its customers, but because a bill for a basic need of its business has increased dramatically for reasons well beyond its control.

Energy bills are not the only ones that are rising. Food and maintenance bills and other costs are also increasing, presenting a real challenge for hospitality businesses. The next challenge that I want to highlight is business rates; I doubt whether the Minister will be surprised to hear that I am bringing up a tax on doing business from a premises. Trading from a premises is something that tourism and hospitality businesses across Devon and Cornwall have to do by default—a night out online with a computer is not likely to be as attractive as a night out at the pub or a physical business. Fundamentally, such things cannot be moved online. Often it is the business rates bill, enforced through the magistrates court, that finally tips a business over. Landlords might offer a rent cut if necessary and suppliers might cut a payment deal—it is often business rates, which must be paid simply to exist, that are the final blow for a business.

The moves by the Chancellor last week are welcome—extending and increasing from 50% to 75% business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, for example. I note that that will benefit 230,000 retail, hospitality and leisure properties, which will be eligible to receive increased support worth a total of approximately £2.1 billion. Yet more is needed to ensure that businesses that must operate from a premises have a level playing field.

On the subject of buildings, it is worth starting to reflect on the impact that competition from Airbnb-style operations can have, particularly when short-term holiday lets are created in what were long-term homes for families. Although a certain level of such property is welcome and provides customer choice, there is now a real danger that unregulated growth is bringing negative effects—for example, working families being effectively evicted from a house that has for many years provided a home for rent, to allow a landlord to offer short-term holiday lets instead. The issue is not about avoiding competition. Unrestricted growth not only endangers the local housing supply, but undermines those holiday accommodation providers who, for sensible reasons, must comply with a range of safety regulations that do not apply in domestic properties.

I must say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the unrestricted growth of the short-term holiday let is of some concern, including to my constituents working in the tourism industry. Katie Parsons, who runs Blackdown Yurts, welcomed the Government review into short-term tourism accommodation announced in June, particularly as safety regulations apply differently. However, there are more than 8,000 Airbnb properties in Devon. Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, want to hear from the Minister a date by which that Government review will be published?

I agree entirely with my friend from Tiverton and Honiton. It is good to see him here taking part in the debate. We would like to hear a date. I have probably given away slightly where I think the review should go by signing new clause 22 to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is before the House at the moment. I believe that it would be right to move to a position where converting a residential property into a short-term holiday let comes under the remit of planning. It seems rather bizarre that a whole street could effectively be converted into a holiday park, removing that accommodation from the local housing market.

I think a proportionate response would be to move to having a separate category, which would also allow more appropriate consideration of things such as the balance of regulations that should apply. My uncle served in the Plymouth and then the Devon fire service for 20-odd years, so I know there are very good reasons why we have the fire safety regulations that we have for holiday accommodation, and I know that the legislation was brought in as a result of hard experience, particularly back in the 1960s and 1970s.

It would certainly be good to have a date for the review’s publication. I will leave the Minister under no impression that my mind is not already rather made up on at least one of the outcomes that we probably need to see, and potentially on a registration process, but I very much look forward to hearing from him. I appreciate that planning is probably outside his precise remit, but it is a challenge that we face.

The final challenge is consumer confidence. We must not underestimate its impact. Booking a holiday will be the last thing on anyone’s mind if they are worrying about how they will pay their heating bill. Moves to stimulate confidence and growth in the economy are needed to build confidence in potential tourism customers, including local residents, who can provide vital year-round trade to local tourism businesses.

Let us reflect on what these challenges can result in. Holiday accommodation will not simply lie unused, and the challenges I have set out can result in pressure to use it for other things. A hotelier faced with a relatively light booking sheet can find it all too tempting to take on long-term guests, be they asylum seekers from the Home Office or those owed a housing duty by their local council.

I have been supporting Torbay Council’s efforts to challenge the conversion of properties in our key tourism locations to longer-term accommodation on planning grounds. The objective is to prevent precedents from being set for the conversion of tourism-based accommodation that was designed for short stays into poor-quality longer-term accommodation. That often brings issues of housing standards and antisocial behaviour, while sometimes also helping to block regeneration efforts by giving a building that could have been acquired for a needed rebuild an income stream in its current poor condition. I hope that the Minister will engage with his colleagues in the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about how we can move away from such uses, which affect not only local communities but the tourism sector overall.

I know from responding to this type of debate myself that it is always good to provide a summary of what we are looking for. The first thing is business rates reform. The recent moves by the Chancellor were welcome, but how does the Minister see longer-term reform of business rates being taken forward? What representations are being made about how we end what is effectively a tax penalty for investing in sectors that require bricks and mortar?

The second thing we are looking for is real engagement on energy costs and future support schemes. It is welcome to see hospitality recognised, alongside traditional energy-intensive industries, as a sector that will need continuing support with energy prices. How does the Minister see engagement being done with the sector over the next four months to identify the specific requirements of businesses both small and large, along with how a package could be appropriately targeted at them?

Then there is work to encourage consumers and local residents to use hospitality and tourism businesses where they can. I will be interested to know how the Government will work with the sector to promote its opportunities not only to potential domestic and international visitors, but to investors who could fund the future of our tourism sector. Finally, I am conscious that the Minister is still a relatively recent appointment, but how does he plan to engage with the sector on the range of issues affecting it?

I am delighted to have secured this opportunity to highlight both the opportunities and the challenges facing the tourism industry in Devon and Cornwall. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will play their part in ensuring that the sector has a bright future in our region and, in due course, to welcoming him to see for himself what our two counties have to offer visitors.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this important debate to discuss the benefits of tourism to areas such as Devon and Cornwall. I am aware that my hon. Friend is committed to supporting the tourism industry in his constituency. In his previous role as a Minister, he engaged with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), on the importance of supporting its recovery.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay listed a number of reasons why it is good to visit Torbay and he has tempted me with a visit, which I hope to comment on a little later. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the strengths of Devon and Cornwall’s tourism industry in the wider context of supporting the tourism offer in other regions of the United Kingdom.

I am the Minister responsible for sport, tourism, civil society, youth and many other issues, so Members will understand that the issues I cover are many and varied. I hope that they will forgive me if that sometimes causes confusion. One day I might be talking about the World cup in Qatar, and the next day I might be where I am now, debating tourism in Devon and Cornwall. To follow on from my hon. Friend’s opening comments, I have to be careful not to mix up my speeches; I would not want to score any “scone goals”. I hope that when I visit my hon. Friend’s constituency next year, I will be able to come to a conclusion on whether cream or jam comes first.

Turning to the really important matters at hand, I want to outline the support the Government have provided to the tourism industry so far. I am aware that a large proportion of businesses in Devon and Cornwall—the English riviera, to be specific—still face challenges from the pandemic, in addition to rising energy costs, supply chain issues and the rise in the cost of living. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting businesses within our visitor economy, which is why last summer we developed the tourism recovery plan.

The south-west of England is a known popular tourism destination. Nearly one fifth of all trips made to England in 2019 were in the region, and that figure has been steadily increasing. That presents us with a huge opportunity to get visit numbers back to pre-pandemic levels by working on the plan’s objectives. As we know, people see the south-west as an attractive destination for a holiday, and the Government have been working to build the sector back post covid and have kept in close contact with stakeholders to ensure that everyone is on board. However, we continue to take into account the new challenges that have emerged in the past year when assessing the sector’s recovery.

The plan was a demonstration of our commitment to regain the UK’s reputation post pandemic as one of the most desirable tourist destinations in the world. We know that we already have an outstanding offer; we just need to advertise and inform people of that offer.

We also want to go further by enhancing what we already offer to tourists so that the UK can reach its full potential. First, we have set out six key objectives. These include the short-term objective of bringing back domestic and international visitor spend as quickly as we can, and the medium to longer-term objectives of supporting the sector to become more resilient, accessible, sustainable and able to benefit every region and part of the United Kingdom. It is about growth, but it is also about productivity.

Secondly, we have started to talk more about the visitor economy rather than tourism as an ecosystem of transport, culture, heritage and hospitality. We believe that that will help to demonstrate how the sector can both contribute to economic growth and support the Government’s objectives of levelling up.

Finally, improving our tourism offer in regions across the country will make us more attractive to potential visitors and event hosts, encourage a higher spend, reduce seasonality and promote investment. That will help to ensure that businesses chose the UK over other destinations, and I strongly believe that we must find ways to encourage international travellers to travel further than London and sample the excellent coastal tourism that areas such as Devon and Cornwall have to offer. This will no doubt bring benefits to such regions.

There are also other levers that the Government can pull. As announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Government are in advanced discussions on mayoral devolution deals with local authorities in Cornwall. I look forward to hearing about further developments on these plans, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay is, too. There are also plans to help the tourism sector with targeted support to help with the cost of business rates over the next five years, worth more than £15 billion. The Government recognise that businesses are facing significant inflationary measures, so business rates multipliers will also be frozen in 2023-24, and ratepayers facing increased bills will have further support. I heard much about that at the UKHospitality reception yesterday.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that Putin’s war has caused the sector huge issues, which is why the energy bill relief scheme, announced earlier this year, is providing further support for businesses. As my hon. Friend will know, the scheme will provide support through the winter period, protecting businesses against excessive bills until March next year. A review will then be published that will consider how best to offer further support to exactly the types of hotels he mentioned. I will continue to have meetings with stakeholders and colleagues across Government to highlight the need for support.

Tourism is already a devolved policy area, but giving local regions more authority is one way to ensure that growth can be generated from the ground up. Members may be aware of Nick de Bois’ independent review into the structure and organisation of destination management organisations. It was published in August 2021, and the Government responded in July, including with an accreditation framework to streamline and improve the DMO landscape. That will enable more efficient and strategic DMOs, ensuring that they can bring out the best in their local tourism offer. We will also be piloting a funded partnership model in a region of England to be announced on Friday. We hope to use that to collect evidence to showcase the success of the proposed model and to enable it to be rolled out to other regions.

My hon. Friend rightly talked about short-term lets. Cornwall and Devon’s popularity as tourist spots is great for creating jobs and supporting businesses. However, I appreciate that not all of tourism’s impacts are welcomed by local residents. As my hon. Friend will know, there has been a sharp increase in short-term holiday letting in recent years, which has been driven by the rise of online platforms such as Airbnb. While the Government support the sharing economy and the economic benefits that it can bring, we are aware of a variety of concerns, such as the impact on the housing market and local communities. During my time as Housing Minister, I was lobbied extensively on that by my hon. Friend and many other south-west MPs.

To address the concerns and to look towards potential solutions for short-term accommodation, we first needed to hear from all interested parties, so we held a call for evidence between June and September. The evidence has helped us to understand the scale and nature of the short-term letting market in England and the benefits and potential problems it is causing in communities across the country, including in the south-west. It has enabled us to hear from stakeholders and other interested parties about how the sector could be improved. We are now in the process of analysing the near 4,000 responses and will look to provide an update to the sector soon about the next steps.

It is encouraging to hear of the scale of response. Does the Minister agree that this is not about tourism versus housing? Ultimately, the availability of housing is vital to ensure that there are staff for the tourism industry.

I completely understand that point. I have done several roundtables on the issue and heard the problems that colleagues face in their constituencies. We will continue to work with colleagues in DLUHC to find a solution.

I will move on to international travel, which is an important piece of work. We are working closely with other Departments to bring back international travellers to at least 2019 levels as quickly as possible. As we know, that will promote growth and increase the UK’s market share of both visitors and spending. Part of that work includes increasing international visitor numbers and spend outside of London and the south-east.

We also want to focus on reducing the seasonality aspect of tourism in this country by increasing off-season visits in the way that my hon. Friend described. Recent figures from VisitBritain show that the visitor economy is heavily skewed towards London and the south-east, with London accounting for 43% of all international inbound overnight stays and 64% of all international visitor spend. VisitBritain has analysed the regional disparity, which compares unfavourably with our competitors in France, Germany and Italy. Nevertheless, I am aware that, for many tourists, a typical trip to the UK involves a visit to the capital, and it is rarer for people to make trips to the rest of the country.

There is a huge tourist offering in regional areas of the UK, and I believe that we should help support those areas to unlock their full potential. Earlier this year, VisitBritain ran a tourism campaign entitled “Welcome to Another Side of Britain”, which focused on encouraging visits to all parts of the UK, particularly those outside London, in order to spread the economic benefits. The campaign delivered a boost to the UK economy of over £190 million, and created more than 3,500 jobs. The marketing campaigns have been better able to disperse visitors into regions outside London, and I would like to see that continue. As part of the Cabinet Office’s GREAT campaign, VisitBritain will market internationally, with its “See Things Differently” strategy focused on the USA and Europe, as they have the highest propensity to visit and spend.

As my hon. Friend will know, tourism in Devon and Cornwall can be very seasonal, with a huge influx of visitors in the summer months. In 2019, 14% of the annual spend in overnight trips was in August alone, with just 5% of spending occurring in January. I know that the fluctuation in visitor numbers can have a huge impact on the ability of businesses to retain staff year-round. I also understand that it is a particular challenge this year, given that Christmas bookings have been slow and there is still some uncertainty about the future for some businesses. None the less, I believe that the changes that we, with the co-ordination of VisitBritain, will make to the structure of DMOs as they become local visitor economy partnerships will really help to boost tourism in Devon and Cornwall.

I thank my hon. Friend again for securing this important debate, and I can assure him that the Government and I are absolutely committed to supporting all areas of the UK’s tourism industry and to encouraging visitors to visit areas outside London that have an excellent tourism offer. This is our vision for the future and, by working with Members from all parties, that is what I hope we will be able to deliver. I look forward to continued engagement with the tourism sector over the coming months, and I promise that I will be a champion of its cause within the Government and will work with my hon. Friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Fire Services: North-east England

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fire services in the North East.

I am very grateful to see this important debate so well attended; it could not be about a more deserving group of people. Like all our emergency services, our firefighters run towards danger while the rest of us run away. They have always kept doing their job, coming to our rescue and keeping our community safe. It is our job, as politicians, to ensure that they have the money and resources to do so.

Unfortunately, it has been hard to say that the Government have done that job properly for the last 12 years. I have been an MP for all those 12 years—for 17 years, actually—and I have spent a lot of time warning, throughout austerity and various debates, often in this very Chamber, about the impact that Government cuts would have on local fire services and their ability to maintain service levels and protect us.

In 2012, I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate about fire and rescue services. I warned that

“budget reductions will hit the poorest areas hardest… services will have to be cut. That, of course, is after preventive services have been cut to the bone.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 84WH.]

In 2018, I raised the issue again in another Westminster Hall debate, talking about how areas with high levels of deprivation, such as Washington and Sunderland West, had a higher risk of fire-related deaths, and needed a fair funding settlement. At the time, I spoke to Chris Lowther, our chief fire officer at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service. I told Westminster Hall in that debate that

“He is doing everything within his power to manage the resources currently available, in a way that guarantees the safety of my constituents, and everyone across Tyne and Wear.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 132WH.]

Like many chief fire officers across the country, he did an impossible job, cutting back on everything he could in order to keep the service running safely. But he warned that if there were further cuts it would be difficult to say, hand on heart, that Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service would be able to provide a safe service.

I raised the issue successively at Prime Minister’s questions in the following two weeks, when the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was Prime Minister. I raised just how concerned our local fire and rescue services were about their very stretched funding.

That brings us to today. Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service has continued to make its service more efficient, but there is very little left to cut back on. If the current trajectory continues, it has nothing left to cut. I have already said that services have been cut to the bone. Having spoken this week to the chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, and the chair of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority, Councillor Phil Tye, I know how tough the situation is.

In 2010, before austerity, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service employed 880 full-time fire fighters, and over 1,000 full-time staff. In 2022, that has dropped to just 624 full-time firefighters, and just 860 staff employed full-time in total. Given the recruitment freeze between 2014 and 2019, as well as an ageing workforce coming to retirement, staff numbers are likely to fall again. In 2010, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service had £59.4 million to spend. To keep up with inflation, that should have risen to £84 million by 2022. But what has happened? Its budget has been cut down to just £54.8 million; that is much less than it was in cash terms in 2010, and a massive and unsustainable real-terms cut. It leaves us, frankly, unprepared for the next crisis we may face.

We can all appreciate that the fire service was put under a huge amount of pressure this summer, with the unprecedented heatwave leading to an increased number of fires across the country—we all saw them on our TV screens, if not more up close. They devasted lives and livelihoods alike.

I want to commend the firefighters working at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, who have attended two major fires in my constituency: one at Shee Recycling in Birtley, where there are environmental hazards, and a second at the Ryrton Willows—one of those summer fires that my hon. Friend referred to. We have also seen the impact of those budget reductions, with the loss of one pump at Swalwell in my constituency.

Thank you. There were also the proposed cuts to night cover in Birtley, which fortunately we were able to amend.

Coming back to the summer fires, that period included the busiest day for firefighters since world war two. That brings home the important role and work that firefighters do. How do the Government expect them to cope with future heatwaves without addressing the serious concerns this crisis raised about how stretched the workforce is?

In less foreseeable moments of crisis, fire services are the first responders there to protect the public. Following the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attacks, we were told that some fire and rescue services would be “unprepared” to respond effectively if a tragic event like that happened again. If such an event happened at one of the big arenas in our region—heaven forbid—how could we be assured that lives would be protected given this funding crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for being a couple of minutes late for her speech. Teesside is served by the Cleveland Fire Brigade. Teesside is one of Europe’s biggest fire risks, yet the formula that determines its income does not take any of that into consideration. Does she agree that risk should be examined as an important factor in determining funding?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will come on to. My chief fire officer told me that Cleveland is the worst in the country in terms of the fairness of that funding formula.

On a community level, these cuts will have consequences. Last Friday, I visited Barmston Village Primary School in my constituency. With no prompting from me whatsoever, two young boys told me separate stories of their family cars being damaged in an arson attack and one young girl told me about a time when she had to knock on a neighbour’s door to tell them that something was burning on their property. What is more, all the children were upset about the damage caused to the play equipment in the local park by the big kids—they mean teenagers—setting fire to it.

In previous years, fire services have come out to schools and done talks with the children, especially the older children—the big kids—in the secondary schools, explaining the danger of arson and what to do if they see a fire. However, with preventative measures being cut first, it is becoming even more difficult for fire and rescue services to provide that important community outreach. That will also have consequences.

The Government promised to level up areas like Sunderland, but I fail to see how those promises can continue to be made when basic public services are being starved of cash and millions of working people are facing the fastest fall in their pay in years. That is why the chief fire officer and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service have called for the fire funding formula to be revised, so it once again takes into account deprivation as a risk factor, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned is so problematic in Cleveland. That was the case under the last Labour Government and it was changed after 2010 by the current Government.

The change would help local authorities like mine and all of ours that cannot raise huge amounts of funding through council tax to keep our services running. I do not want to go into all the reasons why, but that is a well-known fact. What is becoming ever more clear is that service bosses and frontline workers are on the same page: the service must protect the public, but it equally needs to protect its own staff.

The lack of funding has led to the Fire Brigades Union rejecting an unfunded 5% pay rise put forward by national employers. To be clear, that 5% is unfunded, meaning that fire and rescue services have to find an extra 5% from their existing budget to pay for it—I have already said how stretched their budgets currently are. It puts our chief fire officers across the north-east and across the country, who just want the very best for firefighters, in an incredibly difficult position. They do extremely important work. They just want the funds to properly reward their staff with fair pay for the very important work they do.

If industrial action does take place, there has been talk of the Home Office drafting in soldiers to replace striking staff and then asking these strapped-for-cash fire services to pay £4,000 per week per soldier to train and employ them. No one wants to see a strike. It is now up to the Government to get around the table with the FBU and resolve this dispute. The Government must now make sincere efforts to ensure that fire and rescue staff can continue to provide safe services, which means ensuring that fire services get the support they need and doing everything they can to ensure that fire services get a decent deal. It is clear for all to see how the Government have shamefully cut fire services for more than a decade and how the cuts now risk the safety of our communities in the north-east.

I hope that if I ever attend another Westminster Hall debate on fire services in the north-east, it is under a Labour Government and we are able to properly address some of these issues. How would we do that? We will have grown the economy, provided high-quality public services and ensured that workers have better pay and conditions. That day cannot come soon enough for our communities in the north-east.

Order. Colleagues, you can see how many of you there are wishing to get in. You will have about three minutes each. I call Peter Gibson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to be called to speak in the debate. Having grown up in a fire service family in the north-east, this is a subject close to my heart. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. Having met with my local fire service—the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service—just last week, it is very timely. I appreciate the opportunity to speak.

The County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service is a vital emergency service and I am hugely proud of the fantastic work all its staff do every day of the week. Indeed, the service is recognised nationally as being extremely high performing, productive and efficient. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the staff and praise them for their work and dedication. However, I understand that the service has serious concerns regarding the ongoing funding challenges it is facing, which may mean that there is a danger that it cannot sustain its current level of service into the future.

The authority now receives two thirds of its funding from local taxpayers. This reliance on council tax to fund fire and rescue services represents a significant challenge for the authority when it is faced with cost pressures and the council tax referendum limit remains as low as it has been. The impact is magnified in areas such as County Durham and Darlington, where almost 80% of the properties are in council tax bands A and B, meaning that a 1% increase in council tax would raise only an additional £190,000 for the authority, while in other areas 1% would raise significantly more. The reality is that the additional income that could be raised via council tax does not cover the cost increases incurred by the authority through unfunded pay awards, inflation and energy prices. Moreover, no one wants to see an increased council tax burden on our local communities. As such, the current funding mechanism appears to be unsustainable. Can the Minister outline what more the Government can do? I know the service is asking for precept flexibility.

More generally, I welcome that in May ’22 the then Home Secretary unveiled the most comprehensive plans for fire reform in decades in the fire reform White Paper. The proposals put forward centre on people, professionalism and governance and aim to strengthen the emergency services and ensure that people feel safer in their homes. I know that County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service has responded to them. I know that these reforms seek to introduce changes to allow fire professionals to further develop their skills and I think it is important that we also talk about that in this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. I, like her, pay tribute to all members of the fire and rescue service, particularly those in County Durham and Darlington. I also pay tribute to Stuart Errington, the chief fire officer at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, who is retiring in January after 30 years of service.

I have just listened to the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) talking as though this has just happened: no, it has happened because the Government have cut back central Government grants. As he has just said, in Durham, the fire and rescue service relies on council tax services for two thirds of its funding. It is a high-performing, efficient and extremely productive service. That is not me saying that—it is His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services. They have had changes in working practices and there is nothing more that can be done to cut the fat out of the system. By pushing this on to the taxpayer, County Durham cannot fill the gap. For one thing, that is unfair but, secondly, due to the large numbers of band A properties, a 1% increase in council tax in County Durham will not raise anything like it would in, for example, Surrey.

The Government talk about levelling up but what we actually have here is distribution southward rather than to the deprived areas such as the north-east. Unless that funding formula is actually tackled in terms of more central Government grant or changing the formula, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service will fall over; it will go bankrupt. I know there is a call to increase council tax by 5% from the current 2% cap, but that is not fair and it will not solve the problem. That is pushing the issue on to the local council tax payers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the situation has been going on since 2010. It has been done by stealth not just in that service, but in local government, where council tax payers in areas such as mine in County Durham are having to raise more through local council tax. With those low bandings, they have a limited ability to do that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, we rely on the men and women in the fire and rescue service to do remarkable things on our behalf in times of crisis.

The system is broken. My final point is this: if it is not fixed this year or certainly next year, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service will fall over. It will no longer be able to provide the service that keeps us all safe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I obviously congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. As the son of a former County Durham senior fire officer, Bob Howell, I am incredibly privileged to take part in the debate. I begin by acknowledging and thanking the County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, which I will refer to as CDDFRS from hereon in, for the hard work that they do to protect us all.

Before coming to this place, I sat as a local councillor on the combined fire authority, so I fully understand the position. The chair of the CFA, John Shuttleworth, and the chief fire officer, Stuart Errington, have expressed to me and other colleagues that inflation and staff demands are taking a toll on the fire service’s budget. Although they are solvent this year, even their best-case scenario for next year would see the budget fall into deficit.

In the decade to 2021, the number of incidents that fire and rescue services in England attended fell by 8%, but in my local area a heavy demand continues to be placed on the CDDFRS because, as my inbox sadly shows, arson in particular is a recurring problem. Indeed, in the north-east of my constituency of Sedgefield, in places like Wingate and Station Town, arson is the weapon of choice for a significant part of the criminal fraternity. It is predominately vehicle arson, which puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on the CDDFRS.

The funding model, as has been said, simply does not work. Due to the number of properties in council tax bands A and B, funding raised through council tax is too limited. Coupled with the level of deprivation, which means that many residents pay little or no council tax, fire services in parts of the country like mine cannot rely on making up what inflation has taken away. As a result, the leaders of CDDFRS are seeking changes to balance the budget while maintaining a high level of service and properly recompensing their staff.

I would like the Government to give further consideration to options to resolve that conundrum. The opportunity to move to 3% is a step in the right direction, but at an impact of £1 per percentage point, broadly speaking, the increase would need to be about £5 to bring the budget to balance. That is a relatively small amount, but it is outside the current threshold.

Changing the approach to capital expenditure may be a way to alleviate part of the cost pressure without dramatic funding changes. There is no longer a capital budget, so capital expenditure must be financed through loans or the use of reserves. Clearly, with rising interest rates, loan financing costs become an ever bigger drain. The alternative of utilising reserves is not open to CDDFRS, as it rightly maintains its reserves at a lower level, although I am aware that, across the UK as a whole, fire services do have significant reserves. I therefore encourage the Minister to consider an approach whereby capital expenditure is granted to those across the country with very low reserves.

I will finish by placing on record my admiration and support for Stuart Errington, the current chief fire officer of CDDFRS, who will retire at the end of the year. He has run the fire service with the motto “being the best”. I believe that he has achieved that objective. I put on record my appreciation to him and all his exceptional staff for all the work they have done.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on her determination in securing this important and timely debate. I declare an interest as a member of the FBU parliamentary group and a proud supporter of our firefighters and their trade union. I place on record my thanks—indeed, those of all of our members—for the excellent work that our firefighters do.

The funding crisis in fire and rescue highlights a basic contradiction in the Government’s rhetoric. Whether we are talking about a northern powerhouse or levelling up, the reality is that we face higher taxes and cuts to services. I saw an interesting statistic from the Office for National Statistics that highlighted that contradiction. It showed that between 2006 and 2020, average wealth fell 17% in the north-east while increasing in every other region, bar the east midlands. London and the south-east led the way, with their wealth increasing 63% and 43% respectively.

As we have heard, County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service has lost around £10 million in Government funding over the past 12 years when we take inflation into account. Our fire and rescue authorities experienced a shift over the past decade so that two thirds of their overall funding now comes from local taxpayers.

I have a solution for the Minister, if she cares to act on it. The problem is that our choice is not between raising council tax and cutting services; due to the nature of the grant and the low council tax base, we are likely to have increased taxes and cuts to services. Clearly, that is unfair and unsustainable. Council tax is an unfair, regressive and broken system that places the heaviest burden on communities with the highest demand for services and the lowest ability to pay. We need to scrap that unfair tax and deliver a fairer system that is based on wealth, the ability to pay, and delivering public services based on need. My message for the Minister is to match the rhetoric with action, whether on the northern powerhouse, levelling up, or one nation, compassionate Conservatism.

The first step to resolving the funding challenge is to replace council tax with a proportional property tax that would balance an area’s ability to pay and deliver services based on need. Can the Minister explain how we will secure additional funding for County Durham and Darlington if not through a proportional property tax, given that it cannot be raised through our low council tax base?

Order. Colleagues, because you have all been so disciplined, I will allow the remaining speakers—with apologies to those who have already spoken—to have three and a half minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on bringing forward this important debate.

Hartlepool is in the Cleveland Fire Authority area, which has already been mentioned. I met recently with representatives of the CFA, including chief fire officer Ian Hayton, to discuss some of the challenges that are unique to our area. I will illustrate some of those to give the Minister some context. We have a high hazard area, as we have already heard. We have an industrial cluster spanning two sides of a large river, with few crossings. We have 15 power stations, one of which is nuclear. We also have a large number of urban conurbations spread over a wide geographical area—again, split by the large river—including areas of severe deprivation.

That deprivation causes issues with arson, as we have already heard. In Cleveland, we have 10 times the national average of deliberate property fires. They are used as a weapon by drug dealers, money lenders and so forth. That creates a huge strain on our resources in Cleveland. Despite all that, my firefighters have a fabulous record, and I have admiration for them all. They still consistently manage the seven-minute response time for house fires, despite the number of full-time firefighters having fallen by 33%. However, as we have already heard, they are severely hampered by disproportionate funding compared with other fire and rescue authorities. It is unclear how long that will be sustainable with inflationary pressures.

I thank the hon. Member and my next-door neighbour for giving way. She will have had the same letter as me from Ian Hayton and the chair of the Cleveland Fire Authority, which tells us that there were 494 full-time firefighters in 2010. There are now 330—a cut of 33%. The chief fire officer and the chair are saying that they cannot keep people safe if they do not get more money through a different formula. Does the hon. Member agree that the Minister needs to make change?

Yes, I believe that change must be made, but after my discussions with Ian and his team—I have met them on a couple of occasions now—I do not believe it is all doom and gloom. They do have solutions. This is not just about cuts and funding. We have to accept that money is tight and scarce in this country. We have just gone through a global pandemic and we are fighting a war. It is all our money; there is only so much of it, and it has to be shared appropriately.

The people who know most about this are those in the fire service themselves. They are the people I spoke with. I am not going to stand here and say that I am an expert on how to fund a fire service; they know where to make positive changes, and where to find answers and solutions to the problems. Will the Minister meet me, along with colleagues from the Cleveland Fire Authority area and representatives of the authority, so that she can have the conversations that I have had with them and discuss their ideas, and we can plan positive ways to secure a safe way forward not just for the people of Hartlepool, but for everyone in the Cleveland Fire Authority area?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for bringing forward this important debate. I declare an interest as a member of the FBU parliamentary group. I want to place on record my sincere thanks, and those of my constituents in Wansbeck and the people of Northumberland, to the fantastic men and women of the fire and rescue service. They do an absolutely brilliant job. We need to recognise that, and I will focus most of my limited contribution on the pay increase.

Morale in the fire and rescue service is undoubtedly at an all-time low. There have been cuts of up to 30% since 2010, stations have closed, there are more fire engines off the streets, and 11,500 frontline firefighters have been sacked. In real terms, wages are around £4,000 lower than they were more than a decade ago. Is it any wonder that morale is as poor as it is?

When we look at what the fire and rescue service has done in Northumberland, we see that it was fantastic during covid and brilliant during Storm Arwen not so many months ago. It assisted in setting up the vaccine centres and getting personal protective equipment out to the relevant places. That is what the fire and rescue service does as well as putting out huge fires and saving lives. The service has been fantastic in getting humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and it has been really active in saving lives in rural Northumberland, with the wildfires and of course the floods. I remember the floods in Morpeth in 2008, when the fire and rescue service was unbelievable, I have to say.

Offering the fire and rescue service 5% is absolutely insulting—it really is. Inflation is 11.1% and here we are offering these key workers, who we clapped incessantly on a Thursday night, 5%. It is absolutely insulting. It is intolerable. It is not right. We have to remunerate fire and rescue service workers correctly to save our lives, our families’ lives, and the lives of other people in our community, including schoolkids. We have to treat these people with the respect they deserve.

I worry that the dead hand of government is coming across the pay talks with public sector workers—the posties, the rail workers, the teachers—and I worry that the firefighters are going to be brought into some sort of big culture war that is being brewed up, and that they will not be recognised for the great work they do on behalf of our communities.

What a brilliant job the firefighters do. They do a fantastic job. I fully support every single man and woman involved in the fire and rescue service, and I think that we, as UK parliamentarians, need to get behind them and pay them right.

I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this important debate.

First, I pay tribute and offer my thanks to the brave firefighters across Cleveland who do so much to keep my community safe. Recently, I had the chance to get out on shift with officers from Cleveland Fire Brigade and spend time with the teams at Thornaby and Hartlepool. I got to see at first hand the determination and commitment of those brave officers, who put their lives on the line in the service of my community, facing the challenges of road traffic collisions on our busy road network, adopting a specialist approach to dealing with accidents in the River Tees, taking on the unique challenges of my area’s industrial heritage and its chemical sector, tackling grass fires and floods, and saving the lives of those whose homes or places of work are hit by fire. My local force and officers remain undeterred by their huge task, using every spare minute they have to support fire prevention and community safety, visiting the homes of vulnerable people to provide life-saving checks and safety advice, and supporting the vulnerable and elderly by providing equipment to keep them warm in the winter months.

Cleveland Fire Brigade faces unique financial challenges and pressures. The brigade serves an area with pockets of severe deprivation. Across the Cleveland Fire Brigade area there is an exceptionally low council tax base, with 46% of properties in band A compared with the national average of 24%, meaning that the authority raises from council tax the lowest proportion of core spending when compared with the UK’s other fire and rescue authorities. That makes it incredibly difficult for the force to increase revenue in the way that many other brigades might.

I am saddened to say that Cleveland is the arson capital of Europe. A minority of mindless individuals put the lives of residents and our brave firefighters at risk. Moreover, the heavy industry in my part of the world adds to the pressures on service delivery. The risks and hazard profile of Cleveland simply are not recognised in the funding formula. We are not getting our fair share.

Cleveland has one of the smallest fire brigades in the UK, making it difficult to realise economies of scale. In recent years, the brigade has been innovative in its approach, becoming leaner and more efficient, but its current financial outlook is incredibly challenging. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), I would be grateful if the Minister would agree to meet me, parliamentary colleagues from across Cleveland, and the brigade leadership to look at how we can ensure that Cleveland Fire Brigade continues to provide a sustainable, safe service, keeping the residents of Stockton South safe and giving our brave firefighters the resources that they need and deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this important debate, the timing of which could not be more pertinent.

In recent years, we have seen the fire service step up when our communities have needed it, first working through the challenges of the pandemic, and then tackling wildfires in places such as Brandon in my constituency during this summer’s heatwave. Almost a year ago today, Storm Arwen ravaged the north-east, leaving a trail of damage in its wake, with many of my constituents in harm’s way. The Government were slow to help after the storm but, as always, the fire service was there when we needed it.

Of course, that is just one example. Every day, across our region, firefighters protect us by running towards danger while we run from it—but we cannot run away from the fact that those working in our fire service are not immune to the cost of living crisis. Their bills, mortgages and rents have spiralled while, like many public sector employees, their pay packet has lagged behind. According to FBU analysis, since 2009, real-terms wage cuts have wiped £4,000 a year from an average firefighter’s salary.

In my constituency, the fire service is already under significant financial pressure; even its best-case projections involve more restructuring of an already stretched service. An unfunded 5% pay rise will push it into a budget deficit. The solution that the fire service in Durham would like to see is simple: a fair pay increase for its dedicated firefighters, funded by central Government. This is another fact that the Government cannot run away from: under their watch, the fire service has had its central funding slashed by 30%. That means that nationally, we have 11,500 fewer firefighters than we had in 2010, reducing resilience, slowing response times and jeopardising the safety of firefighters and the public.

Moreover, in the north-east as a whole since 2010, one in four firefighters has been cut, 600 whole-time firefighter posts have been slashed, and a quarter of fire control posts have gone. This is just another example of public services being run into the ground by the Government while working people see their pay, conditions and living standards eroded. To witness our brave firefighters and control staff having to resort to using food banks is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Climate change means that we will need firefighters more than ever, as wildfires and floods become more frequent. The damage done by extreme weather conditions such as Storm Arwen is no longer a once-in-a-generation event; we will increasingly have to live with it. I echo the FBU’s call for a statutory duty for flooding in England, as there is in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is clear that we need a well-funded service. Let us not forget that it was the firefighters that dealt with some of the most harrowing scenes during the pandemic. It is only right that those who gave so much during that time are appropriately rewarded.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. She made a powerful speech, and she is an incredible champion for her area. We were all struck by her story of the children in Barmston Village Primary School, who all had stories to tell about arson. I was in nearby Horden last year, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), where I met the veteran Sean Ivey, whose house was burned down by kids in the area. I heard about the antisocial behaviour and the epidemic of arson in the area; we must not underestimate the impact that those fires have on local communities.

It is interesting that Members from across the House have said the same things today: we need fairer funding and more funding; we understand the inequalities in how the system is set up—the precept council tax in particular; we need more capital expenditure; and there has been a fall in real terms in the salaries of our firefighters. Throughout the debate we have heard about the cuts over the past 12 years. Although the number of fires has been decreasing over the past few decades, we face significant new dangers. The number of fire service call-outs has increased every year since 2007; the number of fires increased by 3% last year; and global warming is leading to increased wildfires, which hon. Members have referred to—we saw a 200% increase this summer.

I take no satisfaction in agreeing with my other neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), who said that Cleveland is the arsonist capital of the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need not only a fair funding formula for the fire service, but all the police officers we have lost since 2010 to be rehired?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always. Labour will put lots more neighbourhood policing back on to our streets to prevent the kind of antisocial behaviour that leads to arson in his area.

As we face a cold winter, when people will be forced to choose between heating and eating thanks to the Government’s mini-Budget and the huge rises in costs and inflation, we have already heard about people using increasingly desperate means to keep warm. Staffordshire’s fire chief warned of people relying on electrical heaters to dry clothes, burning unsafe materials to keep warm or staying too close to open fires.

To add to all those problems, the lessons of Grenfell have not been learned. Shamefully, the Government have implemented only a handful of recommendations from phase 1 of the inquiry: fire regulations are still unclear, sprinklers are still not mandatory, single stairwells are still allowed in blocks of flats, and there is no duty on anyone to develop personal evacuation plans for disabled people—an absolutely shameful reversal of a Government promise. On top of the Grenfell failings, as we move towards the more sustainable building of homes, we are increasingly using timber frames, which risk even more fires, because they are more combustible. Funding our fire service is literally a matter of life and death, not least because of the Government’s woeful record on the economy and post Grenfell.

What an indictment it is that the policies of the past 12 years mean that our firefighters now have lower pay in real terms and that more than 11,000 firefighters have been lost. We have seen a pensions fiasco for firefighters and the police. Fire inspectors have seen some of the largest cuts in numbers—their numbers have fallen by almost one third since 2010, making the job of firefighters even harder. I have heard reports of firefighters using food banks. That is completely unacceptable.

At the height of the pandemic, the Conservative-controlled East Sussex Fire Authority tried to push through sweeping cuts. I was pleased to play a small part in those cuts being dropped. Cornwall’s fire service told me that the Government’s mismanagement of the new contract for our 999 and radio services—called the emergency services network—has put one of its vital centres at risk of closure, while leaving it with an outdated radio system that often breaks down. Will the Minister tell us what on earth she is doing to tackle that extraordinary waste of public money, which is costing each of our fire services literally millions of pounds? It is a shocking example of incompetence in the Home Office.

The Budget showed that, yet again, the Conservatives have loaded the costs on to working people. Our growth will still be the lowest in the G7 and the OECD over the next two years. As pay stagnates and inflation rises, more and more trade unions are balloting about their pay deals. The backdrop to many of the disputes is clear: working people are being hit by the fastest fall in real wages on record, and hammered by the Government’s abject failure to tackle the cost of living emergency.

Strike action is always a last resort, because working people do not want to lose pay, especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis, but they simply feel that they have no choice. I find it extraordinary that the Home Office has written to fire and rescue services to say that they need to pay £4,000 per soldier per week for soldiers to be on stand-by if there is a strike and that local fire services across the country will have to suffer all the costs. Fire services do not want this. One told me that it would go down like “a bucket of sick” with firefighters. I have heard anecdotally that the Army is not keen on it either, because last time this happened, a lot of soldiers were lost to the fire sector, with people joining the fire service. What is the Minister doing and how is she engaging?

It is interesting that the hon. Lady refers to the intervention of the Army in previous strikes. I have just been doing some research into when the last fire brigade strikes were. They were in 2002, when Labour was in power, and 1997, when Labour was in power, but all the speeches from the Opposition side of the Chamber this evening seem to suggest that year dot was 2010. It clearly was not.

I do not think anyone thinks 2010 was year dot, but the Government have been in power for 12 years, and we are judging that record today.

It was year dot in 2010, because the Government took the deliberate decision to cut central Government funding to fire services and to push responsibility for that funding on to local taxpayers. That affected local council tax and fire services.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. They tried to push that funding to make themselves look better, so they could pretend the cuts were smaller than they actually were. We all know what is going on.

What is the Minister doing? How are the Government engaging with the FBU and the fire authorities to help us come to an agreement and avoid a strike? I urge her to clarify the Government’s position, because it looks like Ministers are upping the ante when they should be solving the dispute. Ministers must work to address how we avoid strikes, instead of letting us drift towards them through inaction.

We have heard about the impact of the cuts in Tyne and Wear. In the north-east, one in four firefighters has been cut since 2010. I met fire chief Stuart Errington in Durham, and I want to add my praise for him as he approaches retirement. I also want to put on record my appreciation for Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service and for the amazing job Chris Lowther—the chief fire officer—and his team are doing to keep people safe. In 2018, the Government said they were reviewing the funding formula for fire services. In 2020, they said that that review had been suspended due to the pandemic. Can the Minister tell the House whether the fire funding formula will indeed be reviewed?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. The topics covered in this debate are of great importance to every one of us and to the public. I thank those who have taken part. It has been an extraordinary year for fire and rescue services, responding to wildfires and major events such as the Commonwealth games, providing vital kit to Ukraine and working with the Government to drive forward fire reform.

I held the brief of Fire Minister briefly over the summer, and it was a pleasure to meet the Interior Minister of Ukraine and some of the firefighters who, with firefighters from across Europe, were helping to deliver much-needed equipment to Ukraine. It was very humbling. That work has been a joint effort on the part, not least, of local fire and rescue services and national Government.

I add my praise for the work that has gone on to send fire services and support to Ukraine. However, does the Minister know that some areas wanted to send equipment to Ukraine, but it turned out to be too old? Some equipment is so old that it was not deemed adequate to send to Ukraine.

I had several meetings about that. The fact of the matter was that we were sending much-needed surplus. I know from my experience—one would need to write to the present Fire Minister about this, as I am assisting him today—that there were many circumstances where even old equipment was streets ahead of what the Ukrainians had. They were extremely grateful, and the firefighters I met were tearful to have our old equipment, so I do not think we need to be so critical. We assisted them greatly and saved many lives. I spoke to people who spent weeks taking that equipment over. It was gratefully received. It was never rejected as being outdated, as far as I am aware.

I want to pay tribute to the firefighters at home who dealt with wildfires. As Fire Minister, I was able to visit scenes that required fire services—even one just outside my constituency, in the constituency of High Peak. In addition, fire and rescue services helped to ensure our public safety while the nation paid its respects to Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II. Those efforts should be celebrated, but we still have further to go.

Along with Grenfell and the Manchester arena inquiries, the inspectorate’s state of fire and rescue reports fired the starting gun for reform. There is a clear and growing case for change. Fires and the reaction to them and other threats are growing and changing. Fire and rescue services, like all other sections of the public sector, need to respond to that. They are usually up for a challenge, and I have every confidence that they will perform well.

In May, the Government published a fire reform White Paper that consulted on our vision for reform, and we aim to publish the response to the consultation in due course. The public are rightly proud of our fire and rescue services, and right hon. and hon. Members have spoken eloquently of their experiences of hearing from professionals and constituents in this regard.

It is important that the services are encouraged to put the public first in everything they do. The Government have their part to play in ensuring that we support our fire and rescue services and that they are making the most of the tools and knowledge available to them. The White Paper has set out proposals that achieve that. Firefighters and fire staff do great work and deserve the gratitude and support of us all—I know that everyone present will agree on that.

Let me turn to some of the specific points made in the debate, starting with protection and prevention, to which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred. The Government recognised that additional capacity was required and have provided an additional £50 million. Since 2019-20, that money has been funded to assist increases in capacity and capability in protection teams, which has delivered an increase in the number of staff.

In Cleveland, the fire and rescue service faces inflationary pressure of £145 million, and there is no chance at all of finding further cuts. Either we put the public and industry at risk or the fire authority goes bust. Which would the Minister prefer?

There are many concerns in this regard. However, I have the utmost faith that local fire and rescue services will be able to work in a way that does not put the public at risk, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument.

The Government have delivered an increase in the number of staff working in protection, and an increase in the skills and qualifications of those already there.

There is not a great deal of time left, so I will make some progress.

I would like to talk about live pay issues, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones). On concerns about the threat of industrial action by the FBU, I note that it has rejected the significantly increased 5% pay offer made by employers and will now ballot members for their views on industrial action. Under the current system, the Home Office plays no direct role in negotiation or funding of firefighter and control staff pay, which is the responsibility of the National Joint Council. In the White Paper, we set out our intentions to conduct an independent review of the current pay system under the National Joint Council, which has been widely criticised. Of course, firefighters deserve to have a decent pay system instead of the current arrangement, which has been widely criticised. I hope that industrial action can be avoided through continued employer and employee negotiations.

I want to talk about the funding formula, which has been mentioned by various right hon. and hon. Members. Changes to the fire formula are being looked at. As Members may be aware, fire is part of the local government settlement, and any updates would need to be co-ordinated across local government. However, as Members are aware, the fire formula is mainly a population formula, and population will always be a significant driver in any new formula. The important thing is to provide the funding that fire and rescue services need. The local government settlement will be published next month, and it will set budgets for the year 2023-24.

I look forward to the publication of the new data, but will the Minister respond to the point about taking away the deprivation funding? I think all of us in this room were united in saying that that is a risk factor in a lot of the arson and fires that we see, and it really needs to be put back into the formula.

I invite the hon. Lady to write to the Fire Minister to express in detail the particular characteristics of her area, which have also been mentioned by other speakers, to see what can be done in that regard.

In relation to capital funding, the Government are clear that fire and rescue services have the resources they need. Standalone fire and rescue authorities have received a 6.2% increase in core funding for the year 2022-23, compared with last year. What is important is that the quantum of funding is right, rather than having specific capital funding grants, which are less flexible for local authorities than funding from a standard local government grant or council tax.

A number of other issues were mentioned. Various hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), raised the issue of firefighter job cuts. Firefighters work very hard to protect our communities, but the nature of a firefighter’s work is changing. Fire incidents have fallen 32% in a decade, although I appreciate that there are regional variations and local issues, and I welcome correspondence about those issues following today’s debate. It is, however, the responsibility of fire and rescue services to ensure that they have the appropriate number of firefighters and control staff to deliver their core functions. The Home Office works closely with fire and rescue services to ensure they have the resources they need to do their work, and funding continues to increase. I want communities to receive the service they desire, which includes firefighters being fully supported to meet those communities’ concerns.

Regarding general funding concerns, when the last Labour Government left office, public services and the public finances were in a parlous state. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] It would have been irresponsible to continue spending at that rate, so it does not behove Members to moan and groan about the present situation. Where there are international and domestic crises, we need to work together to make the most of the money we have. I hope that Members will not fall into the trap of wanting to play party politics with people’s lives.

I pay tribute to everybody who has contributed to today’s debate. There are interesting regional variations that have to be considered, and where there are issues such as arson, fire, criminality and antisocial behaviour, I expect everyone to work together with their local police to assist in addressing them. That requires joint working, and greater training on how to deal with those social issues may need to take place. Just putting more money into something does not mean it will work—it needs careful thought, and we must all look after every penny and be careful in that regard.

I thank each and every hon. Member who has spoken for raising their individual issues, including flooding and other interesting issues in their constituencies—for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) talked about the dynamics in her constituency. I apologise to those I have not mentioned due to the time constraints, and I know that these issues mean a great deal to all of us in this Chamber.

In my last 30 seconds, I will repeat my thanks to all who have contributed today. This has been an insightful and interesting debate, but we must not allow it to be political. These discussions provide us with a useful reminder—not that we need one—of the extraordinary contribution that fire and rescue services make to our communities. It is in all our interests to ensure that fire and rescue services are adaptable, inclusive and efficient, and the Government will continue to work with them to deliver improvements and, where necessary, reforms.

I thank all MPs from across the north-east who have attended today’s important debate. I also thank the shadow Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones)—and the Minister, who is the one who made this debate political, rather than anyone else.

This afternoon, we have had almost complete agreement on the issues that all four of our fire services face, and we all agree that we need a much fairer fire funding formula—one that once again recognises levels of deprivation as a risk factor that leads, in particular, to more arson. I will take the Minister up on her suggestion and write to her with more details on that issue. We need formula reform so that we can fund this vital service properly but also pay our vital firefighters properly. The unfunded 5% pay offer is just not acceptable, and I put the Government on notice that we—particularly those of us in the Labour party, although I also look to Government Back Benchers—will not let this debate be the end of the matter. The Minister is new to her Department, so if she wants to make her mark, she can do so by getting this issue sorted out as soon as possible, and definitely before Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered fire services in the North East.

Sitting adjourned.