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Westminster Hall

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 April 2023

[James Gray in the Chair]

Hunger: East Africa and the Horn of Africa

[Relevant document: Second Report of the International Development Committee, Food insecurity, HC 504, and the Government response, HC 767.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered hunger in the East and Horn of Africa.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir James.

Order. I am not Sir James—I am Mr Gray. Unless the hon. Gentleman knows something I don’t, “Mr” is fine.

Well, that must be rectified in the near future, Mr Gray. [Laughter.] It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, especially given your family’s heritage in Glasgow North. I am grateful to all the Members who have come today and to all those who sponsored the bid at the Backbench Business Committee—not all of them are able to be present, but I am grateful for the cross-party support for the debate.

The Backbench Business Committee has granted 90 minutes for this debate. Hunger and malnutrition kill people in the east and horn of Africa at the rate of one person every 36 seconds. In the time we have for today’s debate, 150 people in the region will lose their lives because their basic right to food has been denied them for entirely preventable reasons. One of the most important things we can do today is make sure that this scandal no longer goes unnoticed.

Christian Aid’s research has found that only 23% of the UK public are aware of the hunger crisis in the horn of Africa, compared with 91% who say they are aware of the crisis in Ukraine. The presence of so many Members here today, the correspondence we have received from constituents and the discussions we have had with those who have come to see us at our surgeries or at the mass lobby in February sponsored by the right hon. Members for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) and for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), show that when members of the public do develop an awareness and understanding of the situation, they demand urgent action to deal with the acute crisis on the ground and long-term action to build resilience and prevent future crises.

Countries in the horn and east of Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea, are entering their sixth consecutive season of below-average rainfall. The worsening food security situation also extends to Djibouti and Uganda. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 46 million people in the region currently face what the integrated food security phase classification system describes as crisis levels or worse, meaning households have

“food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition”.

Within that number, many now face catastrophe or famine levels where there is

“an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs… Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition are evident.”

I am grateful to the hon. Member for securing this debate. In February I visited Turkana county in Kenya with the Tearfund charity and I saw the devastating consequences of four years of no rain at all. To tackle the famine in 2017 the UK Government contributed £900 million. So far in the current crisis we have contributed £156 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to do much more?

The right hon. Member is exactly right, and I think that key theme will emerge throughout the debate.

On Friday there was a virtual roundtable of aid and development agencies that work in the region, and those of us present heard directly from representatives of Tearfund, among other aid agencies, in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan, who described the reality of the situation on the ground. We heard from Manenji, who works with Oxfam in South Sudan, about the dead livestock that robs families and communities of their sources of income. We heard from Alec, who works with World Vision in Somalia, about the children who are losing out on education because their families have been displaced. We heard from John, who works with Action contra la Faim in Kenya, about how diseases such as cholera spread because there is inadequate sanitation. And we heard from Catherine, who works with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, also in Kenya, who explained that some rains are arriving, but in quantities that are causing floods and damaging crops even further. Those extremes of weather are further exacerbating the situation—that was perhaps the clearest message from all those who contributed.

The hunger crisis is a climate crisis, and weather patterns have changed beyond all recognition, exactly as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said, becoming more extreme and less predictable. All the evidence shows that that is a result of pollution and carbon emissions pumped into the atmosphere by decades of past and ongoing industrial and commercial human activity in parts of the world that are not experiencing such extremes, or at least not experiencing their devastating consequences—in other words, so-called developed, western countries. The people who are most affected by climate change are those who have done least to cause it. That is the basic principle of climate justice, which is a concept, like that of climate emergency, that the UK Government do not appear to be willing to accept, let alone embrace or act on.

Other important structural causes have led to the hunger crisis, but they are also the result of decisions and actions taken by people—often by Governments—so they can be changed by making different decisions and taking different actions. The crisis in Ukraine has led to food price inflation around the world. In the UK, we have experienced inflation rates of about 10%, which has caused great and undeniable hardship to many of our constituents and among the poorest and most vulnerable in society. On Friday, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund told us about the effects of the inflation rate in Ethiopia, which is 30% and which affects people who are already trying to get by on the most basic of incomes and subsistence lifestyles.

Difficulties in ensuring the physical supply of grain, even grain delivered in the form of food aid, have also had a significant impact on the hunger crisis, which is why it was encouraging to hear from British International Investment about its investment in Somaliland to improve capacity at the port of Berbera.

The conflicts across the region compound the food crisis and begin to lead to a spiral, becoming both a cause and an effect of hunger. That has been particularly evident in Ethiopia in recent months. Decades of oppression in Eritrea, as we heard from Eritrea Focus, mean that information on the food security situation in that country is almost non-existent, although we can extrapolate from what is happening elsewhere. In recent days, the escalation of violence in Sudan has become a huge concern to us all, and the withdrawal of many aid agencies will simply drive more people to starvation. We must hope that the attention now being paid to what is happening in Sudan leads to long-term resolutions with respect to conflict and to food and nutrition systems.

In all this, gender is a critical factor. ActionAid has spoken of the importance of supporting women-headed households and the role that women play as key leaders in their communities, but they are also at risk of violence and exploitation; indeed, Tearfund referred in particular to child marriage, early pregnancy and prostitution. However, all those challenges are entirely the result of decisions and actions taken by individuals or Governments. There is nothing inevitable about the food crisis, and the stories we have heard, as well as the ones we are likely to hear during the debate, will demonstrate that. The crisis was entirely preventable, and it is eminently resolvable. Future crises are equally avoidable.

The UK Government and the international community need to take urgent action to respond to the acute emergency and to build resilience against further emergencies. First, the UK Government must simply up their game. The risks and dangers that were warned about when the Department for International Development was abolished and the aid budget cut are becoming a reality. As the right hon. Member for East Ham said, in 2017 the UK Government were able to provide more than £800 million to east Africa, which helped to stave off many of the worst impacts of looming famine and saved thousands of lives. There have been warnings about this crisis since 2020, but in the last financial year the UK’s contribution was just £156 million—a cut of 80% from what was made available last time round. That is completely disproportionate with respect to the overall cut in the aid budget.

I, too, visited Kenya earlier this year with Oxfam and the Coalition for Global Prosperity, and we could see the effects of famine. On the point about the finance and support for aid, does the hon. Member agree that it is about not just the amount of aid, but where it goes and how important it is that UK aid is channelled to local providers on the ground to provide emergency relief? Local organisations will have a better idea and a clearer system when it comes to where the funds should go and who actually needs them, whereas a multinational or even national organisation will not necessarily send them to the people who need them.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That becomes even more important when the budget is squeezed. A local response and grassroots knowledge are absolutely critical in responding and building infrastructure. We heard that from the agencies, and I will reflect a little on that before the end of my contribution.

I think we will all welcome the announcement by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of a high-level pledging conference in New York on 24 May and the role the UK Government will play as a co-host. If the Government want to be taken seriously, they must lead by example. We will need not just announcements, but disbursements of scaled-up aid that will encourage other countries to do the same. There are already questions about exactly when and how the UK will disburse the pledge of £1.5 billion to the Nutrition for Growth fund. I know that Lord Oates, in another place, is paying particular attention to that through his United Against Hunger and Malnutrition initiative.

As the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) said, how aid funds are spent makes a big difference to both immediate response and resilience building. We will all have heard from non-governmental organisations on the ground about the importance of locally led interventions and that grassroots, community-based organisations are almost always best placed to know exactly what support is needed to help people in their area.

Aid in the form of cash transfers and social security empowers and dignifies individuals, even in the most difficult circumstances. Ensuring that children can continue to go to school and receive a meal while they are at school is perhaps one of the best examples of both meeting immediate need and investing in the future. Refugees International highlighted a study by the United States Agency for International Development that demonstrates that

“a more proactive response to avert humanitarian crises could reduce the cost to international donors by 30%, whilst also protecting billions of dollars of income and assets for those most affected.”

I am delighted to see that the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), is with us today. The Committee’s report on food security is tagged to the debate on the Order Paper, and it recommends that the Government work to

“empower the Global Alliance for Food Security to develop international solutions to regional food security challenges.”

The report spoke particularly about the pivotal role of sustainable, smallholder farming and agriculture, undoubtedly based on exactly the kind of excellent evidence from organisations on the ground that have provided background briefing for today’s debate.

Given what is happening in Sudan, it is understandable that the Minister for Development cannot be here in person. He has taken a strong interest in this issue, and he and other Ministers have spoken about how they need and want to make the reduced aid budget as effective as possible. I think he feels the pain of many of us in Parliament and beyond who know and understand the importance of international development at the damage done to the aid budget, to the painstaking cross-party consensus built up around it and to the reputation the UK earned as a result. He might even look a little enviously at the vision outlined by the SNP for an independent Scotland, where 0.7% of GNI is a floor, not a ceiling, for aid spending. As Ministers say and we know, for now the reduced funds must be made to work smarter and harder.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk at length about the application of the resources that are available at the moment. Does he agree that the extraction of clean, drinkable water in much of Africa is part of the problem and that more could and should be done to assist NGOs and other groups? Their expertise in that aspect would do much to transform the horn and central Africa.

Yes, absolutely. I am wearing the Scotland-Malawi tartan tie today. In Malawi, a common phrase is “water is life”, and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for water, sanitation and hygiene, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), is with us today as well. Water is absolutely crucial in all this, and even more important than access to food in some ways—a human being can survive for many days without food, but for barely any time at all without clean, safe water. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

That goes back to how we make the limited resources we have work effectively. That is particularly difficult to do when official development assistance funds are being spent by the Home Office. If the Home Secretary does not want people to come here on small boats from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan or Somalia, rather than spend taxpayers’ money on housing people in hotels or trying to deport them to Rwanda, we should spend it wisely and effectively on avoiding conflicts and ensuring that there is food security in the first place. People would then perhaps be less likely to flee their home countries. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

There was wide cross-party support for this debate to be granted time by the Backbench Business Committee, and that is evident from the number of Members present and the interventions so far. Many of those hoping to contribute have had the privilege of visiting countries in the horn of Africa in recent months, and I look forward to hearing their testimonies. We all represent constituents who are passionate about achieving global justice and ending hunger—entirely preventable, totally unnecessary hunger—once and for all. Action is needed now, otherwise we will be back here again. The costs in terms of money and, more importantly, human lives will only be higher.

I remind hon. Members that we have 40 minutes and eight speakers. Taking roughly five minutes each would be a courtesy. I call Sir Gavin Williamson.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate on an incredibly important issue. Sadly, in terms of how much it has been talked about, this is largely a silent tragedy from the west’s perspective, but it is a tragedy that we could all see coming. I will direct most of my comments towards the horn of Africa, Somaliland and Somalia. This time last year, it was already clear, after numerous years without the rainfall that was hoped for and expected, that the coming year would be critical. We did not see the quantity of rain required, and the consequences affected many people.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North rightly touched on the war in Ukraine, which has had an enormous and devastating impact on so many of these countries, and he talked about the impact on prices for people living in them. The statistics from Somaliland and Somalia show that, as of October 2022, the price of a kilogram of rice had more than doubled, from 75 cents to $2. Similarly, the price of three litres of cooking oil rose from $4.50 to $9. That has an impact on every single person right across Somaliland, Somalia and all the other countries in east Africa.

The response is not just about what we can do to facilitate more grain coming from Ukraine into the horn of Africa; it is also about the direct help that we can totally control. That is about delivering aid and support into those countries today. I understand that the Department has difficult choices, and I think everyone here would totally endorse the support it is giving to Ukraine and would encourage the Government to continue that, but this cannot be an either/or decision. People need help and support in Somaliland, Somalia, Kenya and so many other areas.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be easier for the UK to send aid to Somaliland if it were an independent country, so that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could work with the Somaliland Government to get aid directly to the people who need it?

We see real challenges with aid being channelled through Mogadishu, rather than going directly into Hargeisa. As has touched on that, there are amazing port facilities in Berbera that can be used as a base to deliver aid across east Africa and the horn of Africa. British Government recognition of Somaliland, and making sure that the aid goes directly to the people of Somaliland, rather than being used as a political tool by Somalia, would certainly be of great assistance to the millions of people in Somaliland and to those hundreds of thousands of people who are facing real hunger and real challenges. The hon. Member for Glasgow North was right that more needs to be done, with urgency and immediacy.

In 2011 and 2017, Britain rightly took the lead. We created the framework that enabled other countries and nations to rally behind us and support people in dire need. Although good work is ongoing, the scale and urgency need to be stepped up. We need to be there.

We are the penholder in Somalia and Somaliland. We are recognised across the world as a nation that can make a difference, as we did in the crises of 2011 and 2017. Now is the time to step up again, which means more resources, more leadership and taking the bull by the horns to really drive the issue forward.

For a relatively small increase in support, we can save hundreds of thousands of lives. I think all our constituents want Britain to be the country that leads and demonstrates our ability to make a difference and to save lives. I encourage the Minister to take that message and, most importantly, to take action to do that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this important debate. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group for water, sanitation and hygiene.

I lived in Kenya for four years, and I know that the connections between this country and east Africa go very deep. I hardly meet any group of people without finding someone with an east Africa connection.

British people care, enormously, which is shown by the huge, generous support for recent aid requests, the strength of feeling about suffering and the feeling that British people want to help. But the east Africa food crisis has gone relatively unreported, and is not being raised as much as it should be, and so I am grateful that we are holding this debate.

This is the worst humanitarian crisis in 40 years. More than 50 million people have been pushed to acute food insecurity, and a person dies every six seconds in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya—it is hard to get our heads around these figures, and the desperation. This is a perfect storm of climate change, with five successive rainy season failures and a likely sixth one, right now; conflict; disease outbreaks; the cost of living crisis; a reduction in aid; and countries saddled with unpayable levels of debt. Undoubtedly, it is political decisions that have led to this crisis.

About 22.7 million people across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia face high levels of food insecurity—desperate hunger—compared with 18.6 million last August. That is an increase of 4 million people in the past six months, which shows how severe the drought has been.

The crisis is chronically underfunded—the overall funding requirements stand at about $5.1 billion for Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia—and that underfunding is unsustainable. Implementing partners are having to stop projects and suspend or reduce lifesaving programmes due to underfunding at this critical time.

As always, women and girls are affected the most—they are on the frontline. They suffer higher risks of malnutrition and violence, and there is increased child and forced marriage.

Verity is an aid worker from CAFOD, who reported from a recent visit to northern Kenya:

“Returning from Marsabit, the situation is desperate and deteriorating. I was shocked by the scale of livestock deaths, asset loss and clear desperation of communities. I was struck by the huge numbers of dead animals—mostly camels; the cattle are long gone. The landscape and roadsides are littered with carcasses, some are skeletons, some have fallen only hours before. The condition of any remaining animals is extremely poor…

There is no grazing—the assessments rate the availability of pasture in Marsabit as ‘extreme’—in many places it looks like the surface of the moon. Endless rock and dust—not a blade of grass… In towns there is no land available so groups are scattered, there is little water and little assistance. The households we spoke to had driven away their last remaining camels into the bush as they knew they would die and they would not be able to move the bodies if they died near the homestead. People are dignified but desperate…you can sense fear. People are talking of death.”

Aid agencies have for months been calling for the UK to increase aid to the region by £70 million, but this has not happened. Where is our aid money going instead? It has been drastically cut, skewed towards trade and spent on propping up the failing Home Office. The International Development Committee’s recent report, “Aid spending in the UK”, was very illuminating. For a start, the facts about aid spending were hard to find. The Committee found that it was not transparent and that recent answers from the Minister were “wilfully opaque”. The report said:

“The proportion of aid spent in the UK has drastically increased in recent years, while programmes supporting people in the world’s poorest countries were cut”,

which goes to the heart of this matter. The report also said:

“In 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, the Government spent more than £1 billion of the aid budget on in-country refugee costs”

in the UK, including hotels.

It is a crazy situation. There are fantastic young people—from Ethiopia, for example—travelling here who did not want to leave their country, but the money is being spent on hotel costs, instead of on helping them to stay in Ethiopia and support their own country, which is where they want to be. Save the Children has estimated that the cost of spending in the UK could be as high a £4.5 billion in 2022-23, accounting for one third of the entire aid budget. It is just extraordinary. Water and sanitation programmes have been cut by 80%, which does not match what British people want their aid to be spent on. In the last financial year, the UK pledged only £156 million to the crisis, which is less than a fifth of the £861 million provided in 2017-18.

To conclude, I ask the Minister to urgently commit to release already-pledged funding, to invest in and support communities and primary healthcare, to cut the debt, to transform the UK’s agriculture portfolio towards local, diverse food systems, to fund water and sanitation projects as an emergency response, and to introduce clear targets to increase funds reaching local organisations, rather than just through multilateral organisations. The climate emergency is very real. I hope that both the media and Ministers are listening to this debate today, and that urgent action will be taken to save lives.

It is a pleasure to serve under you again, Mr Gray. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this important debate.

It is sometimes argued that the public can focus on only one crisis at a time. I do not share that cynicism, but with the horrors of a European war now beamed into our homes on a daily basis, and energy and food prices stretching the resources of many households, the temptation—even among the most conscientious of world citizens—is to turn one’s eyes away from the suffering of the wider world. Events, however, do not stop when we refuse to look at them. Among their other merits, debates such as this serve to push back against forces of apathy, and they help us to challenge criticisms of aid as being indulgent, misdirected and ineffective.

Sadly, crises of drought, famine and conflict are too prevalent across east Africa and the horn of Africa. I will focus my comments on Ethiopia, which has significant influence as one of the largest countries in the region, but also because it holds much of east Africa’s water resource, including the dam at the source of the Blue Nile, which flows into Egypt. Ethiopia also holds a unique position among its peers, in part through never having been colonised.

Alongside parliamentary colleagues, including the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), I recently had the privilege of witnessing the excellent work of UNICEF and Ethiopian state and volunteer health workers in the southern region of Borena as they worked to fight malnutrition and its accompanying complications. We had discussions with national and regional Government officials and politicians, and also with recipients of the aid and relief: mothers with their infants, and community elders. I will, if I may, make three points about comments we heard about aid directed towards the country. They spoke of three ways of directing aid, with the first and preferred one being bilateral direct aid. That in particular could be used for capacity building in the country.

The approach to healthcare is community based, partly owing to circumstance and challenging terrain but also because of distance and a lack of infrastructure. That can be contrasted with our model of healthcare delivery, and we could learn something from a focus on primary aid and primary healthcare as an investment rather than a cost in terms of spending. The approach taken also—again, partly through circumstance and necessity—assumes a degree of personal responsibility. Agency is encouraged in the education provided in basic things such as hygiene and nutrition. We met some people who use a simple piece of paper to measure the circumference of an infant’s upper arm, which indicates the state of the child’s nutrition, and empower mothers to act on that and seek aid when necessary.

The second aid model spoken of was multilateral direct aid, which is what Gavi seeks to use. That again allows aid to be directed by the nation to where it can build capacity and strengthen systems and public service infrastructure. The third model discussed was implementation aid. The importance of its palliative relief was acknowledged by those we spoke to, but they were clear that it fails in leaving any legacy after it has been delivered. We saw some of the powerful benefits of that aid, but they were clear that the principal benefits to the nation lie not just in palliative relief for five missed rainy seasons and the consequences of the drought and famine that have followed but specifically in building up the necessary robust health infrastructure alongside that.

I have emphasised the importance of Ethiopia’s geopolitical relations with other members of the region. Ethiopia, as a leader in the region, and given its resources, is key to unlocking wider benefits in the region and bringing relief. These events call us to think bigger and drive us to be better. Bigger and better should also be our response to the questions asked of the UK and its international aid and relief efforts.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Gray. I offer huge congratulations to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing the debate, which is so timely. This issue is not getting the coverage it needs, so I am grateful for him giving it this exposure.

In the past five years, global food insecurity has worsened due to covid-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, extreme weather and armed conflicts. Tragically, that list is not exhaustive. Global food insecurity has culminated in a growing global hunger crisis. In particular, people living in east Africa are experiencing ever more severe levels of hunger. According to the World Health Organisation, 48 million people face crisis levels of food insecurity, 6 million people face emergency levels and 130,000 people face catastrophic—the highest—levels.

The scale of the challenge is immense. It is important that we remember that famine is not a one-off event. Hunger shocks cumulate. Communities become less capable of coping with the shocks, and the likelihood of famine increases. Hunger causes malnourishment and excess deaths. It allows infectious diseases such as measles, cholera and covid-19 to flourish, especially among children. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are particularly vulnerable, with almost one million of them in the region experiencing severe malnourishment. In addition, 5.1 million girls and boys are suffering from acute malnutrition. Children affected by hunger grow up stunted or wasted. Hunger has lifelong developmental impacts.

We know that hunger disproportionately affects women and girls. The International Development Committee heard that

“girls are eating less and girls are eating last”.

The hunger crisis has caused an increase in gender-based violence, including domestic violence and sexual harassment. Negative coping strategies are causing girls to be subjected to forced and early marriage.

East Africa has been particularly hit as the horn of Africa is suffering its worst drought for 40 years after five failed rainy seasons. The region relies extensively on rain-fed crops, meaning that the drought has devastated agricultural production, and 9.5 million livestock animals have already died across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, taking futures away. Food prices have reached unsustainable levels in east Africa, and much of that has been driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is a major grain producer and exporter, from which Somalia typically imports 90% of its grain. I welcome the Black sea deal, agreed last July, which allows exports from Ukraine to resume, but the uncertainty of grain shipments continues to contribute to the hunger crisis.

Conflict in east Africa threatens food insecurity further. We have all seen the violence that erupted in Sudan 11 days ago. I am really grateful for today’s ceasefire, and I hope it leads to a lasting solution. Before the conflict began, 16 million people needed humanitarian aid, and now the violence is exacerbating shortages of medicine, food and water. The World Food Programme has been forced to pause its operations after three of its employees died in the conflict.

The hunger crisis did not occur out of the blue. Multiple organisations, including the United Nations, began to warn last year about the worrying humanitarian situation in the region. Frustratingly, there can be much human suffering and many deaths before famine is declared. In 2011, 260,000 died in Somalia due to famine, but 130,000 had already died before the famine was officially declared.

The International Development Committee sounded the alarm in July last year in its report on food insecurity. Following our oral evidence session, we wrote to the FCDO to ask it to commit emergency funding to the region to meet the humanitarian challenge, to support the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal to raise funds to combat the approaching famine in the horn of Africa, and to match a proportion of the donations made. Despite those warnings, it failed to act. To prevent a famine in east Africa in 2017, the UK gave £861 million of humanitarian aid to the region, with Somalia alone receiving £282 million. In this financial year, the UK has committed only £156 million for the whole of east Africa, and I do not know whether that commitment has been fulfilled or whether it is still a pledge.

NGOs have noted that east Africa has received neither the attention nor the funding it requires, but money alone is not enough. The UK can use its position as a global leader to encourage others to act. We should use our position on the UK-led G7 famine prevention and hunger crisis compact, the G7 Global Alliance for Food Security and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme to persuade other countries to come together to prevent famine through humanitarian aid. Will the Minister please give an indication of the UK’s intention at the forthcoming pledging conference for the region?

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for raising these issues and setting the scene so very well. He is a man of passion and understanding, and it is a real joy to sit alongside him in this debate. He and I often support each other in these types of debates.

I remember quite well the first time that I saw advertisements in the 1980s that showed children in Africa literally starving. It does not seem that long ago. My heart ached as I looked at my boys—I thank God that we were able to provide for them. I am always aware that there are people in the world who have literally nothing.

I am sad to say that many children are still starving. I am now a grandfather, and I feel that familiar tug in my heart today. I support many charities that have food programmes and operations in numerous countries in the horn of Africa, and they are stretched to capacity. They tell me that they are finding it very difficult to cope. Following five consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall, the horn of Africa is facing its longest drought in four decades. That is compounded by years of conflict and instability, the impact of climate change, covid-19—my goodness!—and rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine. Millions in the horn of Africa face acute hunger, and Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been particularly affected.

In its most recent review of the horn of Africa, published on 3 November 2022, the United Nations reported that 36.4 million people, including almost 20 million children, were affected by the drought, and that 21.7 million people, including 11 million children, needed food assistance. Those figures illustrate the magnitude of the issue. UNICEF estimated that some 5.7 million children in the region require treatment for acute malnutrition, with 1.8 million children experiencing life-threatening malnutrition.

Although famine has not been officially declared in the horn of Africa, with projections of a sixth consecutive below-average rainy season, the famine early warning systems network has estimated that the horn of Africa, especially Somalia, will face a famine in 2023—right now, as we sit in Westminster Hall, that is a reality. With this knowledge comes responsibility. I have absolute confidence that the Minister is aware of this House’s responsibility to do the right thing and increase not simply food aid, but ascertain how best we can channel projects to help families to become sustainable.

Like every other speaker, the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case to make sure that properly targeted resources reach the places they are so desperately needed. Does he agree that the international response, in terms of both resources and resolving the conflicts behind this crisis, has been too slow and indecisive? It really does need a fresh start to ensure that the political conflicts that underlie all this are addressed urgently and effectively.

I certainly do agree, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point. When the hon. Member for Glasgow North gave his introduction, he emphasised that very point, as others have as well. They are right: decisive action needs to be taken by the Minister and our Government. I am ever mindful that our Government and Ministers have been active, but we do require more incisiveness.

Some of my churches back home have been involved with a project where they were able to buy a pair of chickens, two pigs, two goats—small things, Mr Gray, but things that can really change a family’s life—with the idea that a family can breed those animals and live sustainably by selling the offspring. In the Upper Waiting Hall yesterday, and probably today, there was an exhibition on Yemen—one of the examples shown is that very project, which enables a family to be sustainable. The churches in my constituency of Strangford do that very thing.

On that point, will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the many hundreds of church and faith groups that do the type of thing he has outlined? Some do it on a small, localised scale, while others, through Tearfund and other organisations, do so on a significant, regional basis. Does he agree that that tribute is well deserved and should be supported by Government?

I totally agree with that. I conclude by urging the Minister to take on board the opinions of long-term NGOs that have been working in communities for years and understand what works and what does not. Some 500 humanitarian organisations have swiftly responded to reports of the evolving drought. The issues are clear. They have provided humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, reaching 56%, 36% and 85% of the target populations in those countries respectively. We need to work in partnership with NGOs that have experience and passion for their people. I believe that we can and must do more. I urge the Minister to increase our engagement with those NGOs. They know the stories on the ground, and those must be built upon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the friends of CAFOD, I appreciate immensely the opportunity to discuss this issue today. It is a topic that we must shout about, because we stand on the precipice of an unprecedented sixth consecutive failed rainy season.

The lethal combination of the global cost of living crisis, local conflict and climate change-induced drought has led to a humanitarian disaster. We have heard the figures mentioned a number of times, but standing in this Chamber today, we really cannot comprehend that one person is likely to die every 36 seconds in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya because of acute food insecurity. The UN predicts that half a million children are at immediate risk of death because of catastrophic hunger.

This is a humanitarian crisis that could have been avoided. In 2011, when famine was last declared in Somalia, the UN said that the warning signs of famine must never again be ignored, but the reality is that those warning signs, which we were told would be acted on, are being ignored once again.

Last year, the UK gave just one fifth of the aid provided to east Africa during the previous hunger crisis in 2017-18. The action then helped to prevent the spread of famine and undoubtedly saved lives, yet last week we heard that the aid budget for east and central African countries is being cut by a further £25 million in 2023-24. There are already 3.3 million internally displaced people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia as a direct result of the current crisis. As it persists, more people will look to take that treacherous journey north and will risk falling into the hands of people smugglers. Water scarcity is linked to around 10% of the global rise in migration, and global migration from drought and famine is also set to rise, which means that it is not just the lives of those directly affected and who are making these perilous journeys that will become less secure, but our whole world.

That is why the decision to spend three times more international aid in Britain than across the entire continent of Africa is baffling. In practice, that translates to the propping up of our ailing asylum system. Close to 30% of the money spent under Britain’s overseas aid budget goes on projects here in the UK. We are spending increasing amounts of money dealing with the consequences of global insecurity, rather than targeting those precious resources on the causes. The international aid budget has also been cut for the past three years, which is a short-sighted approach.

I want also to focus on what more can be done. Next month’s horn of Africa conference, which is being co-convened by the UK, offers us a real opportunity to advocate practical, targeted measures to make a meaningful, long-term difference to the region. As other hon. Members have mentioned, the aid must be targeted at local, resilient food systems. Local aid organisations know the needs in their areas best, and empowering them directly with international aid is a win not just in the short term but in the long term. We can also use the UK’s £11.6 billion international climate fund to ensure sustainable, resilient food systems that are better equipped to support local people, as climate change is also being caused by the global north.

Countries in east Africa are saddled with unpayable debts. The G20 debt service suspension is still hampered by the predominance of private creditors that are able to hold out from suspending debt. The UK is well positioned to help: 90% of affected countries’ bonds are governed by English law. There is more that we can do to enable these countries to focus their precious, scarce resources on relieving hunger rather than paying unpayable debt.

This crisis has not sprung out of the blue. It has been a long, slow-developing catastrophe, and the Government must make up time by sticking to their previous commitments and spending their aid—our aid—wisely. If once again the rains do not come, more people will die. It is that simple. In this cold, hard reality, the urgency of this cry must be heard.

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on his excellent opening contribution.

The number of people affected by this crisis is truly staggering, and there is no doubt that the world, the UK included, needs to do more, but this is also a glimpse of a hellish future if we do not do more, as a world, to tackle poverty, conflict and climate change. This is a vision of what is to come.

Clearly, the cut in the aid budget and the fact that so much of it is being spent on refugees here in the UK means that the UK is doing less to assist. All of us who feel passionate about the UK’s international development efforts need to ask ourselves why, given the high point of 2005 with the Make Poverty History campaign, when our postbags and email inboxes were overflowing, so few people said anything when the aid budget was cut by the Government. I am the former International Development Secretary, and I got fewer than 10 emails.

If we are honest, we need to ask ourselves how we are going to remake the case— remake the argument—for countries to play their part in tackling the three great scourges of our time. Clearly, having a civil war is a really bad way to advance the interests of a country. One only has to look at Sudan today, South Sudan previously and the Sudanese civil war before that—three civil wars in the space of 35 years—to see that it leads to people fleeing, insecurity and poverty.

If that is not bad enough, human-made climate change is having the greatest impact of all and will wreak enormous damage on people’s lives if we do not do something about it. The truth is that we know what needs to be done; we just need to get on with it faster than we have been managing so far. I pay tribute to President Biden. For many years we criticised the United States of America for not doing enough, and then suddenly he came along with the Inflation Reduction Act. The initial response from some people was to complain and whinge and say it is not fair. I would tell them to not complain but emulate, because this is the future if we are going to tackle climate change.

My final point, which others have touched on, is that if we do not tackle climate change, the movement of people around the world will be on a scale that we have never before witnessed. Even during the Syria conflict, Lebanon’s population increased by 25%. That is the equivalent of 16 million people coming to Britain. Just pause and dwell on that prospect. I met climate refugees many years ago on a visit, as it happens, to Kenya, where people had moved because it stopped raining in the village where they lived. The fundamental truth is that human beings will not stay where they were born and brought up either to die of thirst or to drown as sea levels rise. They are going to be on the move, and the scale of movement will be enormous.

No wall, fence or immigration policy will prevent that movement. It is in our self-interest, in the true sense of the word, to do everything we can as a nation to help people in other parts of the world to be able to grow up, raise a family, live a healthy life, and be educated, safe and secure, wherever they happen to be. That is the argument as to why the United Kingdom should be doing more.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this hugely important debate. I declare that I took part in a cross-party visit to Kenya in January, and the details are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

As we have heard from the powerful contributions this morning, the horn of Africa has experienced one of the longest and most severe droughts on record. Some 46 million people in the region urgently need food assistance, and more than 16.2 million people cannot access sufficient water. Those numbers are absolutely staggering. The persistent droughts and severe flooding are the result of climate change, and the cause of mass displacement and loss of life. The situation has been compounded by the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine, which caused prices for wheat, oil and fuel to skyrocket, rising by 300% in March 2022. Some 4.5 million people are now refugees as a result of the crisis, and 12.7 million are internally displaced. The drought has damaged people’s ability to grow crops, raise livestock and buy food, and 9.5 million livestock have died across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia alone. It is catastrophic.

In January of this year I joined a cross-party delegation that visited Marsabit, Kenya, where the crisis is rapidly increasing in severity. I would like to place on the record my thanks to CAFOD and everybody involved in that tremendous visit. Kenya declared a national disaster in September 2021 because of the drought, and UN figures estimate that the number of people affected by drought-driven hunger has increased from 1.4 million to 4.1 million in the last year. The fifth successive below-average rainy season has resulted in below-average crop production, poor livestock conditions and higher exposure to livestock diseases. I saw all of that when I went there. In turn, it has led to the loss of livelihoods and assets, and has increased food insecurity and malnutrition.

The drought has also had a devastating impact on children’s learning. Thousands of pupils have had to drop out of school due to the impact of food insecurity and climate-induced displacement. I will never forget the sights I witnessed, nor the magnificent fortitude of the people I met in Marsabit: the mothers who were distraught about how the crisis was threatening the education and futures of their children; the camels dying on the side of the road due to the unprecedented drought; and the communities decimated, with their standard of living disappearing before their eyes because of the loss of livestock.

I also saw how investment in people—in this case, water wells supplied by CAFOD—can transform and help the pastoralists to survive the drought and ensure they remain a key part of the future of Kenya, where they make up a fifth of the country. If Kenya loses those people and livestock, it poses an existential threat to the social and economic fortunes of the country and, indeed, of Africa.

As Action Against Hunger said in its briefing for this debate, in reality, millions of people are facing hunger and malnutrition and are losing their livelihoods due to a lack of political will to act. That includes the political will of this Government. I close my contribution by asking the Minister why the £156 million of funding committed by the UK in 2022-23 was only 20% of the amount committed to the region in 2017. Given the severity of the crisis we see before our eyes, I press the Minister to urgently increase funding now, for all the reasons that have been spoken so eloquently about today. Crucially, the Minister must ensure that the funding reaches local-led initiatives that have local knowledge and understand the short and long-term needs of the community. That is absolutely vital.

Furthermore, will the Minister commit to reinstating the aid budget to 0.7% of GDP as soon as possible? In addition to that immediate support, I urge the Minister to consult representatives from across the region to discuss what is needed to prepare for the future crisis, as well as long-term resilience building programmes, including climate adaptation, which is crucial for everybody.

Regarding the climate emergency, I am deeply concerned that the UK Government are yet to show the ambition required to avoid worsening catastrophic climate impacts. There needs to be an immediate change in direction to deliver on reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK must deliver additional funding for loss and damages caused by our contribution to the climate emergency.

The crisis across east Africa is now of immense proportions. As Action Against Hunger has said, famine is not a singular event but the result of a series of shocks that accumulate over time. With each shock, communities become less able to cope and another famine becomes more likely to occur. The UK need to provide immediate support as part of the urgent humanitarian response, as well as long-term support to prevent future crises and climate-driven displacement and that builds resilience in communities. I urge the Government to act with urgency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I draw Member’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which will be updated shortly to reflect my recent attendance on a cross-party delegation to Ethiopia. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this vital debate. Alongside the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), he set out that this is a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Communities in the east and the horn of Africa are currently facing the worst climate-induced drought in 40 years. It is an evolving crisis that is shaping up to be worse than the drought that hit the region in 2010-11. I echo the comments made by the Opposition that the UK Government must take immediate action to increase the amount that they are providing in aid to the area.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) has already stated, the region of east Africa and the horn of Africa has experienced the deadly combination of climate change, conflict and a global cost of living crisis. It is estimated by the international organisation Action Against Hunger that every 36 seconds one person in east Africa dies as a result of acute food insecurity. Five consecutive years of below-average rain means that the horn of Africa has experienced its longest and most severe drought in recent history.

Despite contributing just 0.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are experiencing the brunt of a climate crisis that is worsening each year. As the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) said, the situation is exacerbated by global factors, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, as Somalia is heavily reliant on Ukrainian grain imports, which make up 90% of its supply.

Tragically, all too often we have witnessed the devastating impact of drought in the region. In 2010 and 2011, a drought claimed the lives of 260,000 people, half of whom were under the age of five. Sadly, we now face a crisis that is expected to be significantly worse, yet the support available is much less than in previous years. It is imperative that we take action now to provide critical assistance and support to those affected by the crisis, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe of even greater magnitude.

As various Members have said, the continual cuts to humanitarian funding by the Conservative Government have left the UK ill-prepared to provide much-needed support to the region. In 2017, it faced the potential risk of famine. At that point, the UK provided £861 million in humanitarian aid, which undoubtedly saved thousands of lives; yet in 2022, the UK committed just £156 million to the region, which was 80% less than five years earlier. Despite our being aware of the potential for famine in the region since 2020, there has been no increased financial response from the UK.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that countries must consider their international aid response. The UK must do better when responding to such crises. The Conservative Government must immediately return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. Crucially, this funding should not come from shifting money around but by increasing the overall pot of funding available.

Although providing funding to address the immediate crisis is crucial, we must also look to the future and consider how to establish longer-term initiatives. The UK Government should follow the lead of the EU, New Zealand and the Scottish Government by establishing a loss and damage fund for those impacted by climate change. Somalia is the second most vulnerable country to the impact of climate change and would benefit from such a fund. By taking proactive measures, we can address the root cause of the crisis and help to build resilience to changing climate.

In its latest report, Plan International found that the causes and consequences of food insecurity are closely entwined with gender, particularly the gendered access to food, gender-based violence and the impact on education, as well as the impact on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The reality is that when food is scarce, girls and women bear the brunt—by eating less, eating last and eating the least nutritious foods. In this hunger crisis, women’s nutritional needs take a back seat to those of boys and men, particularly within households, putting women and girls at a higher risk of malnutrition.

The hunger crisis extends further than access to proper nutrition; it also has a detrimental effect on the levels of violence against women and girls. Plan International reports that incidences of rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriages rise in countries affected by a hunger crisis. It outlined that women are more vulnerable at water collection points and during the long journey there, with water shortages forcing them to travel—sometimes through the night—to water stations, putting them at greater risk of violence. The combination of extreme hunger and entrenched power imbalances creates the conditions for sexual exploitation of those simply trying to obtain food.

Additionally, the problem of early forced marriage has only been exacerbated by the hunger crisis. Girls are more likely to be married off to reduce the burden on families, or to allow their family to receive a dowry payment as a source of income. Early marriage can have a knock-on effect on girls’ education, whether it is withdrawn early or simply not seen as a priority. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who chairs the International Development Committee.

Just last month, I had the privilege of joining a cross-party delegation of MPs who travelled to Ethiopia with UNICEF. As the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) has said, we were there to learn more about how UNICEF is working to reach and treat malnourished children. A worldwide organisation, UNICEF provides roughly 80% of the world’s ready-to-use therapeutic food, which is a highly nutritious and effective peanut paste that is used to treat severe acute malnutrition.

The image of a mother carrying her severely malnourished child and feeding peanut paste to the child will never leave my brain. It is seared into my memory, because as soon as the child got the pack of peanut paste, they absolutely devoured it and could not get enough of it. That image will never leave me, and since returning home I have been making a conscious effort to change my eating habits to ensure that I try not to waste so much food.

The UNICEF staff out there were fantastic, especially Stanley, the UNICEF chief of nutrition in Ethiopia. He explained to us the impact of malnutrition on families, children and young mothers. In a camp, we spoke to one family. The mother had nine children, and her husband had gone back to his home area to try to build their lives up again. UNICEF staff gave nutrition packs to the family, but at the back of my mind was a thought that astounded me: the mum had brought forward one malnourished child who had been given a nutrition pack, but when she returned to her home area she would surely be sharing the packs among all the other children. In reality, there was not so much help for the child, who would get better only very slowly.

The UK has historically been a leader on international aid budgets. Although the Tory Government have scaled back their support, they can still help. Will the Minister commit himself to providing £70 million, as UNICEF has asked, for the child nutrition fund over the next 12 months? That funding would help to reach 1 million children through the early prevention, detection and treatment of severe acute malnutrition.

While I was in Ethiopia, I also visited the Dubluk internally displaced persons camp in the Borena zone. The site accommodates people who have been displaced internally by the drought. It can host 50,000 people. When we visited, there were about 15,000 there. However, across the Borena zone, as is the case in east Africa and the horn of Africa, the food security situation is worsening. Ethiopia is severely impacted by drought, and a lack of animal feed has meant that much of the livestock in the country has died. In turn, that has made food more expensive.

We had the opportunity to speak to some village elders. During our conversations, I asked what they wanted. They said that they are farmers, and that they wish to have the means to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. Depletion of livelihood income due to the prolonged drought has led to a drastic deterioration of the nutritional status of the vulnerable population, so will the Minister explain whether there are specific routes for aid funding for people who wish to rebuild their lives?

The overwhelming support from Members across the House on this issue demonstrates the gravity of the situation in east Africa and the horn of Africa, but words alone are not enough. We must back our words with action.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing the debate. All of us here will recognise that the debate is sorely overdue. In parts of east Africa, people are desperate following almost three years of severe drought: 22 million people are in acute food insecurity, 16 million have inadequate access to water and almost 10 million livestock animals have died. Those numbers are simply staggering. Some 5.1 million children are acutely malnourished. Their health has been severely weakened and they are vulnerable to disease. Many, should they survive, will experience lifelong impacts owing to stunting. The UN has estimated that, in Somalia alone, 43,000 people died because of hunger last year. More than half were children under the age of five.

We are now in the middle of the sixth rainy season since the drought began, and the limited rainfall so far is not enough. Recovery will take many years, so we need to look at extended support and partnerships to build resilience for when the rains inevitably fail in future. We must remember that the impact of food insecurity is not limited to hunger.

Zala had to drop out of school. Her parents could not afford to continue feeding her and her younger siblings. Things got worse and it seemed obvious that Zala would have to marry an adult man simply to survive. That would have put her at risk of early and unwanted pregnancies and all the dangers of giving birth as a child. It would have trapped her in a cycle of powerlessness and poverty.

Thankfully, a small intervention provided Zala with the means to put food on the table. She now has a future to look forward to, but other girls in the same village were not so lucky—girls whose much older husbands treat them as lifelong, unpaid servants; girls who are not allowed to leave the house; girls with bruises all over their bodies; girls who simply have no hope left. That is what food insecurity can mean.

I want to approach today’s debate country by country, because each country is different and needs targeted and sustainable solutions. I want to start with Sudan because the humanitarian consequences of the conflict are simply dire. Within Sudan, as we know, hospitals are being attacked. Supplies are being looted, including from humanitarian stocks, and people are running out of the basics. Even before the conflict began, Sudan had a hunger crisis that was linked to flooding and the political deadlock caused by the 2021 coup. Can the Minister say what plans are being made to respond to the forced displacement that we will see across the borders? That will obviously include South Sudan, where the humanitarian situation is already truly appalling.

In reality, conflict in South Sudan has never stopped, with frequent intercommunal and political violence and the use of atrocities, including mass rape as a weapon of war. Aid workers are killed with awful frequency. We see that in Sudan, too. I pay tribute to the brave aid workers killed in the past week and those who are still struggling to get aid to the most needy in the most desperate situations.

In South Sudan, repeated serious flooding destroys roads and clogs rivers, making humanitarian access really difficult. The floodwaters are mostly generated not by local rainfall but by rains hundreds of miles upstream. In many areas, crops can be destroyed by drought and by flooding—too much water and too little—almost side by side. Conflict, corruption, flooding and drought combined mean that an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year.

This is a bitter irony. From the conversations that I have had, the agricultural potential of South Sudan is massive. If there was sustained peace, and investment in irrigation and water management systems to safely distribute and conserve the Nile waters, food security could significantly increase. There would be no need for the people to be dependent on food aid or vulnerable to such recurring crises. Can the Minister tell us what approach he is taking to enable greater humanitarian access and sustained improvements in food security in South Sudan?

In Ethiopia, as we know, people face severe challenges in different areas of the country. In Tigray, although humanitarian access has significantly improved, it remains limited in more outlying areas. In parts of Oromia, hunger continues to be exacerbated by terrible conflict. Across the eastern regional states, the situation is similar to that in Somalia and north-eastern Kenya, with a brutal drought destroying livelihoods on a vast scale.

As we have heard, the hunger crisis is most intense in Somalia, where the Government’s efforts to combat al-Shabaab risk being totally undermined, if they cannot secure benefits for the people in recaptured areas. Even Kenya, a middle-income country, is struggling. Last month, I heard from a Kenyan NGO leader, who set out a truly dire picture. Even where women and girls are able to remain in their communities, they are having to walk all day for clean water, from 5 am to 6 pm.

As colleagues have already said, we need to recognise that this crisis is being exacerbated by climate heating. Last year, the Met Office published a climate risk report for the east African region, which says that in rural lowland areas, temperatures

“are already reaching the upper limits of human habitability”.

The paradox is that the average rainfall could increase over coming decades. There is more than enough water for the societies of east Africa to develop, but there will be more frequent heavy rainfall events, and more variability in rainfall from one year to the next. Without drastic improvements in water management, that will simply mean more deadly flooding, more soil erosion, more contamination of drinking water, and more deadly droughts.

I know the Government are playing a supporting role around access to climate finance for adaptation, and the new loss and damage mechanism. I hope the Minister will say more about how we can make those systems really work for the worst affected east African states because, frankly, the bureaucracy involved is insurmountable for many. I firmly believe that we need to think about resilience and development, not just about humanitarian aid, but this current crisis is far from over, and the continued support for nutrition, health and livelihoods is essential.

We now have confirmation of UK support for a pledging conference, which is sorely needed. Funding was forthcoming last year, primarily from the US, as we have heard, but stakeholders desperately need commitments for the next period. We know that, thanks to uncontrolled Home Office spending, the ODA budget for east and central Africa is set to fall yet again. Our pledge is now set to be £390 million for the entire, massive region. During 2017, the Government provided £861 million, which was just to the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.

I know that the Government will advocate strongly for others to step up, but frankly we need to step up too. We need to support real solutions in partnership, working with the countries and communities most affected. We need to stop writing a blank cheque out of the ODA budget to prop up our failing asylum system. Otherwise, we will fail to play our part and fail to support the peoples of east Africa, just when they need our solidarity the most.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning. Mr Gray. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has a previous ministerial engagement.

I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this important debate. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House, who spoke most eloquently and thoughtfully, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson), the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), and for West Ham (Ms Brown).

I should start by mentioning the very grave situation in Sudan. Colleagues will have listened to the statement in the Chamber yesterday by the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. It is clear to everyone that that appalling violence is bringing great suffering. We welcome the fragile ceasefire, and of course our thoughts are with those involved in the evacuation effort that was announced this morning. We wish them Godspeed. As has been laid out eloquently this morning, the conflict has placed the entire country in jeopardy. Nearly 6 million people in Sudan need life-saving aid, and the ongoing violence and outrageous attacks on relief workers have brought humanitarian operations to a standstill. Regretfully, many humanitarian agencies have therefore had to evacuate their personnel.

Clearly, information is limited. At least 427 people have been killed and 3,700 have been injured. Prices of essential items are very sharply increasing, and 11 health facilities are under attack. The situation is dire and we are entirely focused on it. Humanitarian access will clearly depend on the fragile peace holding, and the full resolve and determination of the Department is focused on that. My right hon. Friend the Minister will keep colleagues updated as we move through the difficult days ahead.

I turn to the subject of this debate. The situation in east Africa represents the largest humanitarian crisis in the world right now, and it is magnified by climate change, as eloquently laid out by the hon. Member for Glasgow North and the right hon. Member for Leeds Central. It is also driven by conflict in the African continent and aggravated by Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. The scale of the crisis is truly shocking: more than 72 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2023. As we have heard, in the past 24 months, food insecurity and malnutrition rates have soared. Millions are now in crisis and hundreds of thousands of people, a great many of them children, are at imminent risk of famine.

Of course, climate change and conflict have converged in east Africa with deadly consequences. The war in Tigray, the threat of al-Shabaab in Somalia and the deadly ongoing violence in South Sudan and Sudan have placed millions in grave danger. Armed groups continue to act with impunity, and women and girls are bearing the brunt, as they often do.

After the fifth consecutive failed rains, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are experiencing the worst drought for 40 years, and the March to May rains are unlikely to provide the respite needed. That will further deepen the crisis. Millions have been displaced, livelihoods have been destroyed, and the resilience of communities has been eroded. At the same time, South Sudan has faced the worst flooding in its history, which has displaced vulnerable communities and left millions in need of assistance. As climate events become more severe and frequent, the most vulnerable communities are the hardest hit.

I turn to the UK’s action. The UK Government of course recognise the scale of the crisis, and we applaud the tireless efforts of the brave and dedicate humanitarian staff working in extremely challenging and hazardous conditions. We are committed to alleviating suffering, and we are playing a leading role in the international humanitarian response. We met our commitment last financial year to providing at least £156 million of humanitarian aid across east Africa. That aid has provided millions of people with life-saving assistance, including access to clean water and treatment for severely malnourished children, and emergency medical care, including specialist care for women who have experienced gender-based violence.

UK aid is providing hope across the region and is making a difference. As my right hon. Friend the Minister set out in a written statement on 30 March, we will spend £390 million of bilateral official development assistance in east and central Africa this financial year. We are committed, long-term partners in east Africa, and have invested more than £1 billion in humanitarian aid alone since 2019. Despite the temporary reduction in Government ODA spending, the UK is the third highest spender of ODA in the G7 as a percentage of gross national income. We spent more than £11 billion in aid in 2021. In recognition of the significant unanticipated costs incurred in supporting people from Ukraine and Afghanistan, the Government are spending an additional £1 billion in 2022-23, and £1.5 billion this year to help meet the costs of hosting refugees.

My cogs are whirring pretty slowly this morning. The Minister said that £300 million was going to east Africa. Is that for humanitarian aid? I know that British International Investment is investing capital money in Kenya, so I hope that he is talking about humanitarian aid, not the general aid going to the region.

The hon. Lady asks a very good question. The breakdown of our commitment to east Africa will be announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for development and Africa. As she would expect, I will not pre-empt his announcement, but he will make that clear at the pledging conference on 24 May, which will be of great interest to her. We will also use that event to focus on how we break the cycle of crises affecting the region.

East Africa contains some of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, as has been eloquently described this morning, but they receive a tiny proportion of global climate finance, which could deliver the adaptation they need to build long-term resilience. We want to change that, so that countries can withstand the increasing challenges that climate change brings. Alongside that, we will meet our global pledge to commit up to £11.6 billion of UK climate finance between 2021 and 2026. The UK is also working with the UN and its members to ensure that response operations are as effective and efficient as possible.

The severity of the crisis is very clear. It has been eloquently described this morning, and the situation is at risk of getting worse. The Government understand that, and we are focused on it in the Department. Our humanitarian support to east Africa is providing millions of people with essential services, and we will continue to work with partners to save lives and build resilience for the future. While the current context is bleak, the UK is committed to addressing the long-term drivers of vulnerability and suffering, so that communities across east Africa can realise their potential and reap the benefits of stability and development.

I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. It has been incredibly encouraging to hear cross-party consensus on the action that needs to be taken. I will not list everyone who spoke, because the Minister just did that, but I am extremely grateful for both the interventions and the speeches that have been made.

I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) on her appointment as the SNP’s international development spokesperson, a role that I held from 2015 to 2017. As she says, it never really leaves you, which is one of the reasons why we are here today.

A few key themes emerge from the debate, which I hope the Minister will continue to reflect on. The first is the action that is needed at the pledging conference, which has to include an upscaling of the aid that has been committed. That means that there has to be a move away from spending ODA money in the United Kingdom. Of course refugees and asylum seekers who arrive here need to be supported, but that should not be at the expense of our response to the poorest and most vulnerable people elsewhere in the world. The importance of focusing on women and girls, who are otherwise left eating less, eating last and eating the least nutritious food, came through very clearly as well.

The whole crisis in east Africa was completely avoidable and totally preventable. There is a need for resilience for the future, and this debate has drawn attention to the current situation. We must continue to keep this issue at the front of the Government and wider public’s mind. We hear from constituents about it, and the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) is absolutely right to say that we have to rebuild the consensus that existed in 2005.

I note that the Chamber is filling up for the next debate, which is to be led by the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and is on universal infant free school meals. Imagine if free school meals were truly universal—for every single child on this planet, not just in this country. If it is good enough for children in this country, it should be good enough for children in every single country in the world. That really would bring about an end to food insecurity, and it would provide a more stable basis for future development. I wish Members taking part in that debate all the best, and I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this one.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered hunger in the East and Horn of Africa.

Universal Infant Free School Meals

I beg to move,

That this House has considered universal infant free school meals.

It is good to see you in the headteacher’s chair, Mr Gray. In my time in the House, I have seen many innovative ways of speaking in a debate, but the mover of one debate speaking on the following one, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has just done, is a new one, even on me.

There are lots of debates around on universal infant free school meals, and lots of things that could be meant by that phrase. A number of the briefings I have been sent ahead of today’s debate back up that view. There is the campaign being pushed by Jamie Oliver and others on extending the free school meal entitlement to all children. There is the ongoing debate on school holiday food for those eligible for free school meals during term time. On that issue, I want to recognise how responsive and welcome Ministers have been, getting help to my constituents where it is most needed. I place on the record my thanks to them for that.

Today’s debate, however, is not about either of those areas, important though they are. I want to focus on the pressure being felt by headteachers across my constituency, and, I am sure, elsewhere, when it comes to meeting the cost of what is supposed to be a universal entitlement to free school meals for infant-aged children. Put simply, there is a gap between the funding received and the cost of putting good-quality food on the school table. There is an inevitable impact on school budgets, which make up the shortfall. Heads began to raise that issue with me late last year. We will come on to some figures for Winchester in a moment.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue this forward. He is absolutely right. There is pressure on headmasters. There is pressure coming from parents, who are having difficulty providing meals for their children at school, and school uniforms. On support for parents, including through the universal provision of school meals, does he agree that the least we could do for all those working parents who are struggling to make ends meet is to help them, and help headmasters as well?

Yes, headmasters and headmistresses are in a very difficult position; I will quote some of them shortly.

Representatives of UK wholesalers have contacted me to express concern about the fact that because of food inflation, rising energy bills and increased labour costs, they are fulfilling their public sector food contracts, but at a loss. I think there was broad welcome for the Government’s recent decision to increase the funding for universal infant free school meals by 7p per pupil, but that rise remains well behind the rise in food inflation, which is running at 20% for wholesalers, according to the Federation of Wholesale Distributors.

I thank my hon. Friend for supporting my recent campaign to increase funding for school breakfast clubs for infants. Will he continue to support that campaign? Does he agree that school breakfast clubs effectively complement the provision of school lunches, which he so confidently and eloquently campaigns for?

Yes. School food is important. My good friend, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, is here. When I was the public health Minister, I worked with Kellogg’s on school breakfast clubs and the breakfast club awards that it runs so successfully in our country. I am sorry that the campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) did not bear fruit in this Budget, but I know he will not give up, and I shall work alongside him. As Chair of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care and a constituency MP, I am interested in this issue, as well as in wider prevention work. Healthy, well-fed children learn well.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I chair the APPG on school food. He makes the point that the money given for infant free school meals has not kept pace with inflation. Public sector caterers are really struggling to continue to provide the high-quality meals that we all want provided. If funding had risen with inflation since 2014, the amount per meal would stand at £2.97; it is currently only £2.41, as the hon. Gentleman knows. By my maths, that is a 19% shortfall—£150 per year, per child. The Government are yet again asking schools to do more with less. Does he agree that school meal funding needs to be made fit for the future?

That is the point of today’s debate. I will supplement the figures that the hon. Lady gave in one moment. We have slightly digressed, and now we are back on subject. I am told that the impact of food inflation has already resulted in some pupils being forced to accept smaller lunches with potentially lower nutritional value, and in some cases schools have opted to offer only packed lunches because of the cost of the energy needed to produce lunches. Some wholesalers have reported that they are reducing portion sizes; thinner sliced ham in baguettes and reduced meat content in sausages are two examples. That should worry all of us.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making such significant points on this issue. As somebody who used to receive free school meals, and coming from a constituency where a high number of children receive free school meals, I really understand the importance of a good-quality meal. Does he agree that the Government must really look at all avenues to try to avert this serious shortfall in covering the price of school meals?

Yes, and I will come on to my asks. One that I was not going to cover, but will, is the discrepancy between the amount we pay for the universal infant entitlement and the amount we pay for those who are entitled to free school meals through circumstances. There is a curious difference. Why does the one meal rate one amount, and the other a different amount? I know that the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, certainly recognises that.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published its report on the costings of free school meals. I am not sure if the Minister saw its work, but it found that if the price per meal had risen with inflation since 2014, it would be £2.87 today. That is a few pence lower than the figure mentioned by the chair of the APPG, but it is clearly still a big jump from the current £2.41.

The Local Authority Caterers Association has in its membership over 300 local authorities, as well as contract caterers, catering managers, and kitchen and school staff, which means that some 80% of school food is provided by its members. It told me that without change, the future of the sector is, in its word, “bleak”. In March, it published its “If not now, when?” mission, which calls on the Government to reform school meal funding, address inflationary pressures, and commit to ongoing reviews that make adjustment for inflation. I echo that as my first ask this morning, and this is why: one school in my constituency—I will not name any of them, to respect their wishes—receives £2.41 per child, yet as of October last year, it pays £2.80 per child, per school meal, to the main provider in Hampshire. It told me that it had to subsidise meals with around £4,700 from the school budget between November 2022 and the end of the financial year, which has just passed.

Another small rural school in my constituency reported a total shortfall this financial year of £3,150. These do not sound like big figures, but the metric goes up: the bigger the school, the bigger the numbers. When there are very tight budgets—which, of course, they have—they can be tipped into a deficit situation.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this really important debate. Many of the points he makes are exactly the points that primary schools in my constituency of Twickenham raise with me regularly. Although we and they welcome the Mayor of London’s announcement that he will roll out free school meals to all primary children next year for a year only, there are grave concerns that that will not be funded properly. Some primary schools told me that they could find themselves £30,000 to £40,000 out of pocket if the meals are not funded properly, and the capital cost of expanding kitchens and dining areas is not met. Does he agree that although the policy change is welcome, it needs to be funded properly?

I do, and if I were a London MP, I would be very concerned about that. I can understand that the policy is electorally attractive on a leaflet, but unless it is funded, we could end up with the situation that I am describing, times some. As I said, the debate is not about widening entitlement to free school meals to all primary children, but the hon. Lady sets out a great danger.

On a point of clarification, I, too was worried about the funding and had read the same information as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), so I asked to meet the Mayor of London’s team, who will be taking the programme forward. They assured me that although a sum of money has been assigned—a proposed £2.65 a meal—the funding will be found and will be sustainable. They are aware of the concerns, but—

We can go down this rabbit hole. The funding can be found up front, as it was for the free bus pass entitlement, but it can then tail away. It is a matter of whether it is sustained, as the hon. Member mentioned; that is the key point.

I have two other examples. A Winchester city centre school contacted me predicting a shortfall of about £4,000 in the financial year that we have just entered. A larger infant school told me of an £11,000 deficit on school meals last year. The head told me:

“This is having a significant impact on an already very pressured budget; we have an in-year deficit of around £25,000 this year and nearly half of that is caused by the infant school meals offer.”

That is not easy listening, but these are real figures from real schools and real headteachers in my patch.

To conclude the examples, one headteacher put it to me:

“My point is that Universal Free School Meals are not free. Parents believe they are. Therefore, quite rightly they opt for their children to have school meals. I know of schools who are now writing to their parents explaining the situation and asking them for a donation to cover the cost of their child’s meal. Personally, I do not want to be forced down this route. If the meals are advertised as free, then they should be free (there’s a clue in the name!).”

She concludes:

“When this Government policy came in, it was not meant to have a financial impact on schools and, indeed, it means that schools like ours will be forced to set a deficit budget and hence make staffing cuts.”

There is perhaps hope in the story. It is only right to report that, during my research for the debate, I heard from one school in my area—I do not doubt that there could be others—that is taking matters into its own hands and moving away from Hampshire County Council Catering Services, or H3CS, which is the main provider of food to Hampshire’s schools.

One school told me that it had made the switch to another provider where meals are

“better quality, with wider choice, and at a reasonable price for families.”

It tells me that the food is seasonal and locally and sustainably sourced, with zero single-use plastic. As MPs, we all know that when we go into our schools, the No. 1 issue that children want to talk to us about is plastics, the environment and sustainability, so it ticks lots of boxes. Yet 82% of Hampshire’s schools—mostly primary schools—use H3CS, despite support being available to move providers if that is what they want.

For some schoolchildren, the school meal will be their only hot meal that day. It might be their only meal that day. We know that the provision of good-quality food is key to pupils’ wellbeing and ensuring that they can fully engage in teaching and learning. We also know that school budgets are under pressure, but I hope that the Minister recognises from the examples I have given that there is an issue.

We must ensure that the provision of a good-quality meal does not need to be subsidised by funds intended to support core education. It is therefore essential that the rate is adjusted to reflect rising costs. Will the Minister update the House on that? Will he also update me on any moves afoot to reform school meal funding and simplify the equitable flow of money from Government to school kitchen? Lastly, what can the Government do to promote a more diverse, competitive marketplace in school food? What support does the Department provide to local authorities, and therefore headteachers, to make it easy for schools to switch when they deem a change is to the advantage of their setting?

I am grateful to those who contacted me ahead of the debate, especially the headteachers in Winchester and Chandler’s Ford. This aspect of school food is not much discussed in the House—I have not taken part in a debate on the issue, and I have been here for almost 13 years—so I am pleased to raise some of the issues brought to me through my constituency casework. I thank colleagues for their interventions and look forward to hearing from my good friend the excellent Schools Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your beady eye, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important but short debate on school food. We can all agree on the importance of ensuring that children in school are given the best opportunities to succeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak), in an intervention, raised the issue of school breakfasts. The Government are committed to continuing to support school breakfasts. In November last year we extended the national school breakfast programme for an additional year. Overall, we are investing up to £30 million in that programme, which will support up to 2,500 schools in disadvantaged areas, meaning that thousands of children from low-income families will be offered free, nutritious breakfasts to better support their attainment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester also raised the issue of the holiday activities and food programme. This year, the Government are again investing over £200 million in that programme, with all 152 local authorities in England delivering it. Last summer, the programme reached over 685,000 children and young people in England.

The Government support the provision of food in schools so that pupils are well nourished, develop healthy eating habits and can concentrate and learn. The universal infant free school meal policy, introduced by a Conservative- led Government in 2014, is a vital component of that provision.

I hope the Minister will recognise that that was a Liberal Democrat policy? It was a flagship policy introduced by the coalition, and we were very proud of it. However, since 2014, as we have heard, the funding for that policy has only risen by 11p, which is why we have the yawning gap that Members have pointed out today. Will the Minister put on record that schools should not be forced to choose between cutting and scrimping on teaching budgets—and other budgets that benefit children—and eroding food standards?

Of course, I acknowledge the Liberal Democrats—that is why I said Conservative-led Government. It was a policy of both parties; we believed in it very strongly and we made sacrifices elsewhere in budgets in order to fund it. I acknowledge that it was a coalition Government—a coalition policy—that led to the introduction of universal infant free school meals, which we have maintained ever since.

We recognise the cost pressures that schools and suppliers are facing. Officials are holding regular meetings with other Government Departments and representatives of the food industry to discuss a variety of issues, including public sector food supply. I take this opportunity to thank the companies and organisations that my officials have spoken to for the constructive steps they have taken to deliver services to our schools.

Schools manage their own contracts using Government funding to procure services from private sector caterers or local authorities. Particular pressures have arisen as a result of food price inflation, which has risen higher and faster than the headline consumer prices index rate.

I think everybody in the debate understands the importance of children being well fed in order to learn well, but seven out of 10 families on universal credit are still not receiving free school meals. Given the very strong public support—over 80% of the public support free school meals for children in households receiving universal credit—is it not time to look at that specific group? As the Minister said, food inflation is so high that family budgets have been stretched very thin.

One reason why the number of children eligible for benefits-related free school meals has risen from 1.7 million to 1.9 million is the protections we put in place as families move on to universal credit.

I know that, along with transport costs, increased staff costs have also affected the industry, primarily linked to rises in the national minimum wage. We continue to review funding in order to ensure that schools can provide healthy and nutritious meals.

This is a very serious point that affects children across our constituencies. The Minister says that the Government are reviewing it, but how long it will take for them to do so and when we will get some of the decisions we seek?

Of course, we keep all the issues under review and continually look at school funding. We look at the composition of the national funding formula in great detail every year; we are doing so now for the following year.

The funding for the free school meal factor in the national funding formula is increasing by 2.4% for 2023-24 in line with the latest available GDP deflator forecast when the 2023-24 national funding formula was published in July of last year. As a result of the significant extra school funding awarded by the Chancellor in the autumn statement, schools will receive an additional £2 billion in each of the ’23-24 and ’24-25 academic years.

The core schools budget, which covers schools’ day-to-day running costs, including their energy bills and the costs of providing income-related free school meals, rose from £49.8 billion in ’21-22 to £53.8 billion the year after, and will continue to rise to £57.3 billion in ’23-24 and £58.8 billion in ’24-25. By ’24-25, funding per pupil will have risen to its highest ever level in real terms. Those increases provide support to schools to deal with the impact of inflation on their budgets.

We spend about £600 million a year ensuring that an additional 1.25 million infants enjoy a free, healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime. Combined with around 1.9 million pupils who are eligible for and claim a meal through benefits-related free school meals, this accounts for more than one third of all pupils in school, compared with 2010, when one sixth of pupils were eligible for free school meals. The Government also support a further 90,000 disadvantaged further education students with a free meal at lunchtime.

All children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England’s state-funded schools receive a free meal, and have done since the introduction of the policy in 2014. Schools up and down the country offer free meals to their infant pupils, helping to improve children’s education, boost their health and save parents around £400 a year. Universal infant free school meals are funded through a direct grant to schools. To recognise the pressures facing schools, last June we announced an £18 million increase to the per-pupil funding rate for universal infant free school meals to support costs of food, transport and staff wages. That increased rate was backdated to April in recognition of those costs.

We understand the issues that are being raised and acknowledge that factors such as transport costs and the cost of living wage affecting catering workers are having an impact on the amount that can be spent on infant meals in schools. The Government take on board the comments regarding a discrepancy between the funding rate attributed to universal infant free school meals when compared to the rate provided for those pupils in receipt of benefits-related free school meals. The rate of funding for UIFSM is regularly reviewed, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and all other hon. Members taking part in this debate that I am actively looking at this area. All school meals provided under universal infant free school meals are required to adhere to the school food standards, which require school caterers to serve healthy and nutritious food and drinks to ensure that children get the energy and nutrition that they need across the school day.

In recognition of cost pressures on core schools funding, including benefits-related free schools meals, we have already distributed additional funding through a schools supplementary grant. As a result, core schools funding for mainstream schools increased by £2.5 billion in the 2022-23 financial year, compared with the previous year.

It is right that individual schools determine their own budgets for meal provision by taking into account funding received centrally alongside funding for meals paid for by parents. We expect schools to enter into supply contracts accordingly. While the Government set the legal requirements for food provision and standards, we do not set the contract price, which is subject to agreement between schools and the suppliers.

The Minister mentioned the importance of those meals being healthy, and that is a key factor in UIFSM. It is not just about alleviating food poverty, but about removing the stigma. On the health point, the four London boroughs that have extended school meals to all primary children have found that obesity rates have fallen by 9.3% in reception children, and 5.6% in year 6 children. Pockets of bad practice on school food are few and far between, and we normally hear about good practice. The Minister will agree that school food is by far the healthiest option. Only 1% of packed lunches have been found to meet the school food standards.

I do not disagree with the hon. Member. Food standards and the regulations are very stringent, and we keep those regulations under review because I want to look at other issues within them. School food can also be used as a way of teaching children to adopt a healthy diet. The hon. Member made her point well.

I talked about schools being responsible for their contracts. Although we are clear that individual schools are responsible for their own budgets, we provide a free advice and guidance service for state schools, aiming to help them save money on existing contracts. The “get help buying for schools” service is made up of various resources to help schools buy goods and services efficiently and in compliance with all the regulations.

In conclusion, the provision of meals to infant pupils in school, and the wellbeing and nutrition of eligible pupils, are at the top of the Government’s priorities. We are monitoring the costs of schools and suppliers, and we have increased funds both directly through the amounts allocated for free school meals and via the universal infant free school meals grant, and indirectly by increasing core schools budgets. I understand and acknowledge the pressures that the industry is facing, and we will continue to take that into account when determining spending priorities.

I am confident that the offer we have in place through universal infant free school meals ensures that those children receive the best start to their time in school. It ensures that they can develop healthy eating habits at an early age, and that they can concentrate and learn. The offer also ensures that the Government continue to provide targeted support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most in need.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Affordable Homes Programme

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Affordable Homes Programme.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am so glad to have secured this important debate on the affordable homes programme, and I am immensely grateful to the House authorities for granting it.

Affordable housing is one of the most depressing and urgent issues facing the good people of Slough and communities across our country. Rarely does an advice surgery go by without a constituent raising concerns about their dire housing situation. Although I commend the bold ambitions of the affordable homes programme, which aims to build 180,000 new homes outside London by March 2026, it is clear that when it comes to delivering on housing the Government continue to fall far short of the mark. The reality is that we face an affordable housing crisis. The basic promise made to each generation that if they work hard they can one day own their own home has been broken.

I speak to young people in their 20s and 30s, often with children, who tell me the same thing: they have as much chance of settling on the moon as they have of buying a home in Slough. This week the estate agent’s window shows a four-bedroom house in Slough for £750,000, a two-bedroom bungalow for £525,000 and a one-bedroom flat for £300,000. Even with an elusive 5% deposit mortgage, those prices are way beyond the reach of shopkeepers, teachers, nurses, home care assistants, police officers, firefighters and even junior doctors.

Since the Conservatives came to power about 13 years ago, 800,000 fewer households under 45 own their home, and 1 million more people are renting—so much for the “property-owning democracy”. The answer would be a renewed social rented sector, but the number of truly affordable homes being built has fallen by 80%. The system is broken and the Conservative Government are doing next to nothing to fix it.

We are all aware of the housing crisis that Britain faces, but I am pleased we have a Labour-led council in Manchester that understands the problem and has set out a plan to build at least 10,000 affordable homes across our city in the next decade, with more than 1,000 affordable homes and 250 new council houses in the coming year. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Tory Government in Westminster are failing to match the vision of Labour councils to tackle the housing crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I commend Manchester City Council, the Mayor of Greater Manchester—my good friend Andy Burnham—and others who have made sure that councillors and Members of Parliament have come together to have that ambitious house building programme, but it seems the Government are asleep at the wheel. They have made bold statements, but are not following through. I am sure it has nothing to do with the fact that one in four Tory MPs are private landlords.

The much respected organisation Shelter reports that there are 1.4 million fewer households in social housing than there were in 1980. Combined with excessive house prices making homes unaffordable, demand has been shunted into the private rental sector, where supply has been too slow to meet need. That means above-inflation increases in rents, especially in the south of England and in places such as Slough.

On the affordable homes programme, the National Audit Office reports that there is a 32,000 shortfall in the Government’s original targets for building affordable homes. It goes on to say that there is a “high risk” of failing to meet targets on supported homes and homes in rural areas. Ministers’ targets will be confounded by double-digit inflation, soaring costs of materials and supply disruption, yet the Government seem to have no clue how to mitigate those factors. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us today. As the NAO report outlines, the issue is not just the number of homes, and I share the NAO’s concerns that there is also a lack of focus on the quality, size and environmental standards of the new homes. Perhaps the Minister will also be able to provide some reassurance on those important points.

The NAO is not the only one with concerns about the delivery of the programme. I am pleased that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), is here for the debate, and I am sure she will attest to the fact that in December the Committee’s report outlined that the Minister’s Department

“does not seem to have a grasp on the considerable risks to achieving even this lower number of homes, including construction costs inflation running at 15-30% in and around London.”

Exactly when will the revisions to the 2021 plan be published, as recommended and agreed by the Minister’s Department?

The fact is that we need a renewed national effort to fix the housing market and fulfil the promise of owning one’s own home to the next generation. That national effort may well have to wait for the election of a Labour Government, which will have a target of 70% home ownership.

I thank my hon. Friend for this important debate. Under the leadership of Ian Ward, Birmingham has committed to having 60,000 additional houses, but unfortunately, as my hon. Friend says, cost rises mean that that will be difficult to achieve. Also, housing associations create traps for people in my community, who are unable to afford to buy their properties or to have their children take them over. That is not the way forward; we need councils to be properly resourced to build the houses.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I commend the work of Councillor Ian Ward, whom I met recently. During my recent visit to Birmingham, I was able to meet council members, who spoke about their hopes and aspirations, but also to the constraints on them given limited resources from Government—indeed, they alluded to the high inflation they now have to contend with.

People sometimes say, “How can there be a housing crisis when there are cranes on our skylines and new houses and flats going up all over?” But those homes are rarely affordable and are often snapped up by investors off plan. Many remain empty—an investment by overseas property tycoons. That leaves hollowed-out communities with flats but no residents. That is why I am so glad that the Labour party has pledged to close the loopholes developers exploit to avoid building more affordable housing and give first-time buyers first dibs on new developments. I very much hope to hear more about those exciting plans from the Labour party spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), later in the debate.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. It is not just Labour councils but Conservative-controlled councils that give land to the developers. There is one development on Broadway where the average house costs £800,000, which is way beyond the reach of most of my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as putting targets on developers, we must give housing associations the freedom to build houses? We see people at our surgeries crying out for homes. We must look at the need and then give housing associations the freedom to build those houses.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The experiences she has at her advice surgeries talking to her constituents chime neatly with what I am being told. Yes, we must empower housing associations and others to build homes. The focus especially on building council homes is incredibly important, because that is where we as a nation are failing. There is huge demand for council housing in particular, not just in Walsall but in my constituency, but there is just not the supply to go around. That must urgently be looked at. Those targets are being missed.

I hope that Labour will end the scandalous practice of foreign buyers purchasing swathes of new housing developments off plan before local people can even see them. We will strengthen the rights of tenants with a new private renters charter. Only a generation ago a couple in work could aspire to get on the property ladder, to eventually pay off their mortgage and to give their children a helping hand. Today, that dream is out of reach for millions thanks to the utter failure of this Government. The Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), is the 15th since the Tories came to power and the sixth to hold the post in the past 12 months alone. What hope do ordinary people have with such chaos at the very heart of Government?

Labour will build the homes that people need. We will take steps to meet demand in the decades to come and we must also boost social housing, as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). That is how a Labour Government will fix Britain’s broken housing market for people in Slough and across our nation.

If the Government cannot, or will not, commit to matching Labour’s focus on this vital issue, if they cannot deliver genuinely affordable homes and if they continue to let this programme fall even further behind, they should just admit that they have given up trying to help the millions struggling with housing across our country.

I commend my hon. Friend on his speech on this really important issue. Does he agree that language is very important and that the word “affordable” suggests something that people on a normal income could afford? However, we all know that the word “affordable” in housing circles actually means 80% of market rent, which is unaffordable for most people. In some of the constituencies represented by Members present, that is unaffordable even for the Member themselves.

I thank my hon. Friend for that very valid point. It is one that many of us have been making for years. Definitions are incredibly important. What is affordable to one person is unaffordable to another. That is why a laser-like focus, on social housing in particular, is incredibly important; many people cannot afford to get into the private rented sector, let alone buy their own home. I fully agree with my hon. Friend.

The Government must act urgently. If they cannot, perhaps they should step aside for those of us who want to, and can, deliver the transformative changes needed to guarantee that home ownership once again becomes a reality for all generations.

The debate can last until 4 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 3.37 pm, and the guidelines are that the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister should have 10 minutes each. The mover of the motion will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. Until 3.37 pm, which is just under an hour away, we are in Back-Bench time. I am confident that everyone will get in if no one speaks for too long.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this debate.

Britain’s housing market is broken. Renters have been priced out of the cities they have called home for their entire lives. Young people cannot get a foot on the ladder, and most of the homes that are built are unaffordable. Research by Crisis and the National Housing Federation found that, over the next decade, 145,000 affordable homes must be built each year, with 90,000 of those for social rent, if we are going to meet housing needs in England alone. The truth is that we are nowhere near meeting the overwhelming need that already exists. With only 13% of homes built between 2021 and 2022 designated for social rent, it is clear that the Government are not taking this crisis seriously. The scale of the challenge ahead is monumental, and Ministers have their heads in the sand, hoping it will all just go away.

Let me demonstrate the problem to the Minister, using statistics from my constituency, which has been badly affected. The statistics clearly outline how the housing crisis in this country has spiralled out of control over the past 13 years. In Coventry, the number of new social housing lettings has fallen by more than a third over the past decade. Looking at the most recent figures, 1,939 of the new social housing lettings were in the most affordable category, down from over 4,000 10 years ago. We have nearly 6,000 households stuck on the waiting list, chasing the handful of homes that ever become available.

Behind those numbers are the lives of thousands of constituents whose futures are being robbed from them by a lack of decent housing. I want to give three examples of constituents who have been affected. The first has four sons, who are cramped into one bedroom, denied any privacy or space to revise for next month’s exams. The lack of any ground-floor flats has left the second constituent, crippled from a lifetime of hard physical labour, sleeping on his sofa and doing his washing in the sink. My third constituent is a cancer patient who needs round-the-clock care but who is trapped in a tiny bedsit up a flight of stairs he can barely climb, with no facilities for anyone to stay with him overnight and nowhere to move.

What more evidence do the Government need to accept the scale of the housing crisis that has grown and grown since they came into power? Change is overdue. The inaction of Ministers has left us gripped by a planning and development free-for-all where developers hold all the power. They decide which type of homes are built, where they are built and the prices they are sold for. They are accountable to absolutely nobody—not residents, not local councils and not even the Government in Westminster. Even as we speak, thousands of Coventry families are being denied a modest social home, while historic hedgerows and badger setts are being torn out in Keresley by developers constructing half-a-million-pound executive mansions, which are irrelevant to local need and built solely for private profit.

The big picture is really bad. The specifics of the planning system, however, are even worse. Take housing targets. Coventry has long been singled out for unfair treatment by this Government, who demand that more and more houses be built every year but do nothing to ensure there is enough social housing for those in need. For years, Whitehall ignored Coventry’s residents and councillors, who said time and again that the projections were wrong. Time and again our concerns were cast aside, with Ministers simply too gutless to order an investigation that might uncover an inconvenient truth. Tacked on to this is the 35% uplift—a further inflation of figures that bear no relation to the lack of brownfield sites in our city or the housing mix Coventry residents need.

Thanks to the census, the facts are now clear. The Government’s population estimates were wrong by a massive 30,000 people, rendering the plans drawn up as a result of those figures virtually worthless. Now our councillors are left having to revise the local plan to make up for the unforgivable errors of Ministers—errors that the council reported long ago and that were ignored by those in Westminster, despite the fact I raised the issue on several occasions with the Minister’s predecessor.

As it stands, the planning system is a shambles. A complete overhaul is desperately needed, with local communities and local government in the driving seat. That way, they can set the direction of travel for new developments in their neighbourhood, delivering affordable homes for families exactly where they are needed. The housing crisis will only get worse unless the Government reform planning and deliver for the needs of people up and down the country. I hope the Minister will outline what steps the Government are taking to achieve that reform.

I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing such a vital debate on affordable housing. I echo a point made by Members across the Chamber. My definition of affordable housing, and certainly that of my constituents, is somewhat different from the Government’s definition of 80% of market rents. That is certainly not affordable for people in many cities, including those in the south-east, London, Birmingham and Manchester, or for people in parts of my constituency. It is beyond the reach of far too many people. All we have to do is look at the evidence, with 1.2 million people and rising on the housing need register and the 300,000 children referenced by the National Housing Federation living in cramped accommodation, sharing beds with siblings. It is simply not good enough. It demonstrates that the housing crisis is one of affordability up and down the country.

I could also refer to the pitiful number of homes—7,400—built for social rent last year. When we take into account those lost through right to buy and demolition, we see that the actual figure for last year was minus 14,000. If we map every year over the last 13 years, we see that the average net loss is about 12,000 homes, which is simply not good enough.

The evidence from the National Housing Federation and Shelter, which was referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), shows that about 90,000 homes for social rent should be built every year over a decade. How could the Government fund that? They could reconfigure the affordable homes programme of £11.4 billion and stop much of the £23 billion of housing benefit going to substandard housing, as evidenced in a City Hall report last year.

I want to focus on a particular development in the Weaver Vale patch that could be completed if a Government Minister were to intervene. Homes England is involved in the development. A number of developments are taking place across Weaver Vale in Helsby, Sandymoor and Hartford, which will result in more than 1,000 properties being built. A number of them will be built through section 106 in terms of housing associations. The properties are probably three-quarters completed, but they are now subject to vandalism because Lane End Developments, which was based in Warrington, has gone into administration. The same is true of other market-led developers, given the downturn in the market and the fact that planning applications are down by 16%.

My plea to the Minister, who is currently rather busy on his mobile phone, is for him to intervene on the development. [Interruption.] Yes, thank you for taking notes. I have written to Homes England. The development would meet targets that the Government no longer seem to have, but it would also, importantly, ensure that constituents in my patch could fulfil their dreams and hopes. It would enable some to get on to the property ladder, some to go into shared ownership, and others to get homes under the current definition of affordable rent. Of course, what we need is 90,000 houses a year and a generation of social housing. I look forward to the day when we have a Labour Government who can realise that ambition.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this vital debate. He highlighted that the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have looked into this issue. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and declare that I am the landlord of a property in the private rented sector.

Affordable housing is critical for my constituency. Many of my constituents live in very overcrowded conditions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) highlighted. Every week I am out on doorsteps, doing surgeries and visiting people where they live. There are many examples of four children sharing a bedroom, and of a family living in the living room and another in the bedroom. Families are experiencing severe overcrowding without any hope of moving out. I will touch on that in a moment. Too many people just cannot afford to rent in the private sector or to buy, given that rates are very high, and the Government have changed the definition of “affordable” repeatedly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) highlighted. Crucially, we are just not building enough housing.

The record of the affordable homes programme speaks for itself. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on whose behalf the Minister is here to answer, set out to deliver 180,000 homes in 2021. It has already downgraded that forecast to 157,000 homes, but half of them will be for ownership, not rent. I am not someone who wants to get in the way of home ownership, but it is not even a distant dream for those of my constituents for whom renting privately is not an option. They just need somewhere to live, so we need social housing in London. Of course, the impacts of inflation and construction challenges put the figure of 157,000 at even more risk. The Government’s original intention was to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. Some of them were to be affordable homes, but we have not been given a figure, so I want to delve into that.

Let us pick up on the issue of definitions. Perhaps the Minister could take away the thought that we are conflating or confusing a multiplicity of markets. We have the full ownership market, but we also have affordable home ownership and shared ownership, which poses challenges for many people because they are liable for the whole property but own only part of the equity and pay rent on the rest. The term “affordable” was defined by the previous Mayor of London and former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), as 80% of private rents. Well, good luck with that in Hackney, where it is simply unaffordable for many people.

There are various definitions for key worker housing, depending on where the development is—the term is very ill defined in law and regulation. At least social rented housing has a rent escalator model set out in law, so tenants have an idea of what they will be paying. That has, of course, been capped because of inflation rates. I welcome that for residents, but it does also create a problem for properties in desperate need of investment. There is also, of course, the private rented sector. Although it has been subject to more regulation, there is nothing about the level of rent and it does not have anything like a rent escalator model. That means that tenants can find their rent going up exponentially after spending only a year in their home. We are increasingly seeing that across the piece in my constituency and throughout London.

Social housing is critical. There are people in Hackney who work hard in good jobs, such as the hospital porter I visited, who is renting a room in a private home. He was living with his daughter, and they rented a room each in a private home. When the private landlady put up the rent from £400 to £550 a month for each room, they could no longer afford to rent two rooms, so he was living with his then 17-year-old daughter—she is now nearly 20—in one private room, because he could not qualify for social housing. As he was not homeless, he would not even get into temporary housing—not that that is a pathway people want to go down.

Five years ago, if people had been in temporary housing for six months I would encourage them to hang on in there because a prized council or housing association property would eventually become available. It is now increasingly the case that people spend more than three years in temporary housing. Recently, a family I was dealing with were rehoused from Hackney to Wellingborough. There are other examples, with the excellent head of homelessness at Hackney Council, Jennifer Wynter, saying that this is the worst situation she has known in her long career, and warning all of us not to raise people’s hopes that a home in Hackney will be a real possibility.

The Department’s own figures show that homes built for social rent provide higher value for money than those built for ownership. This thoughtful Minister used to be a member of the Public Accounts Committee. If he looked at the figures, I think that he, along with the Secretary of State, could be an advocate in his Department for social renting housing. The problem is that the Government, who are not meeting their targets, are chasing numbers, which means fewer social rented properties for the money. We want to see more homes, but we need social rented housing, and it is no good building homes that people just cannot afford to live in. We have a sore need for such properties, yet the Government rejected the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendation to assess the demand for social rent.

Sometimes the Government also respond to reports in a confusing way. A recommendation report notes:

“The government will work with delivery agencies to confirm the 2021 programme’s capacity to deliver homes for Social Rent as part of the review”

of the delivery of housing, and that they

“will confirm the programme’s ability to deliver an increased proportion of homes for social rent to Parliament at the same time as confirming the programme’s overall delivery targets.”

I could read that in all sorts of ways. I like to read it positively, as saying that the Department is determined to see an increased proportion of social rented housing. I hope the Minister can clarify exactly what the Government mean in that response.

It is worth putting the challenge in Hackney in context. I make no apology for repeating these figures. There are currently 3,100 households in temporary accommodation, 51% of which—more than half—are housed outside the borough due to a lack of supply. There are 3,528 children in temporary accommodation. That is enough to fill eight primary schools and is equivalent to 1% of Hackney’s population. We are having to close primary schools because of falling numbers. Many of those families would love to send their children to school in Hackney, but they cannot live there because there are not enough permanent homes. I have had so many tragic conversations with constituents in my surgeries or the living rooms of their temporary accommodation. They think that if they hang on, they will get a property in Hackney, where their kids are still at school, but I have to say to them, “You are not going to be in Hackney for some years. You have a five-year tenancy somewhere else so you need to think about moving your children.” They are aghast and upset, but that is the reality. Children are being shuttled around to schools where there are places; they are not going to schools their parents choose.

Average waiting times for council and housing association housing for homeless households is now nine years for a three-bedroom property—of course, that is a notional figure—and 12 years for a two-bedroom property. That is a lifetime for a child. Children are growing up in massively overcrowded conditions. They often live in a single room in accommodation or, if they are lucky, a couple of rooms in a hotel. Sometimes, they are in temporary, rented accommodation elsewhere, but with no certainty and, even if their parents are bidding for properties, no real prospect of getting a home anywhere near any time soon.

Homelessness in the borough is increasing rapidly. The number of households seeking support increased by 44% between 2017-18 and 2021-22. Hackney Council anticipates that the number will continue to increase by about 8% a year. That is just one London borough, but I am sure my colleagues across London will say the same. It was interesting to hear that in Coventry the experiences are very similar. In Hackney, that would be considered cheap housing, compared with what we have to deal with.

I pay tribute to the Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, who is doing his utmost to build council housing—affordable, secure homes—but for pretty much every one he builds, he has to have one for sale to cross-subsidise because there is not a Government subsidy, despite the Government’s own figures showing that investment in bricks-and-mortar subsidy is the most cost-effective way of delivering these homes.

I am sure the Minister is thoughtful enough to take on board the cost of poor housing to the Exchequer. The Public Accounts Committee looked at the private rented sector. In my constituency, ownership is out of reach for so many people—average house prices are at ridiculous levels—so people are living in the private rented sector. The National Audit Office concluded that 13% of privately rented properties—589,000 of them—pose a serious threat to their tenants’ health and safety. The Committee and the National Audit Office estimated the cost of that to the health service to be £340 million per annum, so it really is spend to save. I know it is difficult for any Department to sell that to the Treasury, but I am sure that if the Minister wanted to join forces with us on this issue, we could all work together to persuade the Treasury that spending money, investing in people’s homes and getting them on a stable footing is better for everybody.

This is not rocket science. We need more homes to be built, and we need to unblock the logjam that is stopping that. We do not have the time to go into all the reasons for that, but we need more social housing that is actually affordable for people on average wages—people who work hard every day but have no prospect of buying a home. Some even find it hard to afford council rent. There are issues there, but we certainly need council rented housing and housing association housing. We need pathways to home ownership, but every time someone buys under right to buy, that is another home lost to the local council or the housing association, and that is not a path that many people can pursue.

Many years ago, when I was a councillor in Islington, we would pay people about £16,000 to move from their council property to help them buy a property elsewhere, so they freed it up. That is actually good value for money. Who would have thought that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee would be standing here saying, “Give tenants who want to move the money to do so”? Sure, home ownership is understandably a dream for many people, but it should not be a dream that is out of reach. We could free up the housing we have for those who have the wherewithal and ability to move into other homes.

We need better rights and stability for private tenants. People live in a home with a year’s tenancy, perhaps, but cannot be sure from year to year whether their children can stay at the same school. It is an upheaval in a family’s life. Now, increasingly, as people are evicted, rents are going through the roof, as many landlords exit the market. In summary, I believe firmly—I hope that the Minister concurs and will tell us how he will help to achieve this—that people need a safe, secure and long-term home as the foundation for their life and, crucially, the springboard for opportunity.

There is a consequence to not building homes other than the numbers, and that is families living in temporary accommodation. That currently costs the UK taxpayer £1.6 billion a year. I do not know about other hon. Members in this Chamber, but I can think of a lot better ways to spend £1.6 billion.

I stand to speak out of desperation from what I see every single Friday at my advice surgery. I represent half of the London borough of Merton, which is certainly not the London borough under the greatest pressure for housing or temporary accommodation, but since last April even Merton has seen a 41% increase in the numbers of people in temporary accommodation. The numbers are tiny in comparison with the 3,000 in Hackney, but our numbers have increased from 243 to 343 units.

Also, when we use the word “temporary”—as I said earlier, language is important—at the moment it means five years. By the time we get to the end of five years, it will mean 10 years, or maybe 15 or 20 years—we just do not know. There is simply no way out of this appalling struggle.

Currently, in England, 99,000 families—including 125,000 children—live in temporary accommodation. That is an increase of 71% between 2012 and 2018, and a further 41% between 2018 and 2022. I give hon. Members those figures so that they have some idea of the scale of the problem we are experiencing. In June 2022, 26,130 of those families were placed in a borough outside their home, taking their kids out of school, their families away from their support networks, and individuals from jobs and away from NHS facilities that they might desperately need.

Once we remove a desperate, vulnerable family from their environment, there are consequences for the children in school attainment and attendance, and all sorts of other things. I say without any pleasure at all that, in the statistics of child mortality between 2019 and 2022, 34 children’s deaths were seen as a direct consequence of their temporary accommodation. I am happy to take the Minister to the temporary accommodation that many of the families that I represent have to live in.

I will talk to the House about Mr and Mrs N. They live in a shed in the garden of a house in multiple occupation. They have the benefit of the fact that it is in Streatham, so only around the corner from my constituency. They have two rooms and four children. The smell in the bathroom is so appalling that, put simply, no one would want to enter it. And the ants are obvious, crawling across the floor. Last week, when we beseeched the homeless department to move them somewhere else, the only place that it had to offer was in Reading. That family chose their ant-infested home over having to be moved many miles away from where they had any support or help.

I give that example not because it is unique, but because it is absolutely appalling. Unless we do something, we will have more children die of damp and mould growth, and we will have more desperate families. We will pay for that not just in human lives but in taxpayers’ money well into the next century. It is time to do something now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate. He made an excellent speech, as did all the other speakers.

It might not be obvious why I am going to take my contribution in this direction, but I am going to outline a situation that developed recently in my constituency, which has a link to housing and should be aired publicly. Today I spoke to Councillor Michael Baird, who represents North, West and Central Sutherland, one of the biggest wards in the United Kingdom. It is 1,800 square miles—the size of three Greater Londons and 18 Edinburghs. It is vast.

Michael has outlined to me a harrowing situation. He and his fellow councillors have one facility for the elderly in the entire ward—in that vast area. It is called Caladh Sona and is in the tiny village of Talmine on the north coast of Scotland. It has six care beds and, at the moment, four residents. NHS Highland has announced that it will close the facility in 12 weeks, and the residents will be moved to the two nearest homes, one of which is in Thurso, 47 miles away, whereas the other—if they can get beds—is in Golspie, 62 miles away. I think about those old people being moved and about their families, their loved ones, trying to see them. It is a lot harder with distances such as that.

I think also about the remaining staff. They have been offered jobs somewhere else, but will have to move from their community or make long commutes, sometimes in pretty dreadful winter weather. This is happening because the home cannot get the staff needed to run it, and that is because—this is where I return to the agenda—there is not the housing. If a house comes on the market on the north coast of Sutherland, it is snapped up as a holiday home or becomes an Airbnb. It is so like what everyone else is saying. If we cannot get the carers, we are in real trouble.

To echo what everyone has said this afternoon, if young people’s families cannot get an affordable home, they will not live there, and that means that school rolls drop and we have that old, dark monster of depopulation, which we had for far too long—for hundreds of years in the highlands. People up sticks and away. They go to Canada, Australia and America and never come back. That is one reason why we have a diaspora of Scots all over the world.

What can we do about it? It is ironic that we have one of the greatest sources of renewable energy, that is, land-based wind farms, in my constituency. Some of the money that the wind farms make could help the local authority—the Highland Council—a housing association or whatever to buy properties when they come on the market. An old expression we used to use has already been referred to: key worker housing. That is the key. Even if they come up for only five days a week, if we can offer a carer somewhere to live that they can afford, we will go some way to looking after the old people. As the oldest member of my party in this place, I can remember when houses were being built in the 1960s in my hometown of Tain. They were going up and it was great. There was hope that people would be housed, but the situation is very different today.

I will conclude with what the hon. Member for Slough said: we need a renewed national effort. By goodness, we certainly do. I am aware that housing is devolved, but I am sure that Members who belong to the Scottish Government’s party would admit that there is a major problem, just as hon. Members have described this afternoon. There has to be a renewed national effort. It has to involve all the nations of the United Kingdom, and we have to get it going, because if we do not, we are going back to the bad old days of our past. That is something that we thought was dead, buried and gone forever, but it seems to have come back. Action has to be taken.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate and on the compelling speech with which he opened it. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for participating this afternoon and for a series of powerful speeches.

The debate has covered a range of concerns, many relating to the housing crisis more widely, but, on the specific matter of the affordable homes programme, most fell within two broad categories—namely, the performance of the programme over recent years and the more fundamental issues of its design and purpose. I want to address each of those in turn.

When it comes to the performance of the programme, there is clearly significant room for improvement. The comprehensive National Audit Office report on the operation of the AHP since 2015, which was published last year, details concerns on to a wide range of issues—including governance, transparency and oversight—many of which were echoed in a report published shortly afterwards by the Public Accounts Committee. I would be grateful if, as part of his response, the Minister could tell the House whether the Department has acted on the eight specific recommendations made by the NAO in its report, and could take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the steps that his Department committed to taking in its response to the PAC.

A particular criticism levelled at the programme by both the NAO and the PAC and referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough in opening the debate was the fact that targets were unlikely to be met. We know that, taken together, the 2016 and 2021 programmes are likely to miss their combined target by approximately 32,000 homes, with a shortfall of 9,000 starts under the 2016 programme compounded by a projected 23,000 shortfall in the current one. There is also a clear risk that the programme will fail to meet its sub-targets on supported accommodation and rural housing.

Opposition Members recognise that some of the factors undermining delivery on the targets are entirely out of the Government’s control, but there are others—such as local planning authority capacity and the need for funding and financing mechanisms to support providers in upgrading their stock—that the Government could take more proactive steps to mitigate. Might the Minister provide us with some assurance this afternoon that the Government are at least actively looking at what more can be done in that regard? Can he also explain whether and, if so, how rules about grant funding under the current programme might be being made more flexible—not least in terms of increased grant funding per unit—with a view to sustaining the Department’s central forecast of 157,000 completions in the face of inflationary pressure?

Lastly, when it comes to assessing the overall performance of the programme, effective scrutiny is still very much hampered by the absence of transparency and open reporting. The Department has now committed to providing an annual report to Parliament on programme delivery, but might the Minister go further today and commit at least to having Homes England publish its annual AHP targets, as the Greater London Authority has already done?

Let me turn to the design and purpose of the programme. One of the more damning conclusions of the NAO report was that the AHP lacks strong incentives for housing providers to deliver affordable homes in areas of high housing need and high affordability pressure. I would be grateful if the Minister could therefore update the House on how the Department is improving the way it works with local authorities to address local need, and tell us whether any further measures are being explored to ensure that more grant-funded affordable housing flows to areas of high need.

Providing more homes in such areas is, of course, not the only wider Government objective in respect of which the current programme is falling short. To me at least, it simply beggars belief that both the Department and Homes England did not include any specific targets relating to emissions reductions in the 2021 programme, with the result that outside London the Government are financing the construction of new affordable homes that in all likelihood we will have to retrofit in years to come.

The Government have committed to exploring the cost and deliverability of additional net zero requirements, but only in a successor to the 2021 programme.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting speech. Does he agree that every new home should have a solar panel fitted when it is built?

There is a strong case for that. It is an issue—one of many—that we are exploring in detail. The situation speaks to a wider failure, which is the abolition of the zero homes standard by, I think, the coalition Government. We built tens if not hundreds of thousands of homes over recent years that we will have to retrofit at great cost. The least we can do is change the criteria the programme operates on, so that at least we build net zero-ready homes for which we will not have to do that in years to come. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what precisely is stopping changes being made to the programme to ensure, as the Greater London Authority has done, that all new grant-funded homes are net zero carbon and air quality neutral.

Those issues aside, there is the more fundamental and important question of whether the programme provides the right kind of homes to meet affordable housing need in England. The answer of Labour Members is a categorical no. We believe it is a problem that the programme has constrained the overall amount of grant funding available for sub-market rented homes while also failing to deliver an increase in the supply of low-cost home ownership properties. We believe it is a problem that the Government’s decision to prioritise the so-called affordable rent tenure of up to 80% of local market rents has squeezed the amount of programme funding available for new homes for social rent and ballooned the number of households in temporary accommodation and on local housing waiting lists, as well as the housing benefit bill, as a result. Those are not technical design flaws; they reflect political choices about what a national affordable housing programme should aim to achieve and whether its primary purpose should be meeting the needs of people on the lowest incomes.

There is a clear difference of opinion between the Opposition and the Government on this matter. We believe the overriding purpose of a national affordable housing programme should be to provide as many genuinely affordable homes as possible, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch rightly argued. The Government believe, at least post-2018, that the purpose of such a programme is to provide—reluctantly —a small number of genuinely affordable social rented homes and a much larger number of sub-market rented and home ownership units that are branded as affordable, but, in practice, are anything but for many low-income households in swathes of the country. That is why—with the debasement of language we have seen in recent years in the concept of affordable housing—the Housing and Planning Minister could argue with a straight face in a debate that took place last week on the future of social housing that Conservative-led Governments since 2010 have outperformed the last Labour Government on affordable housing, despite the fact that the last Labour Government built over twice as many social homes as Conservative-led Governments since 2010 have managed, and that at no point over the past decade has annual social housing supply ever matched the levels delivered by the last Labour Government.

We want the performance of the affordable homes programme to improve between now and the general election, and I look forward to the Minister detailing the various ways in which the Government are attempting to achieve that. But as laudable an aim as fine-tuning the existing programme is, Labour is clear that a very different programme will be required in the future to markedly increase the supply of new net zero-ready, genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy, as is our aim. It is an aim based on a reassessment of the amount of grant funding directed toward sub-market rent and the building of social rented homes in particular; on a review of the scope of eligible sub-market products, not least the so-called affordable rent tenure; and on a reappraisal of whether there are better low-cost home ownership products than shared ownership.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions and thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for instigating the debate. We may have disagreements about the methods by which we ensure that people can enjoy the fruits of home ownership and have a roof over their heads, but I think we would all, collectively, irrespective of what side we are on in this Chamber, agree that it is absolutely vital to have a housing sector that supports those who need it and provides the platform for people to be able to aspire to move into home ownership. That has been the case for the past century, and it has been such a success within this country.

I start by acknowledging the underlining point made by a number of hon. and right hon. Members, which is that there are challenges at the moment, including those that have grown in the immediate term, such as inflation, the cost of construction and materials and labour challenges, which all create issues in ensuring that we can make progress on our shared objectives. If we are truthful, that is also set within the context—I am not seeking to make a particularly political point, as it has developed under successive Governments of all colours over the past 30 or 40 years—of the number of houses that are built in this country and, flowing from that, the number of people who can have access to them, and the number of people who can enjoy home ownership in general. I think we have made progress on that as a Government, but I know there is a keenness to go further in the years ahead.

The Government support ensuring that people have a place to live, a place to thrive, a place to grow and a place to bring up families, which, in many instances, will be through affordable housing and social rent, but we also inherently believe in the importance of home ownership as a moral end in itself, providing the ability for people to make choices, grow capital and pass assets on to their family over their lives. The comments in today’s debate have underscored the need for more homes of all tenures, whether to rent, to buy or to part buy, on the way, hopefully, to fully buying in time.

On the specifics of the affordable homes programme, the whole point of the programme, which has nearly £12 billion of taxpayer subsidy—we are taking money from people that they would otherwise be able to spend themselves—is that we recognise the importance of some of the points made in the debate. Launched in 2020, that nearly £12 billion support—£11.5 billion—represents a significant taxpayer subsidy for affordable housing and a clear commitment to delivering tens of thousands of homes for sale and rent throughout the country.

Social rent has been raised by a number of colleagues, and I will come to their specific points in the moment. We brought social rented homes into the scope of the affordable homes programme in 2018 and we affirmed our commitment to increasing the supply of social rented homes in the levelling-up White Paper, which was published last year, as well as to improving the quality of housing across the board, in both the private and rental sector. I will come on to that point in a moment, when I respond to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). We have changed the parameters for the affordable homes programme to support that commitment, which enables further increases in the share of social rental homes that we plan to deliver.

Furthermore, the affordable homes programme is committed to funding a mix of tenures, enabling developers to deliver mixed communities that will ensure that people can buy, part buy and rent where they need to. That is why we have kept a commitment to delivering homes for affordable rent, where rent is typically capped at 80% of the prevailing rate. Yet it is home ownership that we want people truly to benefit from, and we want people to benefit from it as much as is possible. We understand the difference that an increased sense of security can make to all aspects of someone’s life and the lives of their families. That is why home ownership is a fundamental part of the affordable homes programme and why there is a significant element of homes for shared ownership, which can help people staircase up.

The Minister said some warm words there about the need for social housing. In response to the Public Accounts Committee report, the Government indicated that local authorities would have more say over the mix of tenure in their area. In areas like mine, where the real need is for social rented housing, that requires more Government grant compared with areas where low-cost home ownership is genuinely an option. In Hackney, with the price as it is, home ownership will be very difficult to achieve. Can he flesh out how local authorities can deliver what they know is needed in their area and how Government grant will follow those decisions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. She is an assiduous follower of this issue. I know of all the fantastic work that she and her colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee do on this area and elsewhere. I fear I might not be able to give her an absolute answer, but I will try to provide as much information as I can. There is obviously a challenge, broader than the specifics of this debate, about the amount of money that the Government have; that is not particularly newsworthy. If I may make a tiny partisan point: the Labour party, if it ever gets into Government, will have to make more choices than Opposition spokesmen indicate when they respond to such debates. There will always be a challenge around how we prioritise funding, and what the trade-offs are to do that. The commitment from the Government is here, with the £12 billion contribution that has already been indicated for allocation.

When we come forward with further information about the affordable homes programme 2021-26, I hope we will be able to give greater clarity for those authorities that seek a particular mix of housing and to expand the number of affordable homes of whichever tenure. I also hope that some of the changes coming through in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will take effect, although that needs to complete its progress in the other place. We will have to see what the other place does to that Bill, which I hope will give local councils some ability to flex their approach in the area of housing.

The Minister is right that, when it comes to designing an affordable homes programme, choices have to be made and trade-offs confronted, but does it not trouble him that, despite the fact that 50% of AHP funding under the current programme is allocated to low-cost home ownership, his own Department’s figures make it clear that grant funding under the last year of the previous Labour Government still delivered twice the number of low-cost home ownership units than the Government managed last year?

Before I answer that question, I hope the Chair will allow me a minute or two more than 10 minutes, given that we have a little bit of time, in order to answer these interventions.

I will not detain colleagues to that extent, but I am grateful for the confirmation that I can continue. The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) is keen to make a comparison. The fundamental thing that we are trying to do at the moment is weigh up a series of very challenging economic circumstances, recognising the context of housing supply, which has been a challenge for the entirety of my life. We recognise that we have to make progress for the very reasons that right hon. and hon. Members have outlined over the course of the debate. It is so important to do so, given that housing supply affects and impacts the lives of real people.

Let me comment on individual contributions. The hon. Member for Slough, opening the debate, emphasised the importance of the property-owning democracy, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I hope we can make progress on that and also address some points made by other hon. Members. He also said that there should be greater clarity on the affordable housing programme going forward. Although I am not able to give that in today’s debate, we have said that we will come back in the spring with further clarity about what is happening; there is not a huge amount of spring left, so I hope it will not be too much longer before my housing colleagues in the Department will do so. I anticipate the Department being able to provide further information to the hon. Member and others in the coming weeks.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) raised a number of points about the inherent challenges in the housing market and of trade-off. During my brief tenure as the Housing Minister back in the autumn, we had a debate in this very place about some of the issues, and she spoke then with regard to Coventry specifically. I cannot talk about Coventry individually, but I will put on record, if hon. Members allow me, the progress that has been made in the past 13 years. I realise that many colleagues will not necessarily want to point to that, but it is important for balance that we do.

Two million homes have been built in this country since 2010, and almost 1 million people—over 800,000—have been helped into ownership through schemes such as help to buy. Some 630,000 new affordable homes have been built. Last year, the registered supply of new homes increased over the previous year by approximately 10%, and I believe that the last five years have seen some of the highest rates of property building for 30 years.

A number of colleagues raised home ownership. Crucially, after a pretty linear fall from the mid-2000s under Governments of all parties, home ownership has started to increase again for the first time in a number of years. The increase is incremental—the rate is up from 62.5% in 2016-17 to 64.3% in 2021-22—but it is a movement back in the direction of empowering people to own their own properties and obtain all the consequent benefits.

The Minister talks about home ownership increasing, but that incremental increase can hardly be seen as a victory. His is the party that introduced right to buy to increase home ownership. I wonder what the percentage is for anyone under the age of 35. Will he acknowledge that the Government have totally failed that generation in this respect?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is not enough, but the whole point of trying to build more properties and of using programmes such as the affordable housing programme to bridge, where that is necessary, into home ownership through rent and part ownership is to boost those numbers. My point is not that there are no challenges—I acknowledged such challenges at the very top of my speech. It is to try to insert balance, if only into the record: some progress has been made over the last 13 years. A substantial number of properties have been built over that time—for home ownership, for rent and in the affordable sector—and most importantly, after a relatively clear-cut decline under Governments of all parties, the decline seems to have been arrested. There is a long way to go and there is absolutely the need for growth. I want everybody who wants to own their own home to have the opportunity to do so, but I hope that this is at least an indicator that we are moving, to an extent, in the right direction.

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), and would never dream of reading my phone when he is speaking. I was specifically texting—this is both the benefit and the tyranny of having mobile devices in a debate—about the point he had raised. I regret to tell him that I have been unable to get an answer in the 40 minutes since he spoke, but I will ask the Department to write to him. I will be honest with him: I do not know whether the Department has purview here, and I do not know any of the details of the problem that he highlighted. It is always a challenge for local communities when developers are unable to complete the properties that they have indicated they will. I know that causes issues. I have a similar one in the village of Tupton in North East Derbyshire, where the developer unfortunately went out of business and the site is now mothballed. North East Derbyshire District Council is working hard to try to move that issue on. I will endeavour to write to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale either way, and will see whether the Department can provide any advice or information about the point that he raised; I am grateful for his doing so.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) raised a number of incredibly important and detailed points, to which I will ask the Department and the Minister responsible to respond in detail. Part of the answer to some of her questions will, I hope, be answered by the further details that come forward in the next stage of the affordable housing programme, but I will ask for a letter to be provided to the hon. Lady with more detail about the specific questions that she highlighted.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden made an extremely powerful intervention about the challenges of temporary accommodation—an issue that we all are aware of. We all want standards, quality and conditions to improve. As a former councillor in central London, albeit a number of years ago, I am under no illusions about some of the challenges of temporary accommodation. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), has been clear that improvements are needed in this area and has indicated that further legislation will be forthcoming. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden for highlighting her concerns, and I hope the Department can make progress in the coming months and years.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) made a very important point about the challenges of access to labour, particularly in rural areas due to geography and topography and the like. I am sorry to hear about the issues his constituents are experiencing. While housing is a devolved matter, it is important, and I am grateful that he has put on record those issues and the work he is doing to address them. He will be aware that, at least from an England perspective, we are seeking to legislate as part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in order to offer councils the opportunity—which they do not have to take up; some will choose to, some will not—to vary council tax for second homes. That will hopefully put an additional tool in the arsenal of local authorities to respond, in England, to the local challenges he has raised.

The spokesperson for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, raised an important point about capacity in local planning authorities, which is an issue that the Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and I are both involved in. Within planning, nationally significant infrastructure projects fall under my aegis. That is different from the debate we are having today, but there are very live conversations within the NSIPs and major infrastructure realms. I know from my colleague the Housing Minister that it is the same with regard to capacity in local planning authorities and within the appeals process, where a number of applications end up in their final stages.

The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich raised a number of important points about green homes. We need to make progress on multiple different imperatives and initiatives. The part L uplift, which we brought in in the summer of 2021, constituted a 30% increase and improvement in standards. That is in place now and has been for almost a year. The transition period for the part L uplift ends shortly, meaning that all houses built from now on will be 30% more efficient than previously. That is a massive increase compared to a number of years ago. However, there is a trade-off here, and we are trying to work through the issues and make progress in all aspects.

The Labour party has spent much of this debate—reasonably, in my view—saying that we need more houses, and that they need to be affordable to own and rent. We agree, which is why we are trying to make progress in this area. We also need to make progress on the environmental agenda, but those things must be brought into balance. Every single time an hon. Member stands up in this place and says, “We just need this one thing added in”, we need to understand that there is cost involved. That is where we have to make considerations. The part L uplift is a great example: we are trying to make progress environmentally, while also trying to answer the question reasonably posed by hon. Members across this place as to how we increase housing supply in general. We hope we are striking the right balance.

The Minister is doing a great job of expanding his speech. There is absolutely no cost to ensuring that there is an obligation for every new home built to have solar panels. Why does the Minister not look at that? My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), Labour’s Front-Bench spokesperson, has said that all these new houses have to be retrofitted. Surely the Minister can consider what can be done with new houses in terms of the environmental factors?

I understand the point that the right hon. Lady is making, but there is a cost to mandating solar panels on new properties: the cost that will be paid for the initial transaction. If right hon. and hon. Members want to see supply boosted, we have to accept that we have to set a balance; we are trying to do that by saying both that it is important to make progress with regard to the environmental imperatives that have been rightly highlighted and—to answer the exam question—to get the kind of supply that everybody in this debate wants to see.

I gently caution hon. Members not to be too prescriptive regarding the technology we use. Although solar panels will be appropriate in many instances—I would guess the majority of instances, as a non-expert and a non-surveyor—they will not be the solution to reducing the carbon footprint of every single new property built. We should all collectively accept that solar panels will not be a useful or effective way to spend money in that cohort—in situations where, for whatever reason, including the wrong aspect, the wrong part of the country or the wrong geography. We should seek not to impose a requirement in that regard but instead to say, “If you have that amount of money within the system to be able to spend on making that building greener, the Government will not be prescriptive that you have to do something that isn’t necessarily going to be effective, but we will encourage you to use that money to make it effective, be it in a different form of technology or doing it in a different way.”

I thank the Minister for giving way and I think he will have heard the points about quality, size and environmental standards, and why it is important for there to be a focus on them; I appreciate his accepting that. Will he also confirm for us all, and for the record, when the revisions to the 2021 plan will be published?

We expect to be able to say more on the affordable housing point in the coming weeks ahead—in spring. I hope that answers his question. I will conclude—

I will be brief. I recently addressed chief executives of housing associations from across the north, and the one big concern was around section 106 and the replacement—the infrastructure levy. I think that about 47% of affordable homes are built that way at the moment. What reassurances can the Minister give to the sector that that will be the case, and even better? The associations’ final ask was around section 21. When can we see the announcement on no-fault evictions—the pledge that has been made by the Government over and over again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. On the final point, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been clear in the other Chamber that we intend to bring forward more information about the rental sector relatively soon. I hope that answers his that question.

Obviously, the key underlying way in which we can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about the infrastructure levy is to get the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill through. It depends what the other place does to that Bill. There are some quite substantial provisions, which I believe the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich went through in Committee a number of months ago; I had the opportunity to contribute to that process very briefly. We will see what the other place does to that Bill. No doubt it will come back here. Once we get the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill through, we will be able to make progress on moving away from section 106 and towards an infrastructure levy, which I hope will capture more of what we seek to do.

To close, I thank the hon. Member for Slough again for requesting and instigating this debate. It is absolutely the case that everybody here feels very strongly—rightly—about the need to make further progress on housing in the years ahead, for precisely the reasons that have been articulated in this debate today. It is so important for our constituents, for transforming lives and for supporting the most vulnerable. We have all heard today about some of the challenges, but I hope that I have been able to rebalance things, at least to some extent, by highlighting the opportunities and some of the progress that has been made. Housing, affordable housing and home ownership are vital to our communities all across the country, from North East Derbyshire, where I am from, to the constituencies of right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate today. We must make progress for precisely the reasons that have been articulated in this debate. I hope we can continue to do that in the months and years ahead.

I am extremely grateful, Mr Hollobone, for your excellent chairing of this passionate and powerful debate. The issue is critical for many of our constituents.

As passionate and powerful as the debate has been, I fear that the Minister must be feeling very lonely. Apart from his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), not a single member of his party has come to call for the urgent action that is required. I hope that the Minister will take the need to implement the eight NAO recommendations back to his Department. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), pointed out, they need to be looked at seriously and actioned. The Homes England grants for affordable homes are important and helpful, as we have found in Slough, but they are not sufficient to meet the scale of the problem.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). She is a passionate advocate for her constituents and gave powerful examples of the planning problems for all in her constituency, and of the wider planning shambles. I hope that the Minister and his Department will look into that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) was previously a shadow Minister for local government and spoke with a great deal of experience and authority. He highlighted heartbreaking cases of children living in cramped accommodation and the problems of overcrowding, which we also face in Slough. I am extremely grateful to him for highlighting those issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), who is Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, spoke about the change in the definition of “affordability” and the multiplicity of markets. She also spoke about waiting times, which are so onerous for our constituents. She highlighted that, in her constituency, there is a nine-year wait for a three-bed property. Similarly, many of my constituents in Slough have to wait more than eight years to get a council property. That has an impact on children in particular.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) shone a light on the scale of the problem, the £1.6 billion cost to the taxpayer of failure and the fact that “temporary” currently means at least five years in her patch. It is a similar example to the ones highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and by Members from the west midlands. People are being placed outside of their borough, sometimes hundreds of miles away where they have no support network, and problems were raised around damp and mould.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone)—I think he is my hon. Friend because we share a corridor and often have conversations on such matters—spoke about the complexities of the use of Airbnb and why we need a renewed national effort on housing. Otherwise, we all fear that we will go back to the bad old days of the past.

Given where we are at the moment and that targets will be missed by tens of thousands, I hope that the Minister will take back the message that we need to focus on this issue because it has a direct impact on the quality of life of our constituents, many of whom are living in rodent-infested, damp or mouldy properties. For them there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, and that is why the Government must focus on affordable housing. I thank you once again, Mr Hollobone. I hope that we will hear some good news this spring, as the Minister has promised.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Affordable Homes Programme.

Energy Suppliers and Consumer Rights

I beg to move,

That this House has considered energy suppliers and consumer rights.

It is an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased that we have time today—although I suspect that it might be cut off and restarted—to debate this vital topic and hear from the Government what they can do to assist our constituents. I acknowledge the Members who are here. I thank the Minister for reaching out to me before today in the spirit of co-operation, and I hope we can make productive use of the time.

If there is one thing that should always have been clear—if it is was not before this winter, it absolutely is now—it is that being an energy consumer is not optional. People who are off grid are hugely in the minority—the Minister will probably be relieved to know that I do not intend to talk about them and delays to fuel payments today. But for most people—millions of people—in the UK, the only way to heat their home, have light at night and keep their food fresh is to be a consumer via an energy company. We have learned in the past year that many energy companies are simply failing those consumers, and there is shockingly little by way of consumer rights in this area.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. In Northern Ireland, we have only two gas suppliers—there should be more. If there are more, there is competition, and if there is competition, prices come down. Does she agree that competition ensures that our constituents get better value?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. This is a 30-minute debate, so we will not get a speech from him. I agree that consumers need choice. Until this winter, many Members probably did not know the differences between the energy markets in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.

I came to this issue largely through casework. I saw a puzzling trend of constituents seemingly being overcharged and struggling to find redress, so we started asking people more widely about their experiences with their energy companies, and that really brought the cases rolling in. The issue is obviously not limited to my constituency of North East Fife; indeed, it would be strange if it was.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. It is certainly not just in her constituency; it is everywhere. I have a constituent called Jacqueline, who is a pensioner and fell into debt of £140 with OVO Energy, which sent round bailiffs. She broke down in tears and gave them a cheque there and then. Actually, the company was not reading her meter, and she is now £2,500 in debt. She is on a state pension, so she does not know what to do. That kind of callous behaviour by energy companies should not be tolerated. We must do something about it.

That is not dissimilar to some of the cases I have seen in North East Fife. It seems to be that if we speak to a different person at the end of the phone at a different time, we get a completely different outcome. That is simply not acceptable.

Citizens Advice has said that there was a 230% increase in energy complaints to its Extra Help Unit this winter. For the first time, that has made energy the top advice issue. This is not confined to Oxford West and Abingdon or North East Fife; it is taking place throughout the UK.

There is also a broader issue with the Government energy rebate during the winter period. People who live in park homes receive the energy rebate at the behest of the park home owner—they do not get a direct energy rebate from the energy company—but they are still potentially liable to the energy company. What would the hon. Lady suggest that the Minister do to ensure that park home residents receive the benefit of the energy rebates that the Government have made available, and to ensure that energy companies and park home owners are held accountable so that the energy rebates go to the residents of the park homes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I, too, have park homes in my constituency, and that issue has come up. At the moment, we are completely dependent on the good will and good conduct of park home owners when it comes to ensuring that those living in park homes get their rebates. We need to consider the legislative agenda. The Energy Bill, which I will come to, had its First Reading in the House today and we should certainly be thinking about that.

What I am trying to say is that contacting an MP has sometimes become the only route for constituents who seek redress; as constituency MPs, we all know that. That is widespread. We can see that something in the system is failing, which is why I secured this debate. The Government have a role in consumer protection and the energy market. Just today, two new Bills have been introduced to the House: one, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, is explicitly about consumer rights, and the other is the Energy Bill. Both are about making our system fit for the future. Over the last year, we have seen that the Government have a role in ensuring that the energy market is working for consumers and that people can afford to pay their bills.

I would like to outline some of the problems that my constituents have been having before I return to the question of consumer rights. Overcharging has already been mentioned. A quarter of all the correspondence that I have received has been about that, which suggests that a huge number of people in the country—thousands, if not hundreds of thousands—must have the same issue. We know that energy bills have gone up and that there has been action to help people cope, but this issue is not about that. It is about energy companies billing families huge sums of money for energy that they have not used and about families doing their best to manage the cost of living—keeping costs down, putting food on the table and keeping afloat—and finding themselves facing debts of hundreds of pounds.

The overcharging comes in two forms, and both are deeply harmful. Imagine that you are a direct debit customer who pays bills monthly, accruing credit on your account. Those payments might have gone up when you renewed your contract last year, but that is fine because you planned for it. You budgeted. It has been difficult, but you made it work because that is what we all have to do. You have done your best to reduce your energy usage to make sure you did not end the year in debt. You have done everything that you reasonably can—[Interruption.]

Order. A Division has been called in the House. The sitting will adjourn until 4.22 pm if there is one vote and 4.32 pm if there are two votes.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I will move on quickly. I was outlining some of the issues with direct debits and giving the example of someone paying by direct debit whose payments may have gone up, but who was basically managing. But imagine if, despite that, their energy provider increased their direct debit payments, without their knowledge or any discussion about it, and they only found out because their carefully arranged budget was no longer in balance—they did everything right and were suddenly in debt anyway.

That is what is happening to people. I have seen a number of cases in North East Fife. One of my constituents had £900 in credit, yet their energy supplier is taking more. This surely is not right, and it is surely not the kind of practice we would accept. I urge the Minister to call this behaviour out and take proactive steps to prevent it from happening to other families and individuals.

The second form of overcharging is arguably even more egregious. This is where customers are receiving bills from energy companies for energy they have not used. Again, we are talking about hundreds of pounds being demanded, with threats of enforcement measures and huge amounts of distress as a result. I pay tribute to my casework team, who have been working these cases and providing fantastic support to my constituents. They try to understand what went wrong, but sometimes that is very difficult, as people are dealing with an opaque system and too often being told that their energy bill is final.

We have had some success in proving that bills are wrongly being charged, but even then energy companies do not always just cancel the bill. One of my constituents paid her £700 bill for fear of enforcement measures, and not many people have that sort of money just lying around. It is a stretch. Even now, the company has repaid only £500, insisting that £200 sits in the account as credit. That is £200 wrongly taken from my constituent that ought to be paid back.

As for the causes of these issues, some of it comes down to, arguably, predatory sales calls—lies are told and cooling-off periods are not respected. Some of it seems to be errors in the system, which when highlighted ought to be corrected, not defended. A lot of it seems to come down to smart meter issues. When they work, they are excellent, but when they do not, they are simply terrible. I fear the Government are trying to run before they can walk with the Energy Bill. They are pushing ahead with the roll-out and encouraging more use of smart appliances without getting the fundamentals right first.

Let us start with something basic: smart meters need to be connected to either the internet or a data signal. My constituency of North East Fife is rural. It is not as rural as some places, but rural enough that many properties are still without reliable internet access and there are mobile signal blackholes. Smart meters simply do not work in those conditions, but energy companies are too often refusing to listen. Another one of my constituents strongly argued against having her traditional meter replaced, knowing the signal issues at her property. The energy company ignored her and did it anyway. What a surprise: the smart meter does not work. Not only is she unable to monitor her usage, but her company, E.ON, is now charging her to reinstall the old-style meter.

Other constituents are able to have smart meters and, indeed, want them to help to keep on top of their bills, but even when the internet connection is good, smart meters still break. When they break, energy companies do not seem to want to replace them. One constituent’s meter stopped working last October and, despite requesting one, has not had a replacement from SSE since. In the meantime, she cannot monitor her usage and her company cannot take readings. As a result, the company is taking larger and larger sums from her bank account based on estimates.

Another constituent—a vulnerable pensioner—has been waiting five months for a replacement gas meter. She was told that she could go outside and read the old-style meter in the interim, but she is disabled—she simply cannot do that. The list goes on, and the longest waits for replacements that I am aware of are well over a year—month after month of knowing that prices are going up and not knowing how much it is costing, and energy companies erring on the side of caution to their benefit, taking huge sums from customers. Of course, all those problems are compounded when we talk about vulnerable customers. I welcome the fact that Ofgem has a vulnerability strategy; but again, from the casework I have received, more clearly needs to be done.

I am aware of time and have not reached my main point yet, so I will be brief. Two things come through in the casework. First, billing is confusing for many people. Not only is it fair for customers to understand their bills; it is better for the market when consumers can compare bills and charges between different energy companies, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) alluded to. For that, I ask the Government to consult with stakeholders and disabled people to look at putting bills into a standard form. Secondly, priority service registers are not working effectively. More needs to be done to make it easy for vulnerable customers to identify themselves to energy companies, and companies ought to be proactive in looking out for those consumers. I am sure that all of us, as MPs, have encouraged constituents to get on those lists.

The thread that links all these issues together—and the reason why I am having to help constituents with energy issues, as I am sure everyone else here too—is simply the utterly abysmal customer service and the lack of clear consumer rights. Most consumer-facing industries have some form of consumer charter or code of practice. It exists in customer service and for aviation passengers, for water consumers under Ofwat and in broadcasting under Ofcom, but it does not exist when it comes to energy. What is there is incredibly basic and not helpful for individuals at all. Energy companies are regulated through Ofgem, and one of their licence conditions is that consumers must be treated fairly—that is it. That does not tell us anything. A Q&A document from Ofgem sets out some situations where a customer could be entitled to £30 compensation, such as when their smart meter breaks and is not investigated within five working days. Considering the sums of money being charged and the waiting times for replacements, that is a completely ridiculous method of enforcement and no incentive to companies to protect their consumers.

I am not criticising Ofgem. Indeed, I welcome last week’s code of practice relating to pre-payment meters and its plans to consult on further standards. I am grateful that Ofgem spoke to me at short notice on Friday. The new system operator being set up under the Energy Bill will not help when it comes to consumer rights. Its goals are controlling cost, moving to net zero and ensuring our energy independence. These are all welcome, but leave a gaping hole when it comes to basic rights and service. Clearly, energy companies are falling far below any ordinary standard of service to consumers, and the need to keep adequate suppliers in the market means that Ofgem cannot threaten to take licences away from all of them, because bad practice is simply too widespread.

Does the Minister agree that energy consumers—that is, all of us—should have the same rights as people taking a plane or running their tap? Does she agree that the energy market can function properly only when our consumers know their rights and are empowered to enforce them? Does she agree that it is unconscionable for energy companies to be treating their consumers in the way they are today? I want every single issue from my constituency sorted out, and I hope the Minister will engage with that and the energy companies too, but we can be proactive and solve the root cause. I am asking the Government to consult on a new consumer rights charter for energy bills that will be communicated widely and where good companies can be accredited, and which will make our energy market work for consumers as well as for responsible suppliers. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.

It is a pleasure to be here under your stewardship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this incredibly important debate. We are going to get together to have a further conversation, so I have listened with great interest to all her comments.

I take the role of Minister for energy consumers and affordability incredibly seriously. At least once a day I comment on the fact that affordability is at the heart of all that we do. It is vital to bring down energy bills and ensure that consumers are protected. One of my key drivers is to ensure that the vulnerable are not made more vulnerable. I regularly meet the chief executive of market regulator Ofgem. I spoke to vulnerable consumers at a summit yesterday, and continue to engage with lots of stakeholders, including Citizens Advice, and other suppliers.

The Government have made it clear to Ofgem that we expect it to be robustly enforcing the rules aimed at ensuring that suppliers treat their customers fairly. Suppliers should continually strive to adopt and embed a customer-centric culture. That relates to how suppliers behave, provide information and carry out customer service processes. Ofgem’s guaranteed standards of performance exist to ensure that suppliers provide automatic compensation when domestic customers’ switches are delayed, when customers are erroneously switched, when issuance of the final bill is delayed, when there are missed or late appointments, or if a supplier does not send an engineer who has the skills and experience to carry out the planned work.

If a customer thinks their meter is not working properly, the supplier should agree a timescale with the customer to complete the work. If a supplier does not do what it said it would, it should give the customers £30 compensation, as the hon. Member mentioned. For prepayment meter faults, if the consumer cannot get any electricity or gas, and they think the meter is faulty, they should contact the supplier. The supplier should come round and repair or replace it within three hours, or four hours on a weekend or bank holiday.

If the consumer thinks their meter is faulty but the power supply is still working, they should still contact their supplier, and the supplier should arrange a future appointment within three or four hours. If a supplier does not do what it said it would, it should give the customer £30 compensation. Suppliers must pay £30 compensation to customers within 10 days of breaching an individual guaranteed standard. If it fails to pay the customer in time, it must pay an additional £30. I listened closely to what the hon. Member said, and I know we will have further discussions about the suitability of this arrangement.

Suppliers are required to submit complaints data to Ofgem on a monthly and quarterly basis. Suppliers also publish domestic complaints data on their websites, including the top five reasons for complaints, and the measures they are taking to improve how they handle customer complaints. If the customer remains unhappy with the outcome of their complaint, they can approach the energy ombudsman. Ombudsman Services is an independent body that provides dispute resolution, and it is free for consumers. Ombudsman Services can investigate and, where appropriate, oblige the supplier to rectify the situation.

One area that needs to be improved relates to prepayment meters. We all heard about the incredibly appalling practices that occurred with the forced fitting of prepayment meters. The Government have made their strong feelings clear on the issue. I am glad that suppliers have now signed up to a more robust set of standards. The new code of practice will help, but we still need to ensure that we work together to deliver an energy market that works for everyone.

Ofgem has acted to improve protection for vulnerable households, increased scrutiny of supplier practices and introduced redress where meters were wrongfully installed. We have been crystal clear that fitting a prepayment meter by force for any customer must be an absolute last resort, after all other options have been completely exhausted. The Government will monitor the behaviour of suppliers very closely and will not hesitate to intervene if necessary.

On the issue of understanding energy bills, Ofgem has produced a short video and short written guides for households. Suppliers are required to maintain a telephone support line and to provide an explanation of the customer’s bill in plain and intelligible language. Again, I look forward to meeting the hon. Member to discuss that further and to discuss whether there are more things that we should and could be doing. There are resources such as Citizens Advice’s big energy saving network, which is a network of trained advisers who help people to understand energy use in the home and how to get the support that they are entitled to.

I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife for securing the debate. I can reassure her and parliamentary colleagues that the Government expect energy suppliers to provide good customer service and to look after their vulnerable consumers. The Secretary of State and I have made it clear that that is a top priority for Government. As I mentioned, I meet regularly with Ofgem and key stakeholders, such as Citizens Advice and the ombudsman, to discuss the experiences of consumers and how they can be improved. When suppliers are providing poor customer service, they should expect customers to switch to a better supplier. Although the market for switching for a better price is only just restarting after the gas price crisis, some customers have continued to switch to find better customer service. I look forward to meeting with the hon. Lady to discuss these matters further.

Question put and agreed to.

Motorways: Litter

I beg to move,

That this House has considered litter on motorways.

On a very serious subject, hopefully we can also have some calming measures, if you know what I mean, Mr Hollobone. Other colleagues have indicated to me that they would join the debate this afternoon, so I wonder whether you could bear with them, Mr Hollobone, if some of them arrive a little later.

My constituency is boundaried by the M1, M25 and A41. The state of the rubbish on those motorways is an embarrassment to me as the constituency’s MP, and as an MP in general. I freely admit that the rubbish has probably been thrown out of the windows of cars—by passengers as well as drivers. Some of it comes off the back of refuse lorries that, inappropriately, do not have the correct tarpaulins to stop that happening.

Whatever the reason, the rubbish will start to disappear in the next few weeks. It is not going anywhere—it is just that the grass and weeds are growing, and they will cover it up. It is still not only a hindrance but a danger to our wildlife. Some of the areas where the motorways go are areas of outstanding natural beauty, on which wildlife very much rely. In my spare time, I love bird watching. It frightens me to look at some of the nests—especially at the end of the seasons, when we start clipping our hedgerows and other such things—and see what the birds think is safe to put into their nests.

I thank the right hon. Member for securing this important debate. Anyone who knows me will know that littering is my biggest bugbear; it is infuriating. A key concern that highways workers have relayed to me is the health and safety risk that litter poses to them when they have to clean it up. Does he agree that the issue is not given enough consideration?

I think not only that it is not given enough consideration, but that it is a national disgrace. I specifically picked on motorways because of the legal responsibility Highways England, the Highways Agency or whatever it wants to call itself today—it has renamed itself several times since I was the Roads Minister. I do not know why it has spent so many thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money renaming itself. If the brand is decent, it should not be renamed. If the brand is bad, it should be renamed, and that seems to be exactly what Highways England or the Highways Agency—Highways something—has been doing. It has a legal responsibility for its network, which includes not just motorways but some A roads.

We should have better enforcement and use the technology that we have. If we can prosecute people for going two or three miles per hour over the speed limit—I am all for that; I was a Transport Minister—we can use the same cameras to prosecute people who throw litter. I am sure that, like me, colleagues have seen footage of people on the motorway driving down the road—there is the car, there is the numberplate, there is the face, there is the phone—and exactly the same technology can be used for people chucking litter out of the car.

Penalties almost certainly need to be stronger. Perhaps we should do something not dissimilar to what I did when I was the Minister and we brought in the driver awareness course. Fines and points were not working, but the evidence showed that drivers actually drive better and slower after they have done such a course.

At the end of the day, we have to do two things. We have to educate people through courses such as the driver awareness course, and we have to make sure the person or organisation responsible for these highways takes action. I picked the motorways because it is not like in our constituencies, where it could be a borough council, a district council, a county council or a unitary authority; there is a single body legally responsible for motorways and some A roads under section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. We have got to the ridiculous stage where individuals—I will talk about John Read and the Clean Up Britain campaign—are almost certain to use section 91 of the Act to take National Highways to court. We have the right under the Act to say, “You are not doing what you are supposed to be doing, which is to clear up the mess on our highways.”

When I applied for this debate, I was thrilled by not only by the excellent paper produced by the House of Commons Library, but by John Read of Clean Up Britain, Policy Exchange and the RAC Foundation. I also thank the Sunday Express for helping to highlight this issue last weekend. They have all come together to say, “What can we do to stop this blight, predominantly on the English countryside, getting worse and worse?”

As I said earlier, the litter will soon start to be covered over as the plants grow, but in the autumn, when the frost comes, there it will all be. What surprised me enormously was some of the commentary coming from National Highways. It produced a lengthy paper saying that it regularly checks the highways, and that more than 60% do not have any rubbish on them. All I can say is that they should have gone to Specsavers, or other places that are available, to check their eyesight when they drive back and forth to work on our highways. Litter is a danger not only to our wildlife—I have seen aluminium tins on the side of the road that have been there for so many years that they are starting to degrade, and plastic does not degrade in the same way—but to the staff clearing it up, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said. There have to be road closures and it has to be done safely.

Interestingly, other countries seem to have solved this problem quite well. Any of us who go on holiday this summer to Germany, France or Spain will see that their highways are not covered in trash. Many people from this country will go to Florida, which has large five or six-lane roads. The hedges and grass are not covered in trash, and any litter is certainly not all chopped up when the grasscutters come along and it has not been picked up.

We have to ask ourselves why. Is it a cultural thing, or is it because the organisation that is legally responsible for clearing up rubbish is doing so? Frankly, if someone has broken the law and they get a community project, I cannot think of a better way of paying back into the community than being in a team that goes out and safely clears the rubbish from the sides of our roads. When I was in the Minister’s position, I was told that that was not possible because it was not safe. I used to be the Health and Safety Minister as well, at a different time, and it could be made safe. It is safe for workers to do it, and some of the stuff they have to pick up is truly horrible. We will not go into that in this debate, but Members can imagine what gets thrown out of car windows.

The question has to be, why is National Highways not taking this issue seriously? The organisation cannot be taking it seriously, because it has given contractors contracts but is not monitoring them. Following a freedom of information request to Mr John Read, National Highways came back and said:

“We don’t undertake audits of our contractors’ work for litter clearance.”

How do they know that 60% of the roads are clear if they are not monitoring their own contracts? It baffles me.

Under the Secretary of State, the Department for Transport has introduced key performance indicators for National Highways, but litter is not one of them; it is just part of something else and seen as not that important. I say to the Minister that it is important. How can we have a key performance indicator for the contract issued to National Highways by the Secretary of State that does not take into consideration the legal responsibility it has to the public? This is public money being spent on behalf of the public through the Secretary of State.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Many of my constituents express many of the concerns that he has already outlined. On the point about legal responsibilities and KPIs, we also have an issue that is applicable not just to motorways, but to A roads. In my constituency, we have the A2 and the A20, where there is general confusion about who is legally responsible for cleaning the litter from the hard shoulder and the verges. Transport for London often says that it is the local council’s responsibility, and local councils often dispute that, because they are obviously Transport for London roads.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside strengthening the KPIs, we also need to have legal clarity about who is responsible for litter on motorways and our A roads? I echo his enthusiasm for encouraging community volunteer litter pickers who want to go out and help, but who are told no because of health and safety.

My hon. Friend has made several points that I completely agree with. As I said earlier, National Highways is responsible not only for motorways; it also has some A roads in my own part of the world. What was the M10 is now the A414, but it still has responsibility for that road. I do not think the organisation knows that, because it has not been anywhere the road since the day it ceased to be a motorway. I wrote to the Secretary of State and what I think was then known as Highways England, asking whether there was any chance that it could come along and pick up some of the signage that is lying on the roadsides, getting rusty and acting as a blight on animals and on the safety of someone who has pulled off the side of a road in an emergency. The signage is still there today.

The point that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) is making about who is responsible is actually quite crucial. I mean, when I was the Roads Minister, I did not realise that with the M10—I live right next to the M10, although I know it is now the A414—the Highways Agency had kept responsibility for it and several other A roads. So that could be resolved very simply by the Minister dropping our hon. Friend a line to say that “the legal responsibility for the A2 lies with X”. I am sure that the Minister could get his officials to do that; that is what I might have done if I was the Minister. But who knows?

Regarding the other point that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup made, there are lots of volunteers out there today, going out and picking litter up; I have some in my own constituency and they do a fantastic job. There is that issue and there is actually the payback issue. People who are blighting my community in myriad different ways and who may get a community order should have to be supervised out there to clean the roads.

If anyone goes to Florida, they will drive down wonderful, clean roads. One of the reasons is that Florida actually uses people who are incarcerated to go and clear the roads. They are not dangerous criminals, but they are people in for short-term sentences. Of course they are not chained up or anything like that, but if they scarper—the sort of language that my grandmother would have used—they will eventually be found and at the end of the day they would not have any parole. They are not going to be attacked if they scarper, and they are already starting the payback. In our open prisons, why could we not have that today in parts of the country? It would be slightly difficult with some of the open prisons in, say, Norfolk, because there are no motorways in Norfolk. Payback and should mean payback.

The Minister might say to me, “Well, actually, the contracts are set in stone over a period of time with National Highways and the KPI is set.” But if he looks carefully at the legislation, he will see that the Secretary of State has the powers at any time to deviate the contract, so the KPIs could be changed.

I think this is an issue of national importance. We can talk about it being rubbish, or trash, but we have some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, in my opinion. We should cherish it. There are people demonstrating out there, yesterday and today, because they passionately believe—I do not agree with their motives and how they are trying to do it, but I do agree that we have to protect our countryside.

Over the years, we have put lots of roads right the way through some of our countryside, and that countryside is being blighted, day in and day out. Frankly, looking at the correspondence, particularly from National Highways—I am sorry, Minister, but I do not think they get it. They just talk to me. Among the briefings, they are talking about the responsibility of local authorities. Well, no local authority in the country has responsibility for clearing up the motorways. They—National Highways —have it. The title of this debate was specific, so as not to have that debate about local government. The narrative here is purely about National Highways.

There are lots of things that are probably not fully in the Minister’s bailiwick, and I share his frustration with some of that, because I used to sit in that chair and think, “I’d love to have done that,” and, “I would love to do this.” But if we have the will, we have the way. Fines need to be increased. If people want to throw stuff out of car windows—some of it the most abhorrent products that we do not particularly want to discuss today—they should be penalised for it.

Similarly, however, if an organisation has the legal responsibility in law, set by this place, that it is their job to clear up that mess—go and give them some powers if we want to use the cameras in a way in which we can actually enforce the issue. They cannot cop out of this; it is actually in statute whose responsibility it is. The KPI can be changed, so that the regulator can step in and actually say, “You’re not fulfilling your contracts,” because if that does not happen, we will have individual members of the public taking this organisation—National Highways, which is funded by the British taxpayer—to court for a breach of the Act. To me, that is a crying shame, but if it happens I will fully support that commitment to go to the magistrates courts.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate. I agree with almost everything he said.

Litter is something I have repeatedly raised concerns about with National Highways and, previously, Highways England. It is unacceptable for my office to have to repeatedly raise the issues of litter, lack of effective maintenance and general poor standards of work with National Highways. I am pleased that the Transport Committee, which I am a member of, recently wrote to Nick Harris, chief executive of National Highways, about some of these issues, particularly the nearly 40% of the strategic road network that either has widespread litter or is heavily affected by litter.

Many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South frequently raise concerns with me about the disgraceful levels of litter and the bad impression that people get when visiting or travelling through our area on the strategic road network. One of my constituents said to me recently when I was out in the community that one of their relatives had visited from overseas and was completely shocked to see the standard of our highways and the scale of litter accumulating at the side of the road. As my right hon. Friend said, overseas we do not see the same scale of littering at the side of the highway.

Staffordshire is at the heart of the UK, with several key routes passing through it. We have seen major problems with litter and poor maintenance on this road network, and there are concerns with our motorway network, particularly on the M6 and around its junctions. The issue is not reserved to the motorway network. There are also major concerns about trunk roads, which are also under the auspices of National Highways. The A50 and A500 cut right through the middle of Stoke-on-Trent, and that has a significant impact on the surrounding communities. While these routes provide important strategic connectivity, they also cause many problems, including air pollution and litter.

The problems with litter have at times reached epic proportions, and I am extremely concerned about some of the wider maintenance standards, such as with vegetation management. The severe lack of grass cutting by National Highways has resulted in roundabouts and verges in the centre of Longton and Meir being totally neglected. Given that these roads cut through predominantly urban areas, standards of maintenance need to be different from those used in more sparsely populated areas. National Highways currently conducts only an annual cut, meaning verges become totally overgrown and completely filled with litter.

The lack of effective vegetation management has resulted in significant litter build-ups gathering in the overgrowth and attracting vermin. Following our calls, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has thankfully stepped in to cut some of these areas, including the most sensitive locations in town centres, which are still the responsibility of National Highways, but this really should not be happening. National Highways should take proper responsibility for the land that it owns.

On the point of vermin, littered food attracts wild animals such as mice, rats and foxes. Drawn so close to vehicles moving at speed, these animals have a higher risk of being killed. Many of them carry germs and disease, and it is not a nice job to have to clean up roadkill. Does the hon. Member share my concerns about the increased risk of animal deaths resulting from litter?

I agree that those are very serious concerns. Health and safety concerns were mentioned earlier regarding the impacts of the litter and the disease that could be carried by rats and other animals. That is a serious concern.

One of the things we have seen in our area because of the lack of effective maintenance is anti-social behaviour, with resultant massive build-ups of litter, including alcohol bottles and drug paraphernalia on National Highways land. As regards health and safety and the operatives who will have to remove some of that drug paraphernalia, that is extremely concerning. If there are syringes and things like that there, they will have to wear specialist safety equipment. I recognise that some projects have been undertaken to address some of the vegetation management in our area, but we need a far more comprehensive and proactive routine maintenance approach—and to a much higher standard than some of what we have experienced so far.

The situation is overly complicated, with differing responsibilities for different roads, and we heard earlier about some of the confusions in Bexley. That is repeated in a number of places around the country. Motorways are entirely the responsibility of National Highways. However, it is suggested that National Highways takes responsibility for litter collection on only some of its major A roads, even though the land is in its ownership. On many National Highways A roads, local authorities have to clear litter, so we see different standards across the country.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, I commend many of the volunteers—particularly those in Stoke-on-Trent South, who have been doing an incredible job across the constituency in addressing some of the litter issues. However, they simply cannot do that on many highway locations, where safety is a serious concern and where we need National Highways or others to remove some of the litter.

National Highways has now started to form litter partnerships with local authorities, which is a positive step forward. Those partnerships are important given that it would be totally unsafe—impossible, in many cases—to undertake litter collections on parts of the National Highways network without road closures. There needs to be effective co-ordination for litter picking to take place when those roads are closed for wider maintenance.

On the point about collaboration with local authorities, the financial burden should not fall on local authorities for something that is the legal responsibility of a different organisation. If that happens, it will spread around the country. That would be wrong, because it is not the financial burden of the local authority.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We see lots of pressures on things such as social care and everything else that local authorities have to deal with, so it is totally unacceptable that, in addition, they have to routinely clear up litter on many of those roads.

As I mentioned earlier, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has to cut the grass on many of the areas for which National Highways should take responsibility. Yet because its policy is for one annual cut, which is totally insufficient and results in massive build-ups of litter, we do not see the standard of service we need, and the financial impact for local authorities that have to deal with that is significant. In many cases, it just does not happen at all and we see the continued build-up of vast quantities of litter on much of the highway network.

I hope these partnerships, alongside other measures being undertaken by National Highways, result in a step change in the standards we need to see and in dramatic improvements, which have to happen, on what we have experienced previously. Forty per cent. is far too much of a blight on the network. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, there is far more than that and it is potentially an underestimate of the scale of the challenge. It is vitally important for people in Stoke-on-Trent, those visiting and the wider environment that we have an effective approach to maintenance and litter control on the strategic network. I thank my right hon. Friend for the debate. It is about an important matter, and I hope the Minister will address all the issues.

First, I apologise to you, Mr Hollobone, for not giving advance notice of my intention to speak in the debate. I want to make a fairly short contribution. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing the debate and I apologise also to him for not being here for the very beginning of his speech, which I am sure was as outstanding as the latter part.

This is a genuinely serious issue. I cover the M25 and have the A2 in my constituency; nearby are the A20 and M20. There is no doubt that this is a growing problem; it is a worsening situation, which is very challenging to deal with. I am, frankly, sick to death of driving down the A2 and seeing this sea of litter along the side, particularly at junctions. The Darenth interchange is in my constituency, which is in an appalling state.

I am blessed in my constituency to have a large number of litter picker-type groups, which have done a fantastic job assisting the council and complementing the work that it does in picking up litter. The volunteer groups go out and collect litter. Some have been clearing litter from the junctions, but there is clearly a danger there—a significant risk.

When they contact National Highways, they are told not to go to the junctions—“Don’t go there; we advise against that because of the obvious dangers.” Some have been to those junctions and have taken away bags of rubbish, but there are all sorts of hazardous issues in doing that, not just traffic. So we are very reliant on National Highways taking the lead on this growing problem. It needs to show the lead. We are very reliant on it to clear up the litter.

Of course, National Highways do not drop the litter. People drop the litter, and I agree that that is the responsibility of those ignorant people who are throwing rubbish out of the window when they are driving along. I accept that sometimes it can be inadvertent, or negligent, but sometimes it is deliberate. Items are being thrown out of car windows and lorry windows, ensuring that the sides of the roads are an eyesore that we are all, unfortunately, getting used to seeing.

Does the hon. Member think that more frequent signage reminding motorists not to litter and the potential consequences of a fixed penalty notice would make any material difference to the levels of littering seen on the motorways? Would that be a worthwhile investment?

I agree with the hon. Lady that that would make responsible people more aware of the issue, and they would act even more in a responsible manner. However, I do not feel it would have much of an impact on the ignorant people I spoke about earlier, who do not give a damn, frankly, about anybody else. It is someone else’s problem—“I am going to throw this rubbish out of the window and someone else is going to have to deal with it.” Unfortunately, those people are not going to change because of a sign.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right on the issue of fines. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead touched on this point in his speech. We now have camera technology that can give motorists fines for blocking box junctions, going through red traffic lights, speeding and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) will know about the ultra-low emission zone cameras, as will the Minister, although we will leave that issue to one side at the moment.

The technology is able to pick up motorists doing almost anything it seems, apart from when they litter. I would certainly welcome a change in policy so that we use the camera technology that already exists to target those vehicles responsible for rubbish being deliberately thrown on to our motorway verges and to issue fixed penalty notices to the registered keeper of those vehicles. That would have some impact on the blight that is hitting our country, alongside our motorways, up and down the country. I would like to see more of that happening.

This is a big and growing problem in my constituency, and not just there, but around the whole of the country. It is not just Dartford or Hemel Hempstead or Bexley or Stoke-on-Trent that suffers; it is the whole country. We are seeing a lackadaisical attitude from National Highways, which should be taking the lead and upping its game. The current situation is not tenable.

It is a pleasure to work under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing this debate. I know he has raised this important issue many times in the past and it is an issue to which he is fully committed. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

Motorways provide vital links between towns and cities across the country. They contribute tens of billions to our economy by helping to make sure our shelves are stocked with food, medical supplies and everything else that we need. However, litter on these roads is a serious issue that affects all those who use them, as well as the wider environment.

Littered motorways pose a risk to safety. Objects can obstruct drivers’ views or cause problems with grip, if caught between a wheel and the road. Furthermore, the impact of litter discarded on motorways stretches far beyond the roads themselves. It adds to pollution, which, as we have all seen, has a devastating impact on wildlife, especially in our oceans, seas and rivers. We have all seen shocking images of rubbish piled up on and around our motorways. There has been a failure to properly deal with it.

For instance, in 2020, a Channel 4 report showed huge piles of rubbish covering areas around the M25. Taxpayers’ money has been handed out to private firms to keep our motorways clear of litter, but incidents like this raise important questions that need answering. Although the vast majority of drivers do the right thing and dispose of their rubbish properly, a small minority cause problems.

Resources for picking up litter are important. However, preventing litter from being dropped in the first place is a lasting solution. I am aware of calls for greater penalties and better enforcement of anti-littering laws to incentivise drivers not to throw litter out of their car windows. Can the Minister confirm, either in his speech or in writing, the number of fines handed out for motorway littering? What steps has he taken to ensure that all those who litter are held accountable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her gracious comments. Sadly, National Highways does not have powers to issue fines, unlike local authorities. Almost certainly, enforcement through the use of cameras must be done by the Department for Transport unless we are going to change the statute, which is a separate subject for another day. It does not have the power to issue fines. I wish it did; on the other hand, perhaps not.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.

National Highways reports directly to the Department for Transport, so it falls to the Minister to hold it to account and ensure that it is upholding its statutory duties. What discussions has he had with National Highways about littering? Does he believe that all contracts handed out to private companies to keep our motorways free of litter are offering taxpayers good value for money? What steps is he willing to take if the problems do not get resolved?

As well as holding National Highways to account, there are a range of wider measures that the Government could introduce to tackle littering, but, as we see all too often, they are dragging their feet. Deposit returns for drinks containers have been shown to cut down littering, including on motorways, but that will not be launched until 2025, despite widespread public support for an earlier introduction.

I am concerned that such delays mean that the Government target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is already behind schedule. I conclude by once again commending the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead for securing this debate. Littering is a serious problem, which blights all our communities. It must be given the attention necessary to create a cleaner and safer environment for everyone who uses our motorways and highways.

It is an absolute pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. I believe he served as Roads Minister for almost two and a half years; I hope to have even a fraction of that time in the role and to do as much work as he did in this area at the start of the coalition Government. I also thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), my hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead raised many issues that I will approach head on through my response on behalf of the Government. The Government’s vision is of a road network free of litter. We believe that there is a lot more that we can do to keep the strategic road network, which includes England’s motorways, clear of litter. Litter is not only an eyesore, as hon. Members on both sides have mentioned, but environmentally damaging in numerous ways. It can risk the lives of the people who need to collect it as well as those of people on the road network itself.

The Government’s litter strategy for England is owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it sets out the aim to deliver a substantial reduction, across Government, in litter and littering within a generation. The litter strategy brings together communities, businesses, charities and schools, to bring about real change by focusing on the following key themes: education and awareness, improving enforcement, and better cleaning and access to bins. Those three themes have been picked up by hon. Members across the House in this debate. Influencing public behaviour and discouraging littering from occurring in the first instance is important in delivering lasting improvements. We will work across Government and with anti-littering organisations to help achieve that vision.

The responsibility of National Highways was a key theme of my right hon. Friend’s speech, and the responsibility for clearing litter and sweeping carriageways is indeed governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. National Highways is responsible for litter collection on motorways and on some trunk roads. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup about the A2 and A20; the area is around the M25 and what is before and after it, but I will get the specific maps to him.

Relevant district and local authorities manage litter collection on roads in the rest of England. National Highways does have its own litter strategy, which aligns with wider Government strategy and has similar themes. Within that strategy, National Highways has committed to keeping the strategic road network predominantly free from litter without compromising safety, and delivering that affordably. National Highways staff undertake regular road inspections along the network to identify litter, detritus and safety hazards and they arrange for appropriate action as soon as possible, in line with the DEFRA code of practice on litter and refuse. Obviously, their main priority is to maintain road safety on the network.

As a former Roads Minister, I understand how it is when an arm’s length agency is sending notes saying, “This is what we do.” But it is completely different out there in the real world. I am sorry, but if National Highways is out there checking regularly, it really needs to get its eyes tested. The situation is appalling. Year after year, the same places are involved—particularly the junctions. In my part of the world, the M25/A41 junction is literally piled high year after year, and I have never seen it cleared. The Minister has a responsibility to the taxpayer to turn around and say, “This isn’t working.”

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. Most weeks, I drive up the A1 and M1 to my North West Durham constituency, so I know exactly the issues he is raising. I will write to him about the specific issues around the roads in his constituency.

I want to go into a few more details, but we all want the issue to be addressed. Obviously, safety is paramount when clearing litter from the network. The roads are often fast running a lot of the time, with high volumes of traffic. Litter picking usually requires traffic management and sometimes overnight working as well. Relevant organisations across Government work closely with other litter clearing organisations to improve the operational effectiveness of clearing wherever possible.

National Highways has previously utilised the Ministry of Justice’s community payback project scheme to assist with those clearances. Offenders have been involved in removing graffiti and rubbish at service stations as well. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Government still own a significant number of service stations on the national highway network. The scheme was suspended during the covid pandemic; I undertake to write to him about that and about what we are doing to push National Highways to make more use of it going forwards. Due to safety considerations, the opportunities for using offenders can be limited.

More broadly, the simple fact is that if litter was not dropped in the first place it would not need to be picked up; that is why influencing behaviours is an essential component of tackling the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Dartford made that point as well. To answer one of the questions posed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, I had a meeting with the chief executive of National Highways today and raised the issue of littering. In fairness to my officials, I have meetings every couple of weeks with the National Highways chief exec, and this was one issue that was raised today.

I have also spoken with National Highways about a broader awareness campaign. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford who made the important point that there is aggressive littering and more passive littering, and it is particularly important that we do all we can to make people aware of the impact littering has on not only the environment but everyone’s enjoyment of travelling across the country and our rural environment. There is a campaign currently in the offing to tackle this, because National Highways is aware of how much of an issue it has become.

National Highways uses research and evidence to inform anti-littering interventions, such as car and lorry-height bins, which people may have seen as they leave motorway service stations; anti-littering posters; and signs to encourage positive littering behaviours. I will write to hon. Members who have attended today’s debate about what more National Highways is doing in that space. Campaigns and messages such as “Don’t Drop Litter, Bin It” and “Keep It, Bin It” have been shown on electric message boards across the National Highways network, and there have been digital display sites at traffic hubs and motorway service stations across England. Feedback from road users has shown that that type of messaging can make a difference in reducing the amount of littering on certain parts of the network, and I want National Highways to do more of it.

We are continuously looking for other ways to influence littering behaviour, and we work with anti-littering charities, such as Keep Britain Tidy, and use their research to develop other interventions. National Highways supports the annual Great British Spring Clean, which raises awareness of roadside litter and encourages people to dispose of their litter correctly or to take it home. This year’s campaign was the seventh year that National Highways has been involved, and over the previous six campaigns it has collected over 60,000 binbags full of litter across the road network. National Highways also engages the commercial transport sector via its recently established professional driver experience panel, and littering behaviour campaigns throughout 2022 were aimed at road user groups who admit to having a propensity to litter, which includes commercial vehicle drivers.

Road users are also encouraged to report any instances of littering on the network to National Highways. There is also guidance available on many local authority websites, as well as other applications, to assist members of the public in reporting litter. All those interventions work towards engaging the public and preventing littering on the network in the first place, but this is a societal issue that does not just affect the wider road network. It will take work across wider Government and anti-littering organisations to continue to drive change in how littering affects areas.

I get the feeling that Minister is coming to a conclusion. All that work is taking place for the future, but unless we address the KSI issue, and unless there is some penalty for the agency not doing what it is required to do, the regulator cannot intervene, because fulfilling its legal requirements is not a KSI for the agency.

I will come directly to the point about the KSI later. I have made a note of my right hon. Friend’s comments.

The debate has focused on litter on the motorways, but I must briefly highlight the work National Highways does with local authorities to combat litter on the roads. National Highways works closely with local authorities to resolve issues as far as is practicable. I will go into a bit more detail momentarily, but there is some good work with local authorities across the country, and the issue requires that interaction between National Highways and local authorities. To continuously improve collaboration and partnership working with local authorities, National Highways shares its maintenance and traffic management plans to allow litter collection to be carried out safely and simultaneously with maintenance, to help bring efficiencies to the process. NH provides a single point of contact to facilitate the co-ordination of litter clearance and provides an induction programme for local authority staff, which includes guidance on how to work with NH and signpost to further information and best practice. The Department expects NH to work with and support local authorities as much as possible to tackle litter on the wider strategic road network, and also at junctions, as litter does not stop at authority or National Highways boundaries.

Performance monitoring is one of the key drivers of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. The importance of litter to the Department and National Highways is highlighted by the fact that it is one of the performance indicators against which National Highways is monitored. The percentage of the strategic road network where litter is graded B or above under the DEFRA litter code of practice is measured. Grade B is defined as a network that is predominantly free from litter and refuse, apart from some small items. National Highways has committed to reporting against that metric annually. However, performance is monitored more regularly by the independent Highways Monitor, at the Office of Rail and Road. I will ask National Highways to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South about its policy regarding his council.

If my right hon. Friend will allow to continue for another minute or so, he can jump in, if he needs to, on the KSI.

The Highways Monitor provides monthly advice to the Department on the performance of National Highways across all its performance metrics, and there is continuous dialogue between the three parties on opportunities for improvement.

I want to ask the Minister about the accuracy of that data. As we heard earlier, we have serious issues with grass and other vegetation disguising litter. Once it is cut, it reveals huge amounts of litter. I therefore question the accuracy of the data, and I wonder what the Minister’s view is on that.

As I said, I will write to my hon. Friend about that, because it is an important point. If there is not proper monitoring, we cannot know what is going on. I want to get to the bottom of policies on grass cutting and other things.

National Highways and the Highways Monitor will report litter performance to the public in their annual reports, providing increased transparency. That happened only in road investment strategy 2. That is the era we are in now—between 2020 and 2025.

As hon. Members know, in 2021-22 National Highways reported that 61% of the network was graded A, which is no litter, or B, which is a small amount of litter. That means that a large proportion of the national highways—39%—has a significant amount. Although that is an improvement on 2020-21, which was about 49%, there is clearly still a lot of work to do. I do not underestimate that. Those grades are alongside DEFRA’s litter code of practice. The data for 2022-23 will be published this summer, so I ask hon. Members to keep an eye out for that.

I think what the Minister is saying to me is that, since I was the Minister, the regulator has not been allowed to look at the individual performance indicator, which is part of the KSI—it can look only at the KSI. Is he saying that the regulator can now look at the performance indicator on its own, or is it still allowed to look only at the KSI? If it is allowed to look only at the KSI, litter will not be on its agenda. He can write to me if he wants.

If my right hon. Friend gives me a short amount of time, I will come to exactly what he is after.

NH believes that this improved practice over the past couple of years is due to sharing best practice between regions, more detailed data on targeted litter collections, and improved engagement with local authorities and authorities that clear litter on A roads, including Transport for London. We are currently developing the third road investment strategy, and continue to explore further metrics for inclusion in it—my right hon. Friend might want to put some specific KSIs in. That will include a performance specification and possible improvements to the specific metrics, including on litter. I will write to him on the specifics of what National Highways has to report, on what it is held accountable for and on those KPIs.

I have a constructive suggestion for the Minister and the Department on producing new metrics. They will be familiar with the job of clearing up TfL’s mess by now—excuse the pun, but it is very deliberate. On the issue of responsibility and the impact of litter going on to motorways, we must consider consumer behaviour. However, there is an issue with some of the junctions that we have all spoken about, where litter is being blown through boroughs from TfL roads—I have mentioned the A2 and the A20. Certain boroughs want to clean the roads and some do not, and that is adding to the problems on motorways. When producing KPIs and working with other bodies, I suggest that the Department ensures that they have their own practices in place, so that this does not add to the pressures on National Highways.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. This is about local authorities working together at TfL level in London and with National Highways, and I will ensure that his views regarding key performance indicators are taken into consideration.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead that the performance indicator is there. There is not a target; this is about monitoring at the moment. That is for RIS2, but KPIs might be exactly where we want to go at the next stage—I want to make that clear to him. We are working to ensure that there are targeted metrics in RIS3 and that the KPIs focus on the things that are most important to road users, and it is quite clear from today’s debate that keeping the highways litter-free is one of them. The current situation is not tenable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, and I will speak to National Highways about the specifics as we look at its KPIs for RIS3. Progress will involve considering responses to the forthcoming public consultation on the National Highways strategic road network initial report, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members, and interested parties, to feed into that. As I said earlier, there are discussions about introducing an awareness campaign going forward.

Regarding enforcement and the use of technology, I have spoken about using education and awareness to influence littering behaviours, and about the work and performance of National Highways in clearing litter from the SRN. I want to cover enforcement and penalties, because right hon. and hon. Members also mentioned them. The Government understand that enforcement plays a key role in this regard, especially for litter thrown from vehicles. The enforcement of penalties for littering is owned by DEFRA, and we work closely with it and National Highways to improve enforcement options. Local authorities may issue fixed penalty notices for littering offences committed in their areas where it can be proven that litter was thrown from a vehicle.

The Littering from Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018 make provision about reporting littering from vehicles in England. In recent years, the Government have bolstered local authority enforcement powers by raising the upper limit on fixed penalty notices for littering and by introducing powers to issue the keeper of a vehicle from which litter is thrown with a civil penalty. As I said, I recently spoke to National Highways and visited its site at South Mimms, where I saw some of the cameras in action. National Highways passes on evidence of the most egregious cases of littering and fly-tipping, but more could be done to co-ordinate its work with local authorities. I will come on to some of that work, on which we are doing a pilot at the moment. In the end, though, it is for local authorities to decide whether to pass on that information and whether they believe they have sufficient evidence to take enforcement action in any given case.

I was going to ask the Minister about enforcement powers. As he has alluded to, National Highways does not have such powers. Is there no possibility that we could consider giving National Highways some of those powers? I have previously had discussions with the organisation about other offences being committed on its network that it is totally powerless to deal with.

That is a broader debate, and it is up to Parliament to decide where these powers lie.

I would like to give a shout-out to a few local authorities. I will mention a couple of other examples later, but North Lincolnshire Council, Newark and Sherwood District Council and North West Leicestershire Council are three that National Highways has said it works very closely with. In the majority of cases, they do prosecute when information is passed on. National Highways is also working closely with Brighton and Hove City Council and East Hampshire District Council too, and I will come on to East Hampshire again.

This is very important. Is the Minister saying, as I think he is, that if an alleged offence takes place on the motorway, a local authority can prosecute that individual or vehicle?

I am, and in certain cases the police might prosecute if it is something more dangerous. National Highways can pass the information to local authorities so that they can prosecute. For the fly-tipping of some larger items, where for example people pull up at the side of the motorway and dump large quantities of rubbish, although the financial responsibility for clearing it up would be with National Highways, the local authorities could prosecute. For local authorities, it could be a win-win in terms of prosecution. National Highways clears it up, but the local authority can issue fixed penalty notices. Government guidance is available for local authorities on dealing with litter and issuing fixed penalty notices in the code of practice on litter and refuse.

Litter may also fall from vehicles that have insufficiently secured loads, as hon. Friends mentioned. That comes under section 8 of the Road Traffic Act 1991, and enforcement in that area is conducted by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and the police, as it is a more serious offence. Road users can contact the DVSA if they wish to report incidents. Hon. Members will probably be aware of people increasingly using dashcams to make such reports to the police and local authorities.

National Highways works with local authorities and the DVSA to ensure that enforcement is carried out where particular issues are evident. That has included providing evidence to local government and the police authorities from its camera network. That is the most effective method of enforcement, because the police and other authorities can look at a range of potential infractions in one go, rather than National Highways doing so in isolation. Currently, National Highways does not have the power to issue fines or prosecute, as it is not an enforcement agency; its focus is on safety and maintaining the road network.

The Government have no plans to give National Highways enforcement powers in tackling litter offences; however, the company is keen to use technology to help transform the roads it manages and create a road network that supports a modern country, and it is keen to work with local authorities to prosecute. I undertake to write to all local authorities after today’s debate to say, “When National Highways pass information to you, please do use it to prosecute,” so that they are all in the same space on that. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, National Highways does not itself issue fines; it is up to individual local authorities to do so.

The Government and National Highways are exploring the potential to harness technology to tackle littering, such as using numberplate recognition cameras for littering enforcement and to influence littering behaviour. We are trialling the use of geofencing to push anti-littering messages to customers’ devices at 29 lay-bys on the A50 and the A180. In lay-bys where no bins are provided, we will push the message to encourage people to take litter home. Where bins are provided, their use will be encouraged. That activity will also enable us to better understand lay-by use. We will help to monitor those messages and their impact on the build-up of litter.

In partnership with East Hampshire District Council, in one of the more interesting developments in this space, we will shortly trial the use of CCTV to capture evidence of people littering in lay-bys in the south-east. We often have more issues in those lay-bys when there is stationary traffic. That is also one of the reasons more issues tend to occur at road junctions. East Hampshire will then issue fixed penalty notices or pursue prosecution —some cases will be very egregious—as appropriate. National Highways is unable to do that, because it is not the litter authority, but it wants to work with the council on it. Litter and vegetation will be cleared at sites so we will have the best ability to monitor the effectiveness of this approach. I will monitor the issue closely and, if it works well, I will happily look at rolling the pilot out more broadly to other local authorities across the country that are keen to do more work in this area.

We have also looked at using dashcams on National Highways vehicles, as well as artificial intelligence from moving vehicles. However, we have not yet found a cost-effective approach that works on littering.

For any approach to work, we need the relevant litter authority to partner with National Highways. I really hope that more local authorities will follow the lead of those local authorities who are working with us on this.

I will write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead on driver awareness courses for littering offences. There have been some increases in fines in recent years, and I will write to him on what we are doing in that space as well. On community service, I will make sure that National Highways reaches out to authorities more, particularly post pandemic.

Let me finish by reaffirming my thanks to colleagues for this insightful debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend is satisfied, at least to some degree, with my response, which makes clear that we recognise the importance of tackling litter and holding National Highways’ feet to the fire to do more in this space.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough mentioned the deposit return scheme. I understand her criticism. It is important that we get it right. We can see from what has happened in Scotland that not getting it right can cause more problems than it addresses. I want to make sure that we are in the right place on that scheme.

On private company contracts, my understanding from a conversation I had earlier today is that some of those privately managed contracts on parts of the motorway are in areas that are most clear of litter. If I find any specific issues on those contracts, I will write to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough.

We will continue to work hard to support the Government’s wider ambitions around litter. We are confident that National Highways shares that ambition. As we move forward, it is important to continue to improve how we can hold it accountable for preventing and tackling litter on England’s strategic road network.

Having sat in his seat, I know how difficult that must have been for the Minister. In good faith, he has espoused what the Government would like National Highways to do. I do not think I am going to hold my breath on that. I know that is sceptical, perhaps even arrogant, but National Highways makes so many promises, not just in this area, but in others too, and does not come through on what it promises.

It is very simple. I do not want a special project in my part of the world—I guarantee that the junctions I have alluded to in this debate will get done in the next couple of days. That is not why I wanted this debate. I wanted to highlight that this country is blighted by rubbish. I specifically picked on the motorway system because there is one organisation that has a legal responsibility. This place put a legal responsibility on it to protect the environment and clear this mess up. Up until now, that has not been happening. Wherever the figures come from—that almost two thirds of the network is clear of rubbish—I am really sorry, but someone needs to go and check. All they need to do is drive down the motorways in my part of the world, under the junctions, and they will see.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered litter on motorways.

Sitting adjourned.