Tuesday 5 July 2016
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Employment for People with Disabilities
I beg to move,
That this House has considered employment for people with disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am delighted to lead this debate, not least because at the moment every Conservative MP seems to want to know me because they want my vote this afternoon, so I have 90 minutes clear of any of that kind of distraction. Much more important, I am delighted to lead this debate because supporting people who have disabilities to live full lives and to enjoy meaningful employment is something I have been concerned with for over two decades.
I know that this Government recognise the need to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from enjoying good access to jobs. They also recognise that little attention has been paid by Governments of all parties to this issue over decades, and as a result there is a significant gap between the employment rate of disabled people and that of the rest of the population. We all accept that if the same proportion of disabled people had been in work as non-disabled people at the time of the last general election, in 2015, an extra 2.268 million disabled people would have been in employment.
I welcome the Government’s Disability Confident campaign, which aims to challenge attitudes towards disability; increase understanding; remove barriers to employment for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions; and ensure that disabled people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations. I do not wish to steal the Minister’s thunder by stating what the Government are doing and how they intend to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, but it is good news that an extra 120,000 people who have disabilities are now in work compared with a year ago. We are certainly going in the right direction, but I believe that much more needs to be done to ensure that people who have disabilities are enabled to secure meaningful employment.
This morning I will argue that the Government’s Work and Health programme, which focuses on those with disabilities and health conditions, is the tool needed to crack the problem, and I will demonstrate that the Government’s work is made easier by the many organisations that are well placed today to remove the barriers in the way of those whom those groups support. I am keen to ensure that every extra penny spent to reduce inequalities in employment opportunities is well spent and delivers for those who need it. I will concentrate on the need, particularly today, to focus our resources on those who have learning disabilities and to ensure that money is used wisely and effectively to enable them to live full lives and be active in the communities they love so much.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I chair the commission on autism. We launched a report yesterday on the barriers to health for people with autism, and we are going to move on to barriers to employment. Does he agree that autism is a disability that is rarely recognised, and that if we got more people with autism into work we would save billions of pounds for the Treasury?
I completely agree. In a moment, I will talk about my background in working with people with all sorts of learning disability, including autism, and the amazing contribution they can make to our local communities and to the workplace. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Supporting people towards independence and meaningful employment is something I have taken an interest in for years. Many of us will have stories about our mothers-in-law. I met my mother-in-law to be long before I met my wife. I met her in the mid-1990s, when I worked as a youth and community worker in Penzance, which is the main town in my constituency. She set up a charity called Choughs Training Project and spent her days supporting people with learning disabilities to learn skills, work in the charity and become active in the community. I was so impressed with the charity’s work that I became its chairman.
One of our most rewarding achievements was to relocate the charity and set up a training café in the heart of the newly built Wharfside shopping centre in Penzance. Over the years, Choughs Training Project—which still exists and is now called Manna’s Diner—has helped large numbers of local people to gain confidence, learn everyday life skills and work within the catering and hospitality sector. I was hooked to that work and went on to manage the Mustard Seed charity in Helston for eight years. During that period, we set up microbusinesses within the charity, and my staff and volunteers supported people with learning disabilities including autism, helping them to grow in confidence and experience and to develop skills that enabled them become more independent. We also helped to chip away at some of the perceptions that can exist in our society of people who have learning disabilities.
Each day, the people we supported made and delivered an amazing range of sandwiches and cakes for local businesses and retail outlets, not only providing a valuable service in the town but engaging in local society, breaking down many of the barriers and bridging the gaps between people with learning disabilities and those who live and work in the town. Every week, we went down to a local National Trust walled garden where we grew fruit and veg in our allotment. Using our own produce and buying direct from local farmers, we boxed up and delivered fresh produce to local homes. What made that work so interesting was that people with learning disabilities were helping local producers to sell more of their produce and were also going into people’s homes. I met many people—particularly older people—who did not meet people from one week to the next. Having someone come into their home who was able to communicate freely, had good social skills and was willing to talk about everyday life was a bright part of their week.
For a time, we ran three community cafés, two of which were in local children’s centres. Again, that brought together different groups in society, helping them to understand the richness and wealth of the local community. In both Penzance and Helston, which is also in my constituency, those projects continue their good work, and many such small but significant initiatives still operate. My experience is that people who have learning disabilities are keen to work and welcome opportunities to learn new skills and play their part in modern society.
I have to say, the hon. Gentleman’s speech is so refreshing that I wish he had stood as leader of his party. I could not have voted for him, but I could have campaigned for him. Is it not a fact that many people on the autism scale find it very difficult to be diagnosed and their condition recognised, and to get access to care? Even children in care with a learning disability can have a 20-month wait for therapeutic care.
I agree. Right next door to where I ran Mustard Seed was a small office for Spectrum, which does amazing work supporting families of people with autism. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are so many elements of this—not just whether a person can work or would like to work, but their whole wellbeing and how we give them full lives, so that they are in a position to contribute in the way they want to. You are absolutely right, and I appreciate that intervention.
Since being elected as an MP, I have taken a particular interest in this field. There is no point in being an MP unless you can do something about the challenges you identify growing up and taking part in local society, so there would be no point in my coming here if I did not attempt to address some of the challenges I found in my professional work previously. I have been doing some very good work, and I recently discovered the positive work of Cornwall People First, which supports people to speak up for themselves and to live full lives. I have watched that charity at work: rather than doing things for our most vulnerable citizens, it stands alongside them and enables them to rise to the challenge, whatever it may be. The great tragedy is that the charity’s funding from Cornwall Council is being reduced from £120,000, which is really nothing at all out of the council’s budget, to £70,000, which means it is able to do about half of what it was doing this time last year at a time when we want people with learning disabilities and other disabilities to be supported and helped much more.
I have got to know the work of Rebuild South West, which is a unique community interest company run by ex-military personnel who work to restore lives while rebuilding properties. It has been working with people who have all sorts of challenges, including disabilities and mental health conditions. It is particularly refreshing that in my constituency, which has 1,030 empty homes—not second homes or holiday homes, but abandoned homes—and people who desperately need family homes, Rebuild South West is working with owners to bring the homes back into use and using vulnerable people who need support to gain skills and to work with others they can identify with. That amazing work is largely without the help of the council and the state.
It is fabulous to hear about my hon. Friend’s experience. Does he agree that many people with mental health problems are looking for work and want to be in work, and that we must give them more support because it is good for them to be in work and good for everyone around them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I welcome her intervention. The mistake in the rhetoric of how we challenge welfare is that it is about saving money, but it is not. It is often about trying to provide people with full lives so that they feel confident and able to contribute and have satisfying work. My hon. Friend is right to mention that. I want to concentrate on learning difficulties because they present particular challenges and I believe I have identified how to resolve them. Anything we can do to help people to grow in confidence and to manage their health issues by supporting them to feel that they have something to offer is good for everyone. Thank you very much for that.
I have recently had the great and amazing privilege of meeting the people behind Helston and the Lizard Works. I used to work in Helston. The Lizard is a lovely part of Cornwall and a tourist area, but it had the highest number of people not in education, employment or training of any rural part of the country. I take a particular interest in the challenges facing people, particularly the young, on the Lizard and how they access work. Helston and the Lizard Works is unique. Many people believe the challenge is too great and that we should accept that some people will never be able to work, but Helston and the Lizard Works does not believe this and through a unique back-to-work business and community-based project in my constituency it has shown that with the correct support people can overcome enormous obstacles and take control of their own future.
It is important to make the point that being jobless is not just an individual’s problem. It is a business and community issue that can have a business and community solution. Helston and Lizard Works has engaged with local businesses and encouraged them to give their time to inspire and support jobseekers. It has run community projects to allow jobseekers the chance to get involved in their local community. It set out to help 40 people into work—I have explained how challenging Helston and the Lizard are geographically—and ended up achieving this for 104 people, which in a rural area such as west Cornwall is remarkable. It has helped many other people besides.
I selfishly mention these projects and examples in my constituency because each one and many more like them throughout the country have three things in common. They are brilliant in what they do, they are well placed to develop this work further and to help the Government to achieve their target for getting for helping people into employment, and they are all strapped for cash. I am arguing that as the Government develop their Green Paper, they should recognise that such groups are well placed to support people as they prepare for work and find work and when they are in work. If we get this right, we can transform the lives of many people, and I am excited about the opportunities ahead.
As I prepared for this debate, I thought back to some of the barriers I encountered when supporting people with learning disabilities. I will touch on them briefly simply to emphasise the contribution that many community groups already on the ground can make and that they are ready to act. The transition from school to work for people with learning disabilities has particular challenges. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to this, and it is also true for people with autism. Community-based organisations could be funded to work with schools and colleges to identify suitable work placements and apprenticeship opportunities, and to support youngsters in this transition period.
Hearing about my hon. Friend’s experience of bringing people with disabilities into the workplace is incredibly valuable to us all. In the Works and Pensions Committee yesterday, one of the ideas I floated over some of the people from whom we were taking evidence was that to encourage more young people into apprenticeships we should incentivise small and medium-sized businesses as we did some years ago for people without disabilities. Does he agree that allowing SMEs to have up to two apprentices with disabilities without having to pay national insurance would help to incentivise them to take on apprentices with disabilities?
I certainly think that such initiatives are important in breaking the deadlock when employers are not absolutely sure that they can provide those opportunities. I am looking at how to make that possible in my office. I understand that support and grants for apprenticeships continue to the age of 25 for people with disabilities. It is important to recognise that advantage, but we should do more.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. The reputation of further education in Cornwall is brilliant—everyone says it is the exemplar. Do you work in partnership with Cornwall College of further education? Is the hon. Gentleman picking up one of the problems we are picking up that some schools that become academies are filtering out people with special educational needs and autism because they think they will pull down their performance in league tables?
Thank you Mr Stringer. I also made that mistake.
I work with FE colleges in Cornwall and other groups such as Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and others. I am talking to all of them and have been since being elected to Parliament to see how we can bridge some of the gaps. I share the concern about academies. League tables, albeit not necessarily the intentions behind them and incentives they put in place, present a problem to schools across the board in terms of how they maintain a high position in league tables and continue to attract children. We must look at the incentives that may marginalise and exclude people. I accept that is important.
It is obvious that different people have different hopes and aspirations. That is equally true of people with learning disabilities and, or autism. Community-based organisations can help to develop a creative and flexible approach to employment and occupation to achieve optimum positive outcomes. That is particularly true of how we work with employers to find opportunities to provide spaces and places for people.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech, and I apologise for missing the first few minutes of it. One option for community organisations working with employers is to set up their own enterprises. ASPIE in my constituency set up Wits End Wizardry, a web design company that was designed to employ people with autism. Does he agree that when community organisations have expertise in dealing with a particular condition, they can bring real value to designing the workspace and supporting employment for people with conditions such as autism?
I agree. Such organisations can also encourage progression and create bespoke opportunities for people with a learning disability. I completely accept that. As the Government put new money into this—the £60 million and the £100 million a year—I hope it will go down to organisations that really understand the opportunities and challenges and their local communities. That is hugely important.
I have found that families of vulnerable people are understandably anxious about how their loved ones would cope in the world of work. We have already heard about the challenges and lack of support as they go through school. It is understandable, then, that as their children go towards that transition, parents will be equally anxious. The organisations with which I am familiar are not seen as part of the system and they have the trust of the families they support. That helps to overcome a real barrier to meaningful employment for those who can otherwise find themselves on seemingly endless day placements and college courses. I have met people with learning disabilities who have done every course available to them and continue to go round and round. That is not giving them full lives.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. The case he is outlining is making an even stronger case for the Government to make early publication of the Green Paper a priority, so that some of these issues can be ironed out and a proper, concrete process can be put in place. Does he agree?
Actually, until today I had been wanting to hurry on the process of the Green Paper, but having achieved this Westminster Hall debate, which I had been seeking for some time, I am glad that we have not had the Green Paper yet, because I am hoping that everything I am suggesting and the other suggestions made today will be included in it. I will be looking to see exactly how my local community organisations will benefit from this morning’s debate in the Green Paper.
One issue that the Green Paper will have to tackle is how the Work and Health programme will use what resources it has most effectively. The Work Choice programme has been incredibly successful, but we suspect that there will not be enough money for that programme to be available to everyone, with any disability, so there are some quite difficult choices to be made. Do we focus on the people closest to the workplace or on those with the most severe disabilities, or do we try to do a mixture of both? Does my hon. Friend agree that the way we use things such as Work Choice, which has been so successful, will be key to success after the paper has been written and the policy is implemented?
I do agree. We need to understand that every penny we spend effectively and successfully now is a penny saved that can be used to support the next individual. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. How do we prioritise? Who should we work with most? Do we just go for quick wins or do we go for the greatest challenge? We must recognise the contribution that people will make to the economy and society if we get this right, as well as the savings to the state. At the moment, so much of what we are spending, almost to maintain the status quo, is not money well spent.
I found that, although willing, employers would be nervous about whether a candidate had the skills and support network needed to work in often busy workplaces. Community-based organisations can build trust with business owners and have the connections to help to equip prospective employees with the skills and confidence they need.
I want to mention a couple of things that need to be taken seriously as we look at the Green Paper. We hear often in the Chamber now about constituents who have written to us to raise a particular issue. The chairman of Cornwall People First, who has a learning disability, asked me to raise the following issue in this debate. At the moment, he has a free bus pass for use after 9.30 am. If he wants to get employment or to access training, that bus pass needs to serve him at a time when people are actually going to work. It would be brilliant if we could talk to local authorities and change that, so that bus passes are free to use when they are actually useful to the people who need them and have a right to them.
Also, we talk a lot about the role of jobcentres, but one of the jobcentres in my constituency, in Penzance, is in a huge granite building that is completely uninviting, and often when I walk past there is a security guard standing at the door. In Helston, there is a large, glass-plated shopfront, and again, by the door stands a security guard. For someone who is vulnerable and feels they are being pressured to take part in a system, that is a barrier in itself. We need to look at how we can improve that.
In recent decades, people with disabilities have made huge progress in the workplace and more are now in work than ever before. However, despite wanting to work and often having the right skills and experience, many people still face significant barriers to accessing employment. I have focused on people with learning disabilities, but that is true for all people who have a disability. As the Green Paper on disability employment is progressed, I would ask that significant consideration and support be given to these small but effective community organisations. They are ready and primed to address the barriers to employment that exist for people with disabilities.
I am a huge fan of Cheshire homes and have enjoyed my visits to the home in Marazion in my constituency. I want to conclude by reading Leonard Cheshire Disability’s statement of belief, which serves as a reminder of why we are taking part in this debate today:
“We believe that disabled people should have the freedom to live their lives the way they choose—with the opportunity and support to live independently, to contribute economically and to participate fully in society.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate on such an important issue. It is about the barriers to employment for many people in our society who are disabled, and I hope that I can bring to it a perspective from Northern Ireland.
We are dealing with people who were born with disabilities and those who were diagnosed later—reference has already been made to people with autism and with special needs. There should be no barriers in society, whether in work or in other spheres of life, for people who are disabled and are seeking to improve their lives, the lives of their families and the contribution that they can make.
Equality and protection of equal rights is vital throughout the UK. Discrimination against those with disabilities in the workplace is rightly forbidden by law. Those who were born with or who develop a disability are entitled to the same amount of respect and the same opportunities as all of us in this Chamber have. Anti-discrimination legislation is a key component in the promotion of employment for those with disabilities and their protection in the workplace, yet it is not sufficient on its own and efforts must be made to influence the work culture. In any discussion about the current Human Rights Act 1998, it is important that the provisions on people who have disabilities in the workplace are not diminished or diluted in any way. It is important that those well-held protections are copper-fastened, secured and sustained.
People with disabilities are not a homogenous group, and employers and colleagues must realise their obligation to accommodate different people’s specific needs. Negative attitudes to disability, both physical and mental, and stigma must be challenged. Employment can not only make an important contribution to the lives of disabled people but demonstrate that they, too, make a significant contribution to our economy and society. They have much to offer and they bring a different perspective, often derived from their disability and their experience due to their disability.
Many people with a disability develop it in adulthood. I support programmes that enable people to develop new skills when they are diagnosed with a disability and forced to retrain. It is important that they are allowed and enabled to do that if it is what they want. However, the Government—I say this advisedly—must learn that a disabled person cannot be sanctioned into work. The current system, and particularly the welfare system, sometimes punishes people with disabilities who struggle to find suitable work. We have seen examples of that throughout our constituencies and particularly in Northern Ireland. It can punish people who may never be able to do the type of paid work—or give the time that is needed—that employers currently value.
This Government, and the previous coalition Government, have hijacked disability rights group language about independence in order to cut the rights of disabled people. Cutting the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance—ESA—would not have supported people with disabilities into work. There is some evidence base for that. Like other Members, yesterday I received a briefing from Parkinson’s UK that clearly states:
“The cut to financial support for those in the ESA work related activity…from April 2017 will push people with Parkinson’s even further from the workplace,”—
when we want to encourage them to stay in or enter the workplace, and can—
“cause unnecessary stress which will make their condition worse and harm their financial situation which may already be precarious.”
The key, here, is recognising the need to challenge attitudes to disabled people in the workplace and to support them if they are able to work. To pile financial pressure on them is counterproductive and cruel. The focus and concentration for Government, and agencies as well, must be to challenge discrimination, as the hon. Member for St Ives highlighted in his very thoughtful contribution. We must make the workplace more equal and we must promote awareness of the support mechanisms that are available. There must be fair treatment in back-to-work schemes for people who may have already been in the workplace and find themselves disabled as a result of an accident but want to contribute to society and make their own lives better. There must be recognition and support for people who cannot work because of their disabilities, but who wish to do so and wish to make that contribution. I look forward to the response from the Minister on this very important issue.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, Mr Stringer. May I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for, as he always does, setting the scene on these issues? It is a pleasure to make a contribution and, like the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), I will give some comments, direction and focus on Northern Ireland. The issue, clearly, is work itself and how we address that.
Despite the great services that exist and the Access to Work scheme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low. That is a fact we cannot ignore and is what this debate is all about. The Government have previously referred to £330 million, which would be spent over the next five years on a tailored peer support offer for disabled people out of work and targeted at work in the ESA or the work-related activity group. That is, of course, welcome, but it should be remembered that the recent Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 cut ESA for this group by £30 a week—other Members have referred to that—saving the Government £640 million and ultimately greatly offsetting the supposed £330 million investment. I am sure that the Minister will give the Government’s side of that, but those are the figures as I see them. The proportion of learning-disabled people known to social services in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14. According to Mencap UK, which represents people with learning difficulties, that proportion appears immune to economic factors. These are clearly issues to be dealt with.
I would like to make some comment, as others have —other hon. Members will probably mention this as well—on those who have served King and country in uniform, and their families. In Northern Ireland we have had some 30 years of troubles; we have a large number of veterans who have mental and emotional issues. I feel that there needs to be more focus on them and their families.
Mencap also says that the fall in numbers of learning-disabled people in employment happened despite the fact that the majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work. There is an eagerness to work, and we should encourage it. The figures are stark if we compare them with the national employment rate of 76% and an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. The Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. Indeed, the pledge was in the Conservative party’s manifesto, and we recognise and welcome it. It is good to see a commitment to it, but that commitment must be met with results. That is how we measure any legislative change or commitment—by the results.
Mencap supports the 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK and their families. They directly support over 10,000 people with learning disabilities to live their lives the way they want and, importantly, to live independently. Many good initiatives are happening across the whole of the United Kingdom. I commend one in my constituency—Daisies Café at the Ards hospital—for the truly excellent and extraordinary work and commitment it gives to those who have emotional and physical disabilities. I know that the café works in the constituency of South Down as well, and across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Fewer than two in 10 people with a learning disability are in employment. Mencap estimates that almost eight in 10 people with a learning disability could work if given the right support; however, that support is often not available or those giving it often do not understand learning disabilities. The estimate of fewer than two in 10 in work is Mencap’s estimate, and the Government’s figures are even lower: the figure for those in work known to social services is 6.8%. Of course, this is just one of many stakeholders and one of many conditions affected in this area, but it is a pertinent example and an indication of a very worrying trend.
Although welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, the facts show that we need to lift our game and do more. The Government need to monitor the disability employment gap, identify the factors that are still preventing it from closing and preventing disabled people from getting into work, and take action on those factors. These are things that the Government can and should do. Every day, every MP will have interactions with those with disabilities. I believe that we are elected to this House to act on behalf of those who need support more, and to help those who cannot help themselves.
Department for Work and Pensions data show that between 2011 and 2015 the number of jobcentres employing a full-time adviser to help disabled people fell by more than 60% from 226 to 90, with reductions in every recorded year. We cannot ignore that issue. We need to know what steps the Government have taken to address the fall in the number of jobcentre advisers, and how we can best help those who are disabled when they come looking for help. I know that the Minister is very responsive—I mean that honestly and sincerely—to the questions that we put to him, and I am sure that he will come back with the steps that the Government intend to take. That reduction surely contradicts the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap, and that cut in services needs to be closely monitored to ensure that it is not having an adverse effect on efforts to reduce disability unemployment.
I will give an example from Northern Ireland, because it is always good to give examples of what the devolved regions are doing so that we can ensure that we have the best practice here in the mother of all Parliaments. We have an additional scheme to help reduce the disability employment gap. As well as the Access to Work scheme, which is a devolved responsibility, there is Workable (NI), which is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. My party colleague Simon Hamilton is the Minister for that, along with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. These organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities, and using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting that sector.
Workable (NI) is a two-year programme that helps people out of tough economic situations, gives them support and hope and properly prepares them for employment. It tailors support to individuals to meet their specific needs. The provision can include support such as a job coach to assist the disabled worker and their colleagues to adapt to the needs of a particular job, developmental costs for the employer and extra training, including disability awareness training. Those are all vital factors for any and all disabled people who want to work. With the fresh start agreement and the streamlining of Stormont Departments in Northern Ireland, I will be sure to keep an eye on progress and bring any positive developments back to this House, so that the best policies being implemented across the United Kingdom are known and taken into consideration here at Westminster.
In conclusion, let us exchange the good points and good practice that we have in every region of the United Kingdom. Lessons can clearly be learned from the approach in Northern Ireland, and we can develop additional strategies here in the mainland to help the Government make good on their commitment to halve the disability employment gap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate and on the manner in which he started the debate, which has continued with other Members. This issue is of supreme importance to Members right across political parties, right across the divide, and we have to work constructively together to address it. It is particularly important to me in Glasgow East, which has a higher than average rate of disability—disabilities that have transpired throughout life, not just birth impairments.
As I have said before in the House, ours is a disabling society. Some are born with impairments whereas some acquire them, and those can be visible and invisible. From time to time, we all get a glimpse of the invisible agency of a society that is organised for the convenience of non-disabled persons. Ours is a society that adds to disabilities; we must endeavour to change it, and employment is at the heart of that challenge.
Today in the UK, the disability employment gap stands at 33%. Of course, the Government have pledged to cut the disability employment gap in half—to put 1.2 million people living with disabilities into work. I thoroughly applaud that target but feel, as many hon. Members across the House may feel, that the Government sadly do not appear to be doing enough to make that aim a reality.
For example, in a speech in August 2015, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), criticised employers for the persistence of the disability employment gap. There is criticism due in that respect but, less than two months later, it was reported that the Department for Work and Pensions had cut the number of specialist disability employment advisers in jobcentres by over 60% between 2011 and 2015. Instead, the UK Government wish to replace those specialists with general, non-specialist “work coaches”.
In jobcentres in my constituency, where there are higher levels of disability, that one-size-fits-all approach has stripped services and advice to the bone. In a constituency such as mine, where unemployment is almost double the national average and competition in a flat jobs market is fierce, people with disabilities are not on an even playing field. Competition for jobs without education for employers in how to support people with disabilities in finding work further economically disadvantages people and deprives the job market of their unique talents and skills.
Charities have said that cutting specialist advisers from jobcentres will undermine the UK Government’s goal of halving the disability employment gap. Will the Minister address those concerns and tell us what assessment the Government have undertaken to ascertain the impact that the changes will have on recipients of the benefit?
The UK’s rhetoric of supporting disabled people does not necessarily reconcile with the reality of the closure of Remploy factories. In 2013, the Government closed nine Remploy factories, with hundreds of disabled people losing their jobs across the UK and Scotland, including in Leven, Cowdenbeath, Clydebank, Stirling, Dundee and Springburn, which is in the neighbouring constituency to mine.
A constituent of mine who worked for 25-plus years as a seamstress has since been put into work experience jobs and inappropriate and short-term employment. She has now been shoehorned bluntly into the care sector, which is completely inappropriate work for her. When the Government made the decision to close the Remploy factories, they pledged an £8 million package to help those who had lost their jobs to transition to mainstream employment. However, figures reported in 2015 show that, of the 1,507 Remploy workers who lost their jobs, 733 had still not secured employment. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s progress on helping Remploy workers to secure mainstream employment? Is he satisfied with that progress?
Stereotypes and stigma still persist in contemporary society. ACAS found that for 42% of disabled people seeking work, the biggest barrier to getting hired was misconceptions about what they could do. Indeed, Geoffrey Wright, a former Remploy worker, described his experience of this. He said:
“I was looking for a job and now I’m not. They take one look at you, you hand them your CV and they never call.”
Last week I visited a wonderful school in my constituency, Cardinal Winning Secondary School, which educates children with a range of additional support needs or spectrum disorders. They learn valuable life skills and skills that will enable some of the pupils to achieve employment when they leave school. The nurturing environment of the school can be contrasted with the fears of some parents that their children will not be given the support when leaving education to continue to fulfil their potential—in employment, the voluntary sector or other areas.
An ageing population, coupled with an increasing pension age, will mean that more people are available and willing to work. People with disabilities have many valuable assets that we are missing out on by failing to break down barriers. The economy loses, society loses and people with disabilities lose. We must rise to the challenge together. It is an opportunity not only for our economy to be more diverse and our society to be more enabling but to break down barriers and to smash stigma and stereotypes—together, across the House, we must rise to that challenge.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. Many of us are reminded every day in our constituencies of the lack of services for disabled people, especially when young people leave full-time education. Today, as we focus on employment for disabled people, we must look at the shortage of careers advice available, which in itself leads to low numbers of registered disabled people engaged in paid employment.
Like other hon. Members, I appreciate all the excellent efforts of various Government Departments, outside organisations and, most of all, carers and volunteers, but there is still a vast gap when meeting the needs of disabled people and getting them into employment. The Equality Act 2010 has gone a long way in protecting the rights of disabled people. Included in the Act is the provision that employers must make “reasonable adjustments” to avoid a disabled person being put at a disadvantage compared with a non-disabled person in the workforce, but we cannot ignore the fact that that there are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age, which represents 19% of the working population. Of that, 1.3 million disabled people in the UK are available and want to work. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work compared with 80% of non-disabled people.
What we are seeing is a very clear difference in the employment statistics for disabled persons and non-disabled persons. I do not want to appear to be having a go at businesses but those figures suggest that non-disabled people are being favoured for jobs. Why is that happening? Is it because of the level of training required, the lack of qualifications, poor social skills or apprehensive employers? I believe it to be a cocktail that includes all those factors. That is why Government need to increase the accessibility of jobs for disabled people.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. One thing that has changed and improved in many ways is assistive technology, particularly for people with conditions such as blindness or deafness. Does he agree that disseminating information about the assistive technologies that are available and making sure that businesses are aware of them and how easy they are to use is an important part of this?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The need to promote awareness of the technologies and what is available to help companies to take on people with additional needs is a valid point.
There are two special schools in my constituency. We fundraise every year for them and try to help them to get young people into employment. Principals, staff, parents and pupils are trying to provide an excellent level of care. The detailed attention that each child receives to ensure that they are developing to their full potential is exceptional. Schools are doing their best to get the best out of young people who have additional needs, but once the child reaches the age of 19—I am referring on this point to Northern Ireland—and is due to leave full-time education, support diminishes. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland recently have set IQ tests for young people. If they reach a score of 70 or above they are deemed ineligible for specific services provided through the Department. This is simply devastating for young people and for their families as they struggle to fulfil the needs of their sons and daughters. The principals of the special needs schools have expressed to me their utter frustration at how quickly all the great work carried out in their schools is being lost as the correct level of support is not available for young people. The reality is that so many of those young people could be out working and adding to the economy, but they cannot get over the initial application phase because the support services are just not there.
I recently visited a social enterprise in my constituency that is providing excellent support, skills and qualifications. Sadly, it is under constant threat of closure due to lack of funding. Its staff train young people in essential social skills that not only equip them for the world of work, but boost their inner confidence. The social enterprise focuses on preparing young people for adult life, encouraging them to reach their goals and giving them invaluable skills. I am currently working closely with a local supported employment organisation, Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, on how we can do more after people turn 19. USEL goes some way in addressing the setbacks faced by disabled people, but we should go further in supporting such organisations and social enterprise initiatives.
Parents have said that there is no flexibility of benefits for their sons and daughters who are heading into work. That has created a significant reluctance for young people to come off benefits and start working. The challenges in their new job may not be something that they can sustain, and if they have given up their entitlements they may have to wait a number of weeks, or even months, before they can claim benefits again; indeed, they may not even receive them at all.
All Members of this House are trying to be proactive in their constituencies. In Upper Bann, I am planning a jobs fair for disabled people in the autumn. I have spoken to the local council, further education colleges, the special needs schools and a number of other organisations in my area, and all are keen to come on board. During the summer recess, we will try to get businesses interested, and see whether we can help people with additional needs and disabilities to fulfil their ambitions in life.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate.
I recently spoke in the Chamber during the debate on the disability employment gap. In that speech, I welcomed the announcement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions of the Green Paper on health and work. I welcomed it on the basis that it would involve a genuine consultation process, that the Government would genuinely listen to stakeholders and that there would be genuine investment in the resulting service. The Green Paper cannot be a conduit for further cuts. It must be boldly resourced if the Government are to get close to their employment gap target. I made clear that this should have been done before the cut to employment and support allowance for those in the work-related activity group and before the cut to universal credit work allowance.
The mistakes of the past cannot, sadly, be undone, but we must do all we can to amend them. Above all else, that requires the publication of a properly-resourced Green Paper to a cast iron, copper-bottomed, concrete timetable. The delays and changes are well known: the White Paper became the Green Paper; the Secretary of State changed from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) to the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb); and the proposed publication date of
“well before the summer break”—[Official Report, 14 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 633.]
became “later this year.” The Secretary of State is currently seeking employment elsewhere, and depending on who the eventual winner of the Conservative leadership contest wishes to surround themselves with, his position may be filled by another candidate anyway. Given that, it is imperative that a clear deadline and concrete timetable are announced as soon as possible. The Government should then abide by that schedule regardless of any future changes in ministerial personnel.
Given some of the ideas that have been floated today, in spite of some of the comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives I hope that he will be an ally in the Scottish National party’s call for an early and immovable timetable for the publication of the Green Paper. The fallout of Brexit and the Conservative party’s internal squabbles may be grabbing the headlines, but hon. Members and Ministers must never forget that such issues, which affect the day-to-day lives of thousands of our constituents, should always be our main priority. Nothing can justify the matter being pushed even further into the long grass. Government must go on.
This debate has been a good example of a non-partisan, non-party political discussion of issues of crucial importance to many of our constituents. The hon. Gentleman disappoints me by going down the track of what might or might not happen in the leadership of the Conservative party. That has no relevance to the debate. It is not about having a precise timetable, to the day and hour, for the publication of a Green Paper. It is about good, long-term solutions for people with disabilities, and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman endorsed that.
I am merely pointing out the fact that, at a time when there are delays to the publication of the Green Paper, the Conservative leadership battle cannot be allowed to get in the way. That is not being partisan or party political. It is merely pointing out the facts. It has been delayed. Why has it been delayed? Why are further delays happening?
The Secretary of State has spoken many times about his wish for a social security system that is focused on people rather than statistics. I therefore used my speech in the Chamber to highlight examples from constituents and my own nephew about problems that the current system has caused for them. Those examples highlighted issues including people in employment not receiving adequate support to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, such as the personal independence payment, which can help to support the additional costs of daily living and access to employment. Disabled people who are not yet ready for employment are being forced to attend the jobcentre due to the flawed ESA assessment system, and this has a knock-on effect on jobcentre staff, who are therefore unable to focus their attention fully on individuals who are capable of looking for work and who need support.
I hope that the Secretary of State took on board the issues that those stories raised and that the Green Paper will outline steps to address those matters. It is important, however, not to forget about statistics completely. For example, 14,000 people have lost access to mobility vehicles as a result of the replacement of disability living allowance with PIP. That causes obvious problems for those trying to seek or maintain employment.
Parkinson’s UK’s statistical research shows that more than 17,000 people between the ages of 20 and 64 are living with Parkinson’s across the UK. Those individuals have an average working life of 3.4 to 4.9 years after diagnosis, and a mean retirement age of 55.8 years compared with the then UK average of 62 years. As the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said, financial support is critical to those people and the cuts are harming opportunities. Those statistics and many others like them that relate to individuals living with other diseases and disabilities highlight the challenges and opportunities that a disability presents to a person’s employment.
Parkinson’s UK notes that people with the condition have experiences that mirror the general trend of people with disabilities in that they are less likely to be in employment and more likely to experience unfair treatment at work than someone without a disability. That highlights the double focus that any employment and disability legislation must address: how to increase opportunities for disabled people who are out of work while ensuring that those in employment have all the support available to remain and progress in their roles.
In the 2015 spending review, it was announced that the Work programme and Work Choice would be replaced in 2017 by a new Work and Health programme. Although the scheme will be targeted at a reduced number of participants, Leonard Cheshire Disability highlighted that payments will be spread more thinly as annual expenditure for the scheme will be £130 million by 2020 —an 80% reduction on the current combined expenditure on the Work programme and Work Choice. Time does not allow further discussion of all recommendations made by Leonard Cheshire Disability, but I recommend its briefing paper to all hon. Members.
Back when we were waiting on the White Paper, the spending review and the autumn statement 2015 promised it would contain
“reforms to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities, including exploring the roles of employers, to further reduce the disability employment gap and promote integration across health and employment.”
I hope that the Green Paper—when it appears—will contain those aims alongside proposals of how best to achieve them. The Government have already lost valuable time on making progress in disability employment by withdrawing their commitment to publish a White Paper and by delaying the publication of the Green Paper, with no date yet agreed.
It is our responsibility to work towards the day when every person is equally valued. In doing so we will ensure that disabled people have the freedom to live their lives as they choose and to participate fully in society, and our society as a whole will be immensely better off for it. I therefore hope that the Minister will heed these words and ensure that that becomes a reality as soon as possible.
I commend the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and the other hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate. Between Cornwall, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic fringes have been well represented this morning. I just wonder where everyone else is.
We debated this subject in the main Chamber a few weeks ago, and many of the issues raised in that debate have been rehearsed today. I note the hon. Gentleman’s special interest in the lives of learning disabled adults, which I am sure we all share, but it is important that we have had a broader debate today. The hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) made helpful distinctions between the different challenges faced by those with lifelong disabilities and those with acquired disabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and others set out the wider context of disabled people’s lives.
I still have deep-seated concerns about the difficulties that disabled people face in accessing the labour market and staying in work, especially those with more severe and fluctuating conditions. I have pointed out many times the flaws in the current system and how they combine to make circumstances extremely challenging for those who have to overcome barriers to employment because of disability or health conditions. Those flaws include the shortcomings of the work capability assessment; the failures of the Work programme; the devastating impact of the new sanctions regime on people who are found potentially fit for work or work-related activity but who cannot comply with the conditions attached to their ESA or jobseeker’s allowance; support being cut in people’s transition from DLA to PIP; and people’s income being reduced by cuts to ESA and work allowances.
Life has got a whole lot harder for many disabled people over the past few years. The support for many of those who are in work has been reduced, and those who are looking for work or taking part in work-related activity have been put under enormous pressure to comply with unrealistic conditions. Those who are not fit for work have too often felt themselves to be scapegoated or demonised as shirkers and malingerers and subjected to repeated and counterproductive assessments of their fitness to work. Too many disabled people, both in work and out of work, have experienced a lack of respect and understanding in their encounters with the state and have felt their dignity undermined.
Austerity has taken a very heavy toll on disabled people, yet there has not been much gain for all that pain. The rate of disabled people’s employment has been stuck for quite some time. I have previously been very critical of the assumption at the heart of Government that the support offered to sick and disabled people through social security creates, to quote the Chancellor, “perverse incentives” to keep them out of the workforce. There is no evidence that slashing the incomes of sick and disabled people helps them to find work. Quite the reverse: austerity has compromised the health and wellbeing not only of sick and disabled people but of the family members who support and look after them. Taking away the entitlement to a Motability car from thousands of people makes it significantly harder for them to sustain employment or to get into work. It reduces their options and increases their dependency on family members. Raising the bar on entitlement to support means that carers of those who lose benefits also lose their support but still have to provide the care for free.
I have met too many constituents with long-term health conditions who have fallen through the safety net of social security. Despite having worked and contributed for decades prior to the breakdown of their health, they have dropped out of the system altogether. Frankly, I am sick of referring people for church food parcels who should be getting better support from statutory agencies. There is recognition on both sides of the House that the UK needs to take a very different approach. The Government promised us a White Paper in the spring; then it was summer; then it was a Green Paper, and now the prospect has since been batted even further into the long grass. Yes, let us take time to reflect and to get this right, but we still need a timescale. I sincerely hope that the Minister will set that out today—this is a great opportunity to do so.
The consultation period ahead of the Green Paper gives the Government an opportunity to get disabled people around the table, along with organisations that represent their interests. There is a lot of expertise out there, and valuable perspectives on what does and does not work. For instance, Disability Agenda Scotland points out that the Work Choice programme has been far more effective in delivering results—sustained employment—than the Work programme and provides more intensive and extensive support for participants. A third of those taking part in the Work Choice programme delivered by the employability service of the Scottish Association for Mental Health find sustained employment, which is significantly more than for any other approach of which I am aware. Advisers have limited case loads and spend much more time with each person and with employers, and they also help people to apply for Access to Work funding.
In contrast, most of the emphasis in current programmes is on helping to prepare and equip unemployed disabled people for the workplace. If we want to secure a step change, the real trick is to prepare and equip employers not just to take on more disabled staff but to retain staff who become disabled or develop long-term health problems. Access to Work can play a crucial role in aligning the needs of businesses with employment programme outcomes, but it can also help businesses to adapt when a valued employee develops a condition that makes it harder for them to do their job. I wholly accept that certain jobs and certain conditions may be incompatible, but there are many, many occupations that can be sustained with the right adaptations.
This cannot just be about changing employers’ attitudes. Let us acknowledge that the take-up of schemes such as Disability Confident has been fairly low. We have seen some degree of cultural change in recent years in terms of flexible working, which has probably been driven more by labour market requirements than by concerns about disabled people’s employment rights. We should also remember that flexibilities have cut both ways, with a sharp rise in zero-hours contracts and more insecure and unpredictable working patterns. The hon. Member for South Down, echoed by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), made a good point about legal and human rights protections for disabled people, and those issues need to be part of our debate—they are perhaps more contextually important now than they have been for some time in the wake of the events of the past couple of weeks.
In general, large public sector and voluntary organisations have been much more successful than smaller employers in employing disabled people, perhaps because they are more likely to have professional human resources or occupational health staff in situ. It might also be easier for larger organisations to cover unplanned absences. The challenges of taking on someone with, for example, a fluctuating condition are likely to be far more acute for a small business or in certain manufacturing processes. Encouraging cultural change will not cut it if there are no resources to back that up. We need to make it much easier and more affordable for employers to do more to support their disabled staff and to keep them in work.
Small and medium-sized businesses in particular need cost-effective ways of managing and mitigating what they see as the risks of taking on staff with a chequered work history. Most jobs in the UK are with small and medium-sized enterprises, which will therefore provide most of the opportunities for disabled staff. The potential win-win for employees and businesses will be huge if those hurdles can be overcome, but there is a need to build confidence by improving concrete support for employers in the event that, say, someone with a fluctuating condition has a relapse or goes through a spell where they cannot work at full capacity. If employers do not have some means of insulating themselves from such unpredictable situations, we are unlikely to make much headway in reducing the employment gap for disabled people.
The last time we debated these issues, I referred to the Resolution Foundation’s recent report on the retention deficit in employment. The report makes lots of practical suggestions for policy change, such as keeping a person’s job open for up to a year after the start of their sickness absence. The model is similar to maternity leave. It would help people to stay in work and it could also be of huge benefit to people who are recovering from illness and who are expected to make a full recovery, but it will only work if, say, we reimburse the statutory sick pay costs of firms that support their employees to make a successful return to work. I hope the Government are seriously considering those recommendations.
The Resolution Foundation also recommends making early referrals to support for people who find that they are unlikely to be able to return to their previous job, which will be a growing demographic challenge. We should not wait until someone becomes long-term unemployed before making targeted and individualised interventions. For those forced to leave work, the loss of personal confidence and social contact often pushes them further away from the labour market. I therefore hope that the Government take all that work on board.
In the absence of a Green Paper, disabled stakeholders, disability groups, community organisations, carers, employers and, indeed, MPs are all scrabbling about in the dark. The process needs to be transparent and inclusive, and I hope the Minister will get it properly under way and set out a timetable as soon as is feasible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this important debate. I find it interesting to hear about the practical projects in rural west Cornwall with which he has been involved. I also note his comments about how those projects have always found themselves strapped for cash. It is an enduring issue.
This has been a worthwhile debate. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) pointed out that anti-discrimination legislation, while a vital component, is insufficient on its own, and that we must always challenge negative attitudes to people with disabilities. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded the Minister to consider the impact of the cut of £30 a week to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) rightly mentioned the closure of nine Remploy factories in 2013. She asked the Minister to update us on progress in providing support for former Remploy employees and pointed out that 733 of the 1,700 people who lost their jobs have still not secured employment. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) rightly called for a clear timetable for the publication of the Minister’s Green Paper.
There are approximately 12 million people living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness in the UK, of whom 5.7 million are of working age. Although 4 million people with disabilities are already working, another 1.3 million are fit for work and want to work, but are currently unemployed. However, as we have heard, the gap in the employment rate between disabled and non-disabled people has grown under this Government to 34%, a 4% increase since they came into office. The vast majority of disabled people—90%—used to work. This is a waste of their skills, talents and experience.
As study upon study has shown, the Government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap rings hollow. It is estimated that, at the current rate, it will take until 2030 to do so. The shelved White Paper, with the promise of a strategy defining support for disabled people, is yet another broken promise, so I join others in their request to Minister today: will he tell us definitively when he will produce his Green Paper?
This debate comes down to whether the Government believe in the principles underpinning the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are signatories. Fundamentally, they are that disabled people should be able to participate fully in all aspects of society, including work, and to access the same opportunities as everyone else, including opportunities to use their talents and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel they are unable to reach their best potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. Do the Government support the principles and articles of the UN convention? If so, when will they publish their response to the UN committee’s report investigating the UK’s breaches of the convention?
What is the Government’s planned negotiating position in relation to disabled people with regards to the exit of the EU? What EU legislation tackling disability discrimination and enhancing accessibility for disabled people will we retain? For example, will we retain the 2000 employment equality framework directive prohibiting disability discrimination, which dramatically strengthens UK disability employment law?
The Government set the tone for culture and society, and this Government have made their views abundantly clear through their swingeing cuts to social security support for disabled people, including the recent ESA WRAG cut of £1,500 a year, and an overhaul of the work capability assessment process, which has managed to be both dehumanising and ineffective and has been associated with profound mental health effects, including suicides. The Government’s sanctions policy, targeting the most vulnerable, has brought people to the brink—sadly, people have died under it—and the personal independence payment debacle is making it harder for disabled people to stay in work. There is also the closure of the independent living fund. I could go on, but I will not, due to the shortage of time.
This is happening across all Departments. In the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, disabled people are being marginalised. Given that 12 out of 14 economic analyses forecast an economic downturn over at least the next year, will the Minister ensure that public spending for disabled people will not be hit yet again? I would like a clear response on that point.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published its report last week on this Government’s austerity agenda, and the recommendations were damning. On unemployment for disabled people, the committee recommended that the Government
“review its employment policies to address the root causes for unemployment and include in its action plan time-bound goals with a specific focus on groups disproportionately affected by unemployment, such as…persons with disabilities”.
The committee also recommended that the Government review their austerity policies and programmes introduced since 2010 and
“conduct a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of these measures on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups, in particular women, children and persons with disabilities”.
On social security, the committee recommended that the Government
“reverse the cuts in social security benefits introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016”.
Will the Minister commit to implementing the UN’s recommendations on issues highlighted by Labour Members for many years now, address the disability employment gap effectively, produce a cumulative impact assessment and reverse the measures in the 2012 and 2016 Acts that have had a devastating effect on many disabled people?
What needs to happen? Addressing those issues, including the disability employment gap, needs political will. If 90% of disability is acquired, why are we doing so little to help employers to retain skilled and experienced employees who may become poorly or disabled? We need practical measures to support disabled people at work, enabling them to thrive and protecting them from leaving the labour market prematurely. Some disability charities have recommended more flexible leave arrangements, as well as extending Access to Work. Even if the Government do finally increase Access to Work from the 37,000 or so who were helped last year, it will still be available only to a tiny proportion of the 1.3 million disabled people who are fit for work. In the current economic climate, what assurances has the Minister had from his colleagues that Access to Work funds will be increased?
The Disability Confident scheme needs to be rebooted. The latest revelations that only 40 mainstream private sector employers across the UK have been involved since its inception three years ago show that the scheme is, to put it mildly, clearly inadequate. What measures are in place to monitor its efficacy? For those employers who work hard to recruit and retain disabled employees, how does the scheme apply to their procurement policies and supply chains?
Of course, more needs to be done to help disabled people back into work. As we have argued for over a year, the WCA must be replaced with a more holistic, whole-person assessment. The current system to assess eligibility for social security support is not fit for purpose and should be completely overhauled. However, such changes would also need to be reflected in new departmental and Jobcentre Plus key performance indicators that do not focus just on getting people “off flow” as a successful outcome. Given that so many of those people also have PIP assessments, we should also consider how to bring the two together.
Instead of the increasingly punitive sanctions system, more appropriate support is needed. It is also essential to maintain and increase specialist disability employment advisers in jobcentres, as several hon. Members have said. The current figure of fewer than one such adviser to 600 disabled people will not contribute to halving the disability employment gap. I would also like to see advisers’ role extended to working with businesses.
Current commissioning and payments for the Work programme and other welfare to work programmes need rethinking as well. We must improve specialist support, looking at what works. Although Work Choice has better outcomes than other programmes, it may not be the only solution. The individual placement and support scheme for people with mental health conditions is another example.
As we have said before, greater integration is also needed between Departments: not just between the Department for Work and Pensions and the national health service, but between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and those bodies responsible for economic development. For example, if someone with a musculoskeletal issue or a mental health condition needs to take time off work, they need appropriate early intervention to help them back to work. We need to understand the bottlenecks in the local system that might affect that. We also need to reflect on the drive for flexible labour markets and what it means for supporting people with long-term or fluctuating conditions back into work—or, most probably, out of work, then back into work and so on.
There are clear geographical variations in the disability employment gap, but also in the strength of local economies and the availability and type of jobs, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East made clear in her intervention. It is well established that the prevalence and geographical pattern of sick and disabled people reflects the industrial heritage of our country. Contrary to the Government’s “shirkers and scroungers” narrative, incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators.
It is also clear that local economic conditions—whether the economy is thriving or not—will determine how readily sick and disabled people will be able to return to work. Again, geographical analysis shows that people with equivalent conditions in the economically buoyant London and the south-east are more likely to be in work than those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west or Wales.
It is more than 70 years since legislation was first introduced to prohibit employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Sadly, we are still fighting to address such discrimination and the inequality in employment still faced by disabled people. Changing attitudes and behaviour needs cultural change. We in the Labour party will always promote that change and work to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), not only for his 20 years of experience, but for his powerful and well respected speech today. I met with him previously to learn at first hand of his experiences and knowledge in this area, and I was incredibly impressed in that meeting. I want to make it clear that as we work towards the Green Paper, and then the White Paper, he has to be very much at the heart of that, drawing on his vast experience, and also the experience of his very popular mother-in-law.
I pay tribute to Manna’s Diner, to the Mustard Seed charity, to Cornwall People First—just to reassure the gentleman who was concerned about using the bus before 9.30 am, that is an example of where Access to Work could help, so it is worth looking at that—to Rebuild South West, to Helston and the Lizard Works and to Cheshire Homes. I trust I have remembered all the organisations my hon. Friend mentioned, and I put on record my thanks for all the great work they have done. He summed up his own speech perfectly with the three phrases about brilliant organisations. We need to empower those organisations to ensure they are at the heart of helping disabled people to find work, and they are well placed to help because they have the local knowledge, connections and goodwill, which are absolutely integral, and are familiar with the challenge of accessing cash.
I will whistle through some of the questions asked by other Members and then set out what the Government aim to do. I thank all the speakers in this proactive and positive debate; if I miss anything raised today, I will be happy to meet any individual MP face to face, as I have already done with a number of colleagues. The hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the importance of employers recognising changing circumstances and opportunities. They also touched on funding, which was picked up by many other speakers. The Government are increasing funding to support people with disabilities and long-term health conditions every single year of this Parliament, right through to 2020. We are currently spending £3 billion a year more than when we came into office. The hon. Member for Strangford highlighted the importance of Mencap, which is at the heart of the work we do; its policy team is very proactive.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and others mentioned disability advisers. The situation is now being changed: we are rapidly re-recruiting and are looking to get to 500 disability advisers.
I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) for committing to hold a reverse jobs fair. More than 50 MPs across the parties have signed up for that—I had one in my own constituency. I will return to that shortly.
The Minister and I have discussed reverse jobs fairs before, and I want to give him some feedback from my reverse jobs fair in Worcester. When I opened the new Waitrose in Worcester the other day, I was introduced to one of its partners, who was completely deaf and who was hired as a result of that Disability Confident initiative.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is one of the most proactive MPs in supporting our initiatives. He is a real credit to his constituency.
I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) about the Green Paper; I will come back to that later. He and others raised the issue of Motability cars; we have increased the number of people accessing the Motability scheme by 22,000. I reassure him that Parkinson’s UK, who I met again yesterday, and Leonard Cheshire are two major stakeholders who are very much involved in the work we are doing.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) mentioned the Resolution Foundation report. I attended and spoke at the launch, and the foundation has asked some important questions and has made its own suggestions and recommendations, which can be considered in the Green Paper.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on stepping up to be my shadow today. As I said, we are increasing funding. The work capability assessment is not perfect. It was introduced by the Labour Government, who made tweaks to it themselves. The coalition Government made tweaks and we have tried to make tweaks. We all accept that it has to change; that is a given, and we will look at that in the Green Paper. It is important to remember that the personal independence payment is not work-related—it is separate. It is ESA that is work-related. On the change from the disability living allowance to PIP, only 16.5% of claimants accessed the highest rate of benefit under the DLA; under PIP the figure is 22.5%. As a benefit, the PIP is far better at accessing the most vulnerable in society and providing them with adequate support.
Access to Work helped 37,000 people last year. I understand that, as an absolute number, that is a relatively small percentage, but we must remember that not everybody on Access to Work has a lifetime award—sometimes it is a one-off adjustment or an occasional adjustment—so the scheme actually helps far more than that. We have had confirmation of an increase in funding for an additional 25,000 places, and we are actively doing all we can to let small and medium-sized businesses in particular, which are responsible for 45% of jobs, know about the scheme. I will come to Disability Confident, and I have already covered the disability advisers.
The Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap. That was announced personally by the Prime Minister, which gives me some extra bargaining tools when I talk to other Departments, to the public sector and to the private sector. Disability Confident is an important part of that. Some 690 organisations have now signed up; we are making changes to the scheme, with greater asks of larger employers in particular, and are recruiting more than 100 organisations a month now, so it is beginning to accelerate quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives made the very powerful point that employers are nervous and we need to build trust. That is absolutely right. Disability Confident is part of that process, with signposting and sharing best practice, along with reverse jobs fairs, which I am encouraging all MPs to get involved in, particularly those who are most critical of the Government. They can do their bit to be proactive and host their own reverse jobs fairs. The way it works is that I got 22 local organisations in my constituency—the sorts that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives highlighted in his examples—into a room. Working with local media, I got more than 70 small and medium-sized businesses that were looking to recruit people to come into that room and say, “These are the skill gaps that we’ve got.” We introduced them to those organisations and lots of job outcomes came from that.
Building on that, we decided to carry out a pilot of small employer officers, who literally doorstepped local employers and, over a cup of tea, discussed the huge hidden talent that could be matched to those employers’ skills gaps. Those pilots have been really successful, and I am pushing hard for them to be rolled out nationally, as part of the summer Budget funding. Working with the disability advisers in the jobcentre and all the support organisations, whether national providers or local charities, we can get the busy small and medium-sized businesses that are lacking confidence and knowledge of the talent that is out there, and hook them together.
That is crucial, because I have seen so many disabled people who are playing by the rules, engaging with the Work programme, the Work Choice programme or the different charities, and doing their bit to find work. Without opportunities at the end of that, they will continue to loop round the system, getting ever less confident and ever further away from the jobs market. Everything we do has to be underlined by matching that up to employers. I am really excited by what a difference that can make, and I have seen from working with employers how tangible that difference can be.
Learning disabilities were at the heart of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. Those with a learning disability have a 6% chance of having a meaningful and sustainable career. As a group, they are the furthest away from the jobs market. All Governments of all political persuasions have tried and have tweaked, but have not budged that figure.
I recently visited Foxes Academy near Bridgwater, which had set up an old hotel. In their town, the opportunities are in hotels, restaurants and care homes, so those are the skills they provide for their young adults—the equivalent of sixth form—as well as teaching skills for independent living. In their third year, students go and have a supported year in industry, after which 80% of them remain in work, of which 45.6% are in paid work. Even the conservative figure of 45.6% is so much better than 6%.
I challenge officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to say “The Government are committed to 3 million more apprenticeships. Why are we not doing more to open them up, particularly to those with learning disabilities?” We set up a taskforce, which has now concluded, and we will shortly be announcing its recommendations. If we can open up access to those 3 million places, that will make a huge difference.
The Green Paper is a priority for the Government. It is well supported by stakeholders, who understand that, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives set out so clearly, when we use their experience and knowledge, we can make real and good decisions. But it cannot be rushed; we have to do it as and when we get all the right questions answered and the right information. It will come this year and will be done in the right and proper manner with the full support of the stakeholders who I regularly engage with.
We will continue to work with the jobcentre network to upskill. Universal credit will give individuals the opportunity, for the first time, to have a named coach who will support them both in getting into work and once they are in work. I am proud of our record: 360,000 more disabled people in work in the last two years. It is right that local best practice should be integral to that.
I am grateful to the hon. Members who have contributed to this valuable debate, and to the many organisations, including Scope, Leonard Cheshire and Cornwall People First, that have helped to inform it. Breaking down the barriers to employment for people who live with disabilities is a very real and important challenge. I would not have requested this debate if I thought I was wasting my time, other Members’ time or, indeed, your time, Mr Stringer. I am here because I am confident that the Minister understands the urgency and the importance of the issue and the opportunities presented if we get this right.
I want to live in a society that refuses to accept the barriers that currently exist for so many. I believe in equal opportunities for all. We are promised a richer economy and a richer society if we deliver for our most vulnerable people. Finally, I would like to say that I will be holding my own reverse jobs fair in October.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Gwynfor Evans and Welsh Politics
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the commemoration of the contribution of Gwynfor Evans to Welsh politics.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Stringer. It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to introduce this debate in honour of the late, great Gwynfor Evans. Before I start in earnest, I thank Lord Dafydd Wigley for sharing his 2012 lecture on the life and work of Gwynfor. I am also indebted to Gwynfor’s former chief of staff, Peter Hughes Griffiths, for his invaluable input. As one of his parliamentary successors, it is an enormous honour for me to pay tribute to him in this House for his achievements and contribution.
Gwynfor was the greatest Welshman of the 20th century. I never had the privilege of meeting him, which is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I travelled to his funeral in Aberystwyth with my predecessor, Adam Price, a matter of days before the 2005 Westminster election. We do not do state funerals in Wales yet, but that day was most certainly an unofficial one. The town ground to a standstill as people travelled from all parts of our country and beyond to pay their respects.
In his lecture, Dafydd Wigley answered his own question on why Gwynfor was so important to Wales and our nation. At the funeral, he said in his tribute:
“If Gwynfor had not believed with such passion, exhibited such an unwavering commitment, such an incredible perseverance, then Wales would not be what it is today. It was he who created the aspiration within us”.
That is why Gwynfor is seen as the father of modern Wales. Without him, we would not have our own Senedd, our own Government, or a clear demand among our fellow citizens for greater autonomy. It is a fitting tribute that the latest YouGov poll last night put Welsh support for independence within the EU at 35%.
Without Gwynfor, we would not have our own dedicated Welsh language channel. Perhaps more importantly, we would not have our clear sense of Welsh nationhood—that common bond displayed so wonderfully over recent weeks at the Euro 2016 championship in France. Without him, we would not be discussing yet another Wales Bill later today. Of course, his influence goes far beyond our country. Arguably, without him Scotland would not be on the verge of independence—an inevitability hastened by the events of 23 June.
The brilliant Wales football manager Chris Coleman said after the famous 3-1 victory over Belgium in the quarter final of the Euro 2016 championship last Friday:
“Don’t be afraid to have dreams. Don’t be afraid to fail”.
He was not referring to Gwynfor when he said those words, but they sum up the impact that the great man had on the thinking of the generations of Welsh nationalists who followed him.
The stimulus for this debate was, of course, Gwynfor’s incredible victory in the Carmarthen parliamentary by-election in 1966, exactly 50 years ago. Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs in Welsh political history is the one of Gwynfor, perched on the balcony of the guildhall in Carmarthen, addressing the thousands upon thousands of people who had converged on the town that summer evening on 14 July 1966.
At the time of the by-election, Plaid Cymru was in a very bad position. We had contested 23 Welsh constituencies in the 1966 general election and lost deposits in every seat but two. There were real divisions within the national movement about the way forward following the election, and about the despair felt at the powerlessness of the people of Wales to stop the drowning of our valleys for English exploitation once Tryweryn had been opened.
The party, in a Brexit state of financial despair, was only able to fight the by-election following the generosity of that other great political leader of Carmarthenshire, D. J. Williams, who sold his family home, Penrhiw in Rhydcymerau. In a result that changed history, Gwynfor won 39% of the vote and secured a majority of 2,000. It was an earthquake that shook Welsh and UK politics to its core. It blew apart the myth that Plaid Cymru could never win a parliamentary election. It inspired generations to fight for the cause of Wales and, thankfully, secured the principle that the national movement could achieve its political objectives via constitutional means.
I join in the tribute to Gwynfor, who I met once when he was campaigning for S4C. The Carmarthen by-election laid the ground for the fantastic by-election in Hamilton the following year, when Winnie Ewing won for the Scottish National party and started the rise of our party. We pay great tribute to Gwynfor and to the history of both our parties.
I am grateful for that intervention, which shows the very close links between Plaid Cymru and the SNP. I shall be referring to the Hamilton by-election shortly.
Gwynfor’s victory was no fluke. In March 1967, Vic Davies won 39.9% of the vote in the Rhondda and cut the Labour majority to just 2,000. In 1968, the polymath Professor Phil Williams won more than 40% of the vote in Caerphilly, losing by only 1,800 votes, with a swing of 29%. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was in a state of panic about the national upsurge in Wales and Scotland, where the SNP’s Winnie Ewing had won the Hamilton by-election in November 1967, so he set up a royal commission. The resulting report by the Kilbrandon commission was published in 1973 and recommended legislative Parliaments for Scotland and Wales.
For Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor’s victory led to representation in this House over the past 50 years by politicians of incredible calibre. Gwynfor was followed by Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Elis-Thomas in 1974; Ieuan Wyn Jones in 1987; Cynog Dafis and Elfyn Llwyd in 1992; Simon Thomas in a by-election in 2000; and my direct predecessor, Adam Price, and Plaid Cymru’s current parliamentary leader, my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), in 2001. I was elected in 2010, and my talented hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was elected in 2015. I genuinely stand on the shoulders of giants—politicians whose names will be celebrated in Welsh history for eternity. Without Gwynfor, though, it is highly unlikely that any of the aforementioned individuals would have graced this place and made their own vital contributions in developing our nation.
In this House, Gwynfor made his mark on a plethora of political subjects. His deep commitment on issues such as nuclear disarmament, industrial democracy, social co-operation and international concord allowed him to make a significant impact on Westminster politics. Men of conviction often face ridicule from their detractors. As they say, “First they ignore you, then they fight you, then they agree with you”. That was certainly the case for Gwynfor, who faced personal hostility unworthy of this House. However, much like other great political leaders across the world, from Ghandi to Mandela, at the time of his death there was a general recognition across the political spectrum that his contribution transcended partisan lines.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I definitely believe that we would not be where we are without Gwynfor’s contribution. Even if they did not agree with him, everybody accepted that he based his politics on principle, and that everything he did was aimed at creating a better Wales.
Gwynfor was born in 1912 in the Barry. He was brought up in a deeply Christian family, and his religious non-conformism was very important to him. Despite the huge political pressures on him, Gwynfor continued to teach Sunday school at his local chapel in Llangadog after moving to Carmarthenshire. While I was doing research for this speech, I learned of Gwynfor’s great love of cricket. He represented the Welsh schools team during the 1930 season. Since being elected, I have campaigned for a Welsh national side. Considering the fact that in the past decade our great nation has reached a rugby world cup semi-final and won three grand slams, and that tomorrow our football team will play for a place in the Euro 2016 final—I am wearing a Welsh national football tie in their honour—it is about time we had a national cricket team.
Gwynfor awakened to the cause of Wales while at Aberystwyth University. It must be contagious, as both myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd were fortunate enough to study there, as was the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—I am delighted to see him in his place and that he will be responding to the debate. I am informed that the piece of literature that sealed the proverbial deal was the masterpiece “The Economics of Welsh Self-Government”, by my political hero D. J. Davies. D. J. had written his booklet in 1931, and by 1934 Gwynfor was a fully paid up member of Plaid Cymru. As Gwynfor’s biographer, the BBC journalist Rhys Evans, said, that changed Welsh history:
“It was Gwynfor who created the national movement…Gwynfor was also the founder of the Parliament for Wales campaign…There is now a lasting memorial to that organisation in Cardiff Bay—it is the Assembly, the unmistakable symbol, for better or worse, of the desire of the people of Wales to live as a democratic nation.”
In 1937, Gwynfor became a member of the party’s national executive committee and by 1943 he was vice-president. Then, at the Llangollen conference of 1945, just five days before the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, he was elected as president of Plaid Cymru, aged just 32. He would remain the party’s leading political figure for the next 36 years.
Despite his burning nationalism, it is important to remember that Gwynfor was a great internationalist. He was also a committed pacifist, so I am sure that he would have been proud that I am probably the only living person on Earth who has entered the Pentagon and proclaimed, in a meeting with the top military brass, that I am a member of an anti-war party. I am sure Gwynfor would have enjoyed my mischievous intentions.
For Gwynfor, his pacifism was arguably even more important than his nationalism, and he campaigned vigorously against the Vietnam war. His economics strongly supported economic units that are larger than nations, which I suppose is a lesson for Brexiters. He believed that a free market is a device that safeguards the individuality of nations. He strongly supported a British single market and I suspect that if he were alive today he would be doing everything he could to secure tariff-free access to the European single market.
It is not called “the national struggle” for nothing, and Gwynfor’s career is living proof of that. He had to overcome several bitter electoral losses. In his darkest moments, he would walk from his home in Talar Wen, near Llangadog, and climb the slopes of the Garn Goch. Like many of my fellow citizens, I find that our beautiful landscape is a source of endless inspiration and therapy. The love for our land and our people is the basis of our politics. It is fitting, therefore, that Gwynfor’s memorial is suitably located on that barren mountain, which overlooks the beautiful Tywi valley.
However, there is no doubt that for Gwynfor the biggest political blow was the devastating loss of the 1979 referendum. With a Government majority of only three, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party MPs skilfully forced the concession of national referendums in their respective countries. While Scotland voted yes, only to be denied their own parliament by a clause that required a threshold of 40% of the electorate voting for change, Wales voted overwhelmingly against even a meagre form of self-government.
Dafydd Wigley wrote that Gwynfor wanted to accept that the Labour Government were sincere in their promise that they supported devolution, despite the proposed model being far weaker than the model recommended by the Kilbrandon Commission, as it had no legislative or taxation functions. However, Labour allowed its MPs based in Wales to campaign for a no vote. In the end, 79.74% of people voted against self-government, and there is no doubt that Gwynfor took the loss personally. He felt completely betrayed by Labour, which had allowed its MPs to work with the Tories against their own party. Soon after, the Labour Government lost a vote of no confidence and a general election was held, which the Tories, under Margaret Thatcher, won by a landslide. Gwynfor, after the morale-sapping defeat of the referendum, lost Carmarthen. He would never hold elected office again and there were genuine concerns about his health.
Gwynfor was offered a peerage, but he turned it down flatly, telling the party’s new Westminster Leader, Dafydd Wigley, that there was only one Lord and that he did not abide in a palace on the banks of the Thames. A lesser man would have been crushed mentally and physically by the twin political blows of 1979. However, Gwynfor was about to embark on arguably his most famous battle.
The new Conservative Government had pledged during the election in 1979 to create a new Welsh language television channel. Gwynfor viewed such a channel as a vital step to help secure Welsh as a living language in the modern world. In his epic autobiography, “For the Sake of Wales – The Memoirs of Gwynfor Evans”, he recounts the battle for S4C in great detail. On 12 September 1979 in Cambridge, the new Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, announced in a surprise statement that the new Government would not honour their pledge to set up a new Welsh language channel.
Gwynfor suspected that the decision of the Home Secretary was a case of the Westminster establishment taking advantage of the desperation in the national movement. The response in Wales to the decision was uproar. Getting both main Westminster parties to agree to a Welsh TV channel had been one of the great successes of the Welsh national movement in the 1970s, which was won only after heavy terms of imprisonment had been imposed on many patriots. For the language campaigners of Cymdeithas Yr aith, the TV channel was a priority if Welsh had any hope of surviving as a living language.
Gwynfor saw the decision as a direct attempt to break the spirit of the Welsh people once and for all. In his memoirs, he quotes the bard T Gwynn Jones:
“Ysbryd Gwlad! Os badog lu
Cas Iwyth fu’n ceisio’i lethu
Iddo trwy hyn ni ddaw tranc
Heb ddiwedd y bydd ieuanc.”
That roughly translates as:
“A country’s spirit! If treacherous and vicious throng ‘have tried to quench it, it will never be overcome by this, but will remain endlessly young.”
Gwynfor therefore viewed the decision as a direct challenge to the existence of the Welsh nation. Considering the crushing personal blows that he had just received, it says everything about the stature of the man that he had the clarity of thought to motivate himself once more. With patriots across the country—including some of the greats of the nation, such as Cynog Dafis, Meredyth Evans, Ned Thomas and Pennar Davies—up in arms and even taking direct action against TV transmitters, Gwynfor committed himself to one last action for his country.
Dafydd Wigley has recounted how he and Gwynfor were returning in a car from a St David’s day dinner in Llanberis in 1980 when Gwynfor said, out of the blue, that he would not be with Dafydd the following year as it was his intention to fast until death over the betrayal of the new Government. Gwynfor did not expect the Thatcher Government to back down; he expected to die. However, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make, because his primary aim was to motivate the Welsh nation to believe once again in their country and face down the challenge of the British establishment.
Gwynfor decided that he would make his statement in May and, following the advice of his son-in-law, the great language campaigner Ffred Ffransis, he decided to give the Government five months’ warning before beginning the hunger strike in his study in Talar Wen. He would begin his fast to death on 5 October 1980, but before then he embarked on a national tour. The response of the Welsh establishment was hostile to say the least, but Gwynfor galvanised the national movement.
Media coverage extended far beyond the borders of Wales; The Sunday Times even carried a sympathetic article in the language of heaven itself. TV crews from Canada and Germany turned up at Talar Wen. Articles appeared in the main newspaper of Catalonia, in Scandinavia and in The New York Times. The campaign gained momentum, leading many people to plead with Gwynfor that he could achieve far more if he called off his threat to fast. However, his mind was set; he felt that he could achieve far more for Wales by dying than by living, and that that was the appropriate action to take.
Peter Hughes Griffiths and the party’s chief executive, Dafydd Williams, helped Gwynfor to arrange 22 meetings between 6 September and the beginning of the fast. About 2,000 people turned up to the launch of the series of talks at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, the home of Welsh cricket. The following night, Gwynfor was in Glasgow, where over a thousand people attended the meeting at the McLellan Galleries. At the same time, the great and the good of Wales, including the Archbishop of Wales, Gwilym O Williams, Sir Goronwy Daniel, Michael Foot and Cledwyn Hughes, held meetings with Government Ministers and implored them to reconsider. However, Gwynfor received feedback that the Government had no intention of making a U-turn.
The speaking tour continued and, as Gwynfor wrote in his memoirs, there were signs that Welsh nationalism was on the verge of becoming an overwhelming force. He wrote that it is a simple truism that that is the only thing that Westminster fears in Wales, and it fears it greatly. I personally live for the day when the people of Wales grasp this simple reality, as the people of Scotland have.
On Wednesday 17 September, the Government yielded and Margaret Thatcher would perform her first and possibly her only U-turn as Prime Minister. However, Gwynfor’s first reaction was disappointment, not elation. He thought that a few more weeks of campaigning would have shifted the tectonic plates in Wales for ever.
The meeting that night was scheduled for Crymych, and when Gwynfor announced his intention to withdraw his threat of going on hunger strike, the 800-strong crowd erupted in emotion. It was his greatest political victory and to make the point somebody mischievously painted on the banks of the Embankment, opposite this House, “Gwynfor 1 - Thatcher 0”. We will settle for that score tomorrow night, Mr Stringer.
A half-hour debate of this nature could never do justice to the contribution of Gwynfor Evans. If I had a full day of debate, I could talk about Gwynfor the Christian, Gwynfor the internationalist, Gwynfor the pacifist, Gwynfor and Europe, and Gwynfor the historian. He was also a prolific writer, publishing well over a million words. If the opportunity to speak about Gwynfor arises again in future, I am confident that I would comfortably beat the record four-hour speech that William Gladstone made in this House when he delivered his 1853 Budget.
Following the events of the last few weeks, I have given some thought in preparing this speech to how Gwynfor would have reacted if he was alive today. It would not be right of me to presume to know the thinking of a far superior intellect than mine, but based on his writings I think we can safely assume that he would now be advancing the need for our country to position ourselves economically within a tariff-free single market as an imperative; that politically Wales must have the freedom to choose its own future; and that when the UK ceases to exist following Scottish independence, as I foresee, that will be a material change in condition, and our nation will again need to have a debate and a vote about where our future lies.
Gwynfor’s place in history is secure. He was chosen by readers of Wales on Sunday and the weekly Welsh-language publication Y Cymro as a millennium icon, ahead of Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan, and even ahead of Owain Glyndwr. Glyndwr was ranked the seventh most prominent global figure of the past millennia by The Sunday Times, which gives an indication of the esteem in which Gwynfor is held within Wales, and across the world.
Gwynfor Evans died at his home in Pencarreg on the morning of Thursday 21 April 2005, at the age of 92. His biographer, Rhys Evans, says:
“Gwynfor wanted to return to Garn Goch, to the soil, the land of Wales where his politics had taken root. Nevertheless, as his ashes blow in the wind, his legacy survives.”
As I said earlier, my great friend Dafydd Wigley offered incredible help in composing this speech. When I asked him to summarise Gwynfor’s political contribution to our country—and I will finish with this as I could not put it better myself—he replied:
“Gwynfor Evans was Wales’ greatest 20th century patriot. Without his dedication and unswerving determination, Wales wouldn’t today have the degree of national autonomy we enjoy and neither would the Welsh language have secured its official status. Future generations will look back to the 1966 by-election as a turning point in our history and salute the good people of Carmarthenshire for making it happen.”
Diolch yn fawr iawn.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on his speech, which was very passionate, as I would have expected. It was slightly OTT at times, not in relation to Gwynfor Evans but in his comments about the way in which politics is moving in Wales. It is early days to measure the impact of the EU referendum on Wales, but I certainly join in with the mood of the Chamber in highlighting Gwynfor Evans’s contribution of to the life of Wales over the past century and his continuing influence on the way in which Welsh life and politics are developing. It is a sad reflection on that contribution that Carmarthen voted to leave the European Union, which must have been a great disappointment to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr—it certainly was to me.
I am more than happy to accept that straw poll evidence, but it is important to say that Gwynfor was associated with Carmarthenshire and with Wales, and there is no denying that in both contexts the result was a disappointment.
This is a great opportunity to join in the tributes to the life of Gwynfor Evans, 50 years after the political earthquake of the 1966 by-election. As the hon. Gentleman clearly stated, the party of which Gwynfor Evans became the first MP was not performing particularly well in the 1960s; there was a question mark over its future, so the 1966 result was transformational. Indeed, it contributed to the development of the Scottish National party, with the 1967 Hamilton by-election. Subsequently, even though the 1970 general election saw Gwynfor Evans lose his seat, before regaining it in 1974, there was an SNP victory in Western Isles. As a result, there has been SNP or Plaid Cymru representation in this place since 1966, which, I would argue, has contributed to the gaiety of the Chamber.
As has been mentioned, it is fair to say that Gwynfor Evans was a great writer, although whether he was a great historian remains to be seen. My grandfather was considered to be a historian and he knew Gwynfor Evans very well. I am glad that, unlike the hon. Gentleman, I met Gwynfor Evans on more than one occasion. I was at a victorious rally in Porthmadog back in 1980 when Gwynfor Evans was carrying on with his tour in relation to the S4C issue, obviously after the U-turn. I think Gwynfor took a leaf out of my grandfather’s book regarding history. My grandfather used to say that history was about saying good things about good people and I think that Gwynfor Evans’s view of history was to say good things about Wales, regardless of the evidence, but that is no bad thing. The purpose of his writing was to inform but also to persuade, and that is something we can forgive in an activist historian. I would argue that there is a place for such a historian.
If ever there was a political career that tried to replicate that of Robert the Bruce, Gwynfor’s was it. Time and again he failed, and time and again he carried on regardless. He stood unsuccessfully in Meirionnydd on at least two occasions, if not three, but there was never a situation in which he acknowledged defeat. The way in which Gwynfor took on adversity and carried on campaigning for what he believed in is a lesson for anyone involved in politics, and it clearly shows that political success is not necessarily measured in election success. I think I am right in saying that Gwynfor won only two elections in his entire career, but his contribution is much greater than that of many other Welsh MPs who won many more.
It is important to highlight Gwynfor’s political career, but the influence of that career relates not to the fact that he was elected to this place but to the way in which he fought for the Welsh language and culture, and the way in which he put those issues on the agenda. Early in his career, Gwynfor argued for the need for official recognition of the Welsh language. That came to pass. We had the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was rather weak but a step in the right direction, and I am proud to be a member of the party that delivered the Welsh Language Act 1993. I would go as far as to say that perhaps that Act was more carefully considered than the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which was passed by the Welsh Assembly, but that would be a controversial statement at this point in time, and would go against the nature of the debate.
It is fairly clear that without the victory that Gwynfor Evans secured in 1966, the 1967 Act and the 1993 Act would not have been passed. The contribution of the two Acts was to normalise the concept of the Welsh language as part and parcel of everyone’s daily life. It is important to realise that before the Acts were passed, it was perfectly conceivable for children to be raised speaking Welsh at home and knowing that they lived in Aberteifi, yet to see a sign saying “Cardigan” when they were driven in and out of the town. The difference that 50 years has made is that everyone in Wales is now aware, when they drive into Wales, that Wales is a bilingual country. Back in 1966, when Gwynfor won that by-election that was certainly not the case, and we should acknowledge his contribution to the Welsh language. Clearly, there is still work to be done, but there is no doubt that the work that was started with such passion by Gwynfor Evans should be continued.
It should also be highlighted that Gwynfor Evans’s commitment was not just to the Welsh language as a stand-alone issue but to Welsh culture as well. I think I am right in saying that he chaired more national Eisteddfod days than any other politician and probably more than any other figure in the 20th century. His commitment was total: he was a Welshman through and through and he lived and breathed the language. We should also acknowledge the contribution that his family have subsequently made. Gwynfor was not someone who spoke in public about the need for the Welsh language and Welsh culture and then did nothing at home; he also delivered, ensuring that his family followed in his footsteps.
A few other issues are worth touching upon. S4C was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Gwynfor Evans’ career. S4C has been a political hot potato since I came into this place in 2010, and I hope I have contributed to protecting the funding of the fourth channel. It is genuinely superb to have been able to follow the Welsh football team all the way to the semi-finals of the European championship, and to do that with Welsh commentators. I pay tribute to players such as Aaron Ramsey who have been happy to tweet in Welsh during the tournament. The fact that we have Welsh coverage and Welsh pundits, such as Malcolm Allen—a credit to Wales, who could challenge the Icelandic commentator—is entirely due to the contribution made by Gwynfor Evans. It is crucial, therefore, that we maintain the support for and the funding of S4C because of its contribution not just to the culture of Wales but to its economy.
I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate in the manner that I think would have been expected. The debate is a tribute to an important parliamentarian, but also to a politician who made much more of an impact outside the Chambers of this place than within them. I was not aware of the comment Gwynfor Evans made when he was offered a peerage—that there was only one Lord and that he did not reside on the bank of the Thames—and I leave hon. Members with this controversial comment: it is interesting that two of Gwynfor’s successors as party leader did not share that view.
Question put and agreed to.
Energy Network Charges
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered regional differences in energy network charges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, in this debate about the sharp regional differences in energy network charges that penalise consumers and businesses in certain parts of the United Kingdom. This Government like to talk about being a one nation Government. If the Minister believes that to be the case, I ask her to reflect on why consumers in the highlands and islands have to pay a premium for their electricity. I acknowledge that the previous Labour Government introduced a hydro benefit replacement scheme in 2005 to partially take account of higher distribution costs and that that support is being continued. The Minister, who I look forward to hearing from later, said late last year:
“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live”.
I agree with the hon. Lady, and it was a pretty fundamental statement that she made.
This debate is not just about the highlands and islands; there are 14 regional markets throughout the United Kingdom, with different levels of network charges. Nor is it about price competition. It is about a regulated charge varying from region to region through a price control framework. The reality is that a person living in the highlands and islands will pay for the privilege of doing so, courtesy of the UK Government. Electricity distribution charges for the north of Scotland are an eye-watering 84% higher than the distribution charges for London. One nation? Whose nation? It is not mine, or that of my hon. Friends here today. Westminster calls the tune; highlanders and islanders pay the price.
We pay a high price for transmission charges, and we also have a high rate of energy consumption. The highlands and islands are noted for windy and wet conditions. It is not unusual for folk in the highlands to have their heating on all year round.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about the travails of people living in the highlands and islands and the fact that they face additional charges and costs. Does he agree that many of those consumers are off the grid and rely on Calor gas or oil for their heating? Ofgem should regulate such things, as well as the normal transmissions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that very valid point, which was raised in a recent Ofgem report. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on what we can do to give support to those on off-grid connections.
A recent study by Ofgem noted that households in the north of Scotland that use electricity for heating would benefit from a cost reduction of about £60 a year if there was a universal network charge. That would have a significant impact on the budget of someone on a low income or a pensioner.
Not only are we faced with high transmission charges, but many consumers in the highlands and islands suffer from a lack of choice in energy provision. As my hon. Friend just mentioned, many households cannot access grid connections for gas, among other things, and have to rely on other sources of fuel. It is often a choice between electricity and domestic heating oil. With such limitations, the last thing we need is price discrimination—that is what it is—being foisted on us by a Westminster Government. Where people live should not result in them being penalised through paying higher network charges. Where is the one nation that the Government speak of? It should be about equity and fairness, but that does not exist today.
We have heard a lot since the European referendum about those who are left behind. We often hear that it is a priority for this Government to tackle fuel poverty, but fuel poverty is exacerbated by having higher network charges in the highlands and islands. I will focus on fuel poverty because there is a clear link between higher prices resulting from network charges and fuel poverty.
I am grateful to Changeworks, which has estimated the percentage of households in fuel poverty in the highlands region. It bands each locality in the highlands into groups. On its calculations, no district in my constituency has less than 47.9% of households in fuel poverty; indeed, in a number of districts fuel poverty is evident in at least 73.5% of households. I look across from my constituency to Na h-Eileanan an Iar, where fuel poverty affects 71% of households. That should shame every single Member of this House and every Government Member. Why should we accept that such a percentage of households in a wealthy country such as this should be in fuel poverty? It should be a priority for the Government to tackle the issue and eradicate such high levels of fuel poverty.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but he surely must accept that while the UK Government are doing all they can to support Scotland, this is a devolved issue, so the Scottish Government are responsible for tackling fuel poverty in Scotland? He will be aware that only last week, the Scottish Government stated that their 2016 eradication target would not be met. I am very happy to talk about what the UK Government are doing, but I am not comfortable with him blaming it all on the United Kingdom. It is a devolved matter.
I hope that people in Scotland have listened to what the Minister just said. It was quite astonishing: blaming the Scottish Government for fuel poverty that is visited on households in Scotland as a direct response to things that are the responsibility of this Government and to the failure so far to deal with the matters we are discussing today, such as network charges. I have outlined to the Minister that people in the highlands and islands are paying 84% more for connection charges than people in London. That clearly demonstrates that it is the responsibility of the UK Government. How dare the Government turn around and blame the Scottish Government! The situation has arisen because of austerity and failure to take opportunities, and the responsibility for that lies fairly and squarely in the hands of Westminster.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very passionate case. I agree that Ofgem in its October 2015 report found that electricity distribution charges are higher than average in the north of Scotland, but in contrast it found that electricity and gas transmission charges are higher in the south of England and lower in Scotland, and that gas distribution charges are higher in London and the south of England and lower in Scotland. Does he accept that there is a real issue with regional variation, but it is not unitary that Scotland is always disadvantaged by that variation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I accept what he says to a degree: there are differences in gas transmission charges in other parts of the UK that are not fair. What is at the heart of the matter is that there should be fairness and a universal market. Why should people in Scotland pay more for their electricity than people in London, and why should people in London pay higher prices for gas? It is not right. We live in a unitary state; the transmission charges should be the same throughout the country. Focusing specifically on gas, my constituents in the main do not have access to a gas network. We are discriminated against because we are not on the mains.
Let me return to the issue of fuel poverty and heating costs. A recent report by Highlands and Islands Enterprise said that because of heating costs and other factors:
“The budgets that households need to achieve a minimum acceptable living standard in remote rural Scotland are typically 10-40 per cent higher than elsewhere in the UK.”
The highlands and islands of Scotland experience the harshest climatic conditions in the UK and record levels of fuel poverty. There is far greater area-wide dependence on the use of electricity for heating as well as lighting, but the standard unit price charged is 2p per kWh more than many other parts of the UK and 6p more than various economy tariffs that are on offer. Two pence might not sound like much, but it is a price premium of 15%. That is what the UK Government have done to consumers in Scotland. Let us hear no more about the Scottish Government and their responsibilities, because the responsibility for this lies fairly, squarely and solely in the hands of the Minister. She could do something about it this afternoon, if she had the guts.
That is the price set by the UK Government to live in the highlands and islands. On top of that, there is far greater reliance in off-gas areas on domestic heating oil and solid fuel, which pushes up household heating costs further still. As a result, average domestic energy bills in off-gas areas are around £1,000 more per annum than the £1,369 UK average—that is £1,000 more in the highlands and islands.
Figures from Lochalsh and Skye energy advice service in my constituency suggest that average annual heating bills in Skye and Lochalsh are £2,218. It is little wonder that there are so many people in my constituency in fuel poverty. For those whose primary fuel for heating is heating oil, the annual bill is as high as £2,519. To cap it all, customers on prepayment electricity meters—often the least well-off—not only have to pay additional standing charges, but discover that their notional right to change to a cheaper electricity supplier has become impractical.
The Government must accept that having 14 regional markets in the UK, with consumers in the highlands paying that 2p premium, is detrimental to the interests of the people in the highlands and islands. We must have a universal UK market.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom Government’s policy is strangely based on a horizontal line drawn through London? The Indian Queens power station in Cornwall has been subsidised to the tune of £5.80 per unit of electricity generating capacity, while until its closure this March Scotland’s Longannet power station charged £17.50 per unit of electricity generating capacity. That is a £23.95 difference per unit of electricity capacity—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
To recap on what I said at the beginning, we are talking about fairness and ensuring that people are treated in the same way throughout the United Kingdom. I quoted a statement made by the Minister at Christmas time last year:
“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live”.
I commend her for that statement, and I urge her, when she gets up to speak this afternoon, to tell us that she will take the necessary action to make sure that is brought into reality. We do not have a universal service today; we must do so. Why are highlanders and islanders being penalised? Fuel poverty: delivered to Scotland from Westminster. The Government have a responsibility, and the power, to do something about that.
I have submitted a number of questions to the Minister about the continued existence of 14 regional electricity markets in the United Kingdom. Here is one response:
“Electricity distribution network charges vary by region and reflect the costs of running the network in that area and the number of consumers that those costs are spread over. Moving away from this ‘cost-reflective’ approach would weaken the local accountability of the network operator in ensuring expenditure is fully justified, in turn weakening downward pressures on network costs overall.
In addition, a national price for electricity distribution would mean lower network charges in some areas, but increases in others.”
Where is the evidence for a detrimental impact on overall network costs? That is simply a red herring. As for the comment about lower costs for some and higher costs for others, the whole argument is about fairness. Somebody living in Skye should face the same network costs as somebody living in Southend. Anything else flies in the face of the statement by the Minister that people should not pay higher costs because of where they live. Let us make her statement a reality today, because those warm words from the Minister are meaningless unless we take action on a universal market. She talks about increases in some areas as a result of a universal market, but that is fairness—we all pay the same network costs. I prod the Minister to live up to her words: to take action today and to be seen as delivering fairness throughout the United Kingdom.
In Scotland, in our independence referendum, we were told that we were “Better Together”—
I have immense admiration for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but where is the “Better Together” in this? As I have already said, consumers in the highlands are paying 84% more for their transmission charges than someone living in London. Better together for whom? Not for us.
While I am on the topic, we were also told that our European future was secure if we remained in the UK—Scotland in Europe, and part of a wider European energy market. Well, we know where we stand now. The Minister wants to take us out of Europe with the rest of the UK. If she secures her ambition to become Prime Minister, I hope that she recognises the sovereignty of the Scottish people, who voted to remain in Europe.
France has a universal market for transmission charges. I would prefer a national transmission market, as there is in France, to the unequal system that we have in the UK. Why do we not do as France does and treat consumers equitably? We can learn from Europe, and at the same time we should remain part of it and not be dragged out. If the UK Government will not do that, perhaps we need—to paraphrase others—to take back control ourselves.
Research by the national charity Turn2us graphically shows the kind of challenges that those in fuel poverty are facing. One in two low-income households is struggling to afford energy costs, despite being in work. Among the hardest hit are people with disabilities, with more than two in three reporting their struggles, and families, with almost two in three working parents unable to meet these costs. Worryingly, of those households that are struggling with energy costs, nearly half have done so for more than a year. The knock-on effect is severe, with a third forced to skip meals and more than a fifth experiencing stress and other mental health problems. Here are some of the comments made to Turn2us:
“The bills are killing me, sometimes I have to contemplate paying all the rent or heating my home.”
“There are many pensioners like myself who don’t qualify for any help but still have to decide whether to eat or heat.”
“We have stress, debt, arguments and a low mood at home.”
“Starve or freeze? Either way you get ill and can’t work, eat or pay any bills.”
“No lights, only candles, only hoover once a week, only use washing machine once a week, no heating, meals that cook”
In Scotland I am proud that our Scottish Government have used their powers to intervene to mitigate some of the effects of rising energy costs. It has been the failure of Westminster and the regulator to properly protect consumers that has led to a marked deterioration in the level of fuel poverty. Transmission charges are an important factor in the high levels of fuel poverty. The Scottish Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty head-on and ensuring that everyone in Scotland lives in a warm home that is affordable to heat, but the measures we are taking in Scotland are undermined by the austerity measures of the Westminster Government. That is why the responsibility for fuel poverty lies wholly, solely and squarely at the feet of Westminster and not at the Scottish Government’s, as the Minister implied earlier.
It is important that the root causes of fuel poverty are taken into account. Some 4.5 million people across the UK suffer from fuel poverty, and the cost of transmission grid charges in Scotland add to the cost for highlands and islands consumers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time the issue of ducking responsibility for fuel poverty was taken squarely on the chin by the Minister?
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening to make a very important point. Today, in this debate, the Minister could bring this matter to a conclusion. She could follow through on the warm words that she used at Christmastime, when she said that no one should be penalised. If she believes that, I implore her to do the right thing. Let us have a universal market—a transmission market that treats everybody fairly in Northern Ireland, in Scotland and in England. Why do we still charge people based on the location they live in? It is wrong and needs to be dealt with.
When we talk about fuel poverty, there is not just a moral and ethical impact but a cost to society in increased health costs as a consequence of the mental health issues that arise; or in children being sent to school in less than ideal circumstances as a consequence of family pressures, adding to the difficulties of our young people flourishing to the extent that they should and making closing the attainment gap increasingly burdensome. That is the social cost of fuel poverty and it is an issue for which the Government in Westminster have to accept responsibility. Ending the discrimination of higher distribution charges would be a good start. I hope the Minister will respond in an appropriate manner this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing it. It is always a pleasure to follow him. I look upon him as a friend in this House, as I do all my SNP colleagues, who are sitting on my right-hand side. We might have some differences about what is best for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but I believe we are better together. They perhaps have a slightly different opinion; none the less, it does not mean that we cannot be friends in this House, and that is the important thing.
According to a study by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and business advisers BDO, almost a third of businesses in Northern Ireland believe that high energy prices are to blame for deterring investment. What the hon. Gentleman outlined in his presentation is something that I would like to mirror when it comes to Northern Ireland’s energy prices and so on.
May I also say that it is a pleasure to see the shadow Minister in his place? It is especially pleasing to see the Minister in her place. I look forward to hearing her response, which I am quite confident will be very positive and encouraging. It is always a pleasure to see her here in the House.
The regional disparity creates real challenges for the business community in Northern Ireland, at a time when those in the business community are seeking to expand and succeed and when their success is essential to rebalancing the Province’s economy and ultimately ensuring our economic success as a region. We are fortunate to have lots of jobs being created and we want that to continue. We believe we can continue that outside the European Union. I know there might be a difference of opinion among some of the Members present, but I believe Brexit will give us a great opportunity to expand and create more opportunities and move forward. A key issue for that to happen is the energy price.
The success of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland depends on the success of all our regions. Although Northern Ireland is a starkly different place today from what it was a couple of decades ago, it is clear that there is much more work to do, especially in encouraging and facilitating economic development, particularly in the private sector. We have made giant leaps forward and done great things in Northern Ireland, with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment creating numerous jobs—supported, let us be fair, by the Westminster Government. The Conservative party has had a strong economic policy to create jobs, and by and large we have seen the benefit of that in all our constituencies across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce study to which I have referred also found that just under two thirds of Ulster firms cited power and heating as among their most costly overheads. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber touched upon fuel poverty at the end of his speech. It is a massive issue for my constituents; in fact, it is a massive issue for constituents throughout Northern Ireland. Some 35% of people in Northern Ireland are subject to fuel poverty. We have the highest number of people in fuel poverty in the whole of the United Kingdom, so it is a massive issue for those who own or rent their houses and for those just trying to get by.
The Northern Ireland Executive continue to play a key role in addressing the issue by maintaining and improving local infrastructure. No doubt the devolution of corporation tax will allow for local business needs and circumstances in the Province to be taken into account. There has been talk in the past few days about the Chancellor reducing corporation tax in the United Kingdom. If he reduces it to a level that we would like to see in Northern Ireland, the opportunities will be greater for us. If it was reduced more, we could automatically take all the jobs that are coming in and all the potential growth could come our way. However, more often than not it is the regulatory framework that seems to create the issues. Literally all the major job losses in the Province that are down to big firms exiting or scaling back operations have been attributed directly or indirectly to high energy costs. I will give some examples.
Bombardier is one of the Province’s biggest employers. It is a business operating in the Province that has become a source of pride for us, owing to its world-renowned reputation. Bombardier has centres for manufacturing in my constituency, and many of my constituents in Strangford travel to east Belfast to get employment as well. Bombardier cited the costs when explaining why jobs had to be moved out of the Province in order to maintain competitiveness.
Michelin and JTI Gallaher are two more examples of large firms that have been good to the Province, especially in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). Michelin attributed redundancies directly to the high energy costs that business operators in the Province face. Similarly, they proved an issue for JTI Gallaher as well. We have lost them both and the impact has been great, especially in one constituency. It is not just the jobs that are lost; it is the impact that the money and wages going out of those constituencies has on the economy, which affects everything. The Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has taken steps to try to fill the gap. One way of doing that is to help with energy costs.
Northern Ireland stands out from the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to the recruitment of part-time staff. That is another indicator of the challenges that manufacturing faces. Views about cash flow are too often the most negative in the United Kingdom. Those are some of the things that we face back home. The issue cannot be remedied just through the intervention of the responsible Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. They can play their part, but only with co-operation, support and help from Westminster. There is no single policy that can remedy the difficulties faced by large energy users in Northern Ireland, of which there are about 20. There is a need for a long-term strategic objective of delivering competitive energy policies; but in the meantime the regulator can make the difference. The key issue preventing the change that is needed at the moment is that if large energy users were to benefit from being asked to pay less, the cost could, under the current framework, be passed on to households and small and medium-sized enterprises. Therefore, the statutory remit of the regulator would have to be expanded significantly to include that area. I would ask the Minister to respond to that point.
In the Republic of Ireland, it is not the wholesale prices that make the difference; it is the allocation of network costs, which disproportionately favour large users in a comparison between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the LEUs would like similar treatment. Should the Minister in Ireland want to follow that methodology, the decision would need to be politically acceptable. Given the trade-off that could ensue between SMEs, households and LEUs, such a move could prove contentious. A way forward palatable to everyone would need to be worked out to keep as many stakeholders as possible happy. There are some balancing tricks to be done, as well as some advance strategic work.
The Chancellor often talks about a northern powerhouse, and refers to economic engines and the like. He is right to recognise regional disparities in business activity and inward investment, but I hope that the worrying news coming out of Northern Ireland about the harm that energy costs are doing to our ability to attract investment will put us on the map for Ministers in Westminster, who can be part of spreading the wealth more evenly in the nation.
As everyone present for the debate knows, I am a true believer in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I believe in it with a passion. I believe that we are better together. Those are my heartfelt thoughts, but we also need to spread the wealth across the whole of the United Kingdom, and see that we get some of it on the fringes of Northern Ireland and on the fringes of Scotland, about which the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber made his comments very clearly. The extra power and influence here at Westminster would be of great benefit if Ministers and those with an interest would lend a hand to the Minister in Northern Ireland, as he inevitably comes to deal with an issue that is, unfortunately, very complex.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I look forward to the speeches of the shadow Minister and, in particular, the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has said most of what is required and he said it in his usual passionate way. It is right that he should feel passionate about this, because there is a clear sense of injustice—one that, as he rightly pointed out, the Minister has acknowledged in the past. To quote her again for the record:
“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live”.
We have heard that that applies not just to the north of Scotland but to Northern Ireland and other regions of the UK. Nobody is asking for special treatment. We are asking for a level playing field, and I do not understand how that cannot be justified. Perhaps it is possible to hide behind what Ofgem has said, but this is a Government who purport to be a one nation Government. How can you be a one nation Government when, just because you live in a different part of the country, you have to pay more for your electricity? That cannot follow from the Government’s rhetoric.
The Ofgem report states:
“There does not appear to be any clear justification for a national charge in terms of the regional concentration of vulnerability. Distribution regions represent large areas and the socio-demographics of the population in each region tend towards the Great Britain average.”
The justification is fairness. Just because you may have average distributions of poverty and wealth in the north of Scotland and the south of Scotland—which, to be fair, is highly debatable—does not mean that if you are rich or poor in the north of Scotland, you should pay more than anyone in the south of Scotland. If you are disadvantaged in the north of Scotland, it is no consolation to you that you are part of a national average and you fit neatly into a demographic box, so that Ofgem can dismiss your legitimate concerns about additional costs plunging you further into fuel poverty.
My apologies, Mrs Main.
The issue, as I say, is one of fairness. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has highlighted the additional impacts that come from the rural nature of large parts of the highlands and islands and the north of Scotland in general. The Government must take those into account. It is easy to hide behind Ofgem, but the Government must act, and there is a clear and pressing need to do so. As has been mentioned, the charge in the highlands and islands, based on per unit usage, is 84% higher than in London. It is colder in the highlands and islands, so people have to use more electricity. Also, for large periods of the year it is darker, because of the more northerly latitude. The costs of heating and lighting a home are greater the further north people live. That is not taken into account. Also, a far higher proportion of people in the north of Scotland use electricity to heat their homes. That comes at an extra, punitive cost to them. That cannot be acceptable and the Minister needs to explain it.
The Minister, perhaps inadvisedly, intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to talk about the fuel poverty record of the Scottish Government. There is more work that they need to do, and they have acknowledged that. Contrary to what is happening here, fuel poverty and, indeed, energy efficiency are national infrastructure priorities for the Scottish Government. There will be record levels of investment. If a comparison is made between the investment record in Scotland and that of the other nations of the United Kingdom, it is highly favourable.
Let us break down fuel poverty and look at where responsibility really lies. Electricity distribution and network charges rest with the Government. The regulation of the market, in terms of the energy companies, rests with the Government. Looking at the fuel side of the issue, it is clear that the responsibility lies with the Government. As to the poverty side of things, it is even clearer that the responsibility is the Government’s. They control the economy, set taxation and, perhaps most importantly, set the parameters of the welfare state, which they have undermined time and again, plunging more people into fuel poverty. On the face of things, the term “fuel poverty” may be devolved to the Scottish Government, but the actual responsibility—the actual levers to effect real change—rest with this Government and largely with the Minister and her Department.
It may be fine and well to engage in back and forth as we regularly do in this place, but we need to see where responsibility really lies. If the Minister really wants the Scottish Government to have that responsibility, I can tell her that we will happily take the powers out of her hands, and I promise her that we will use them more effectively than her Department has in ensuring that the people of our country do not live in cold, dark houses or have to choose, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said, between heating and eating. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. If we are one nation and there are simple things that can be done to address fuel poverty, it behoves this Government to do them.
Another theme that has run through the debate—one that was mentioned by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—is the economic and social impacts that fuel poverty has on our society. Fuel costs are adding cost for and holding back our businesses and social services. There is an opportunity cost. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about redistributing wealth. This is not actually about redistributing wealth; it is about keeping wealth where it is generated and ensuring that people do not have to pay too much of their own wealth and that it is not sucked out of their economies. It is about keeping the wealth where it is generated and allowing it to be put back into communities in Northern Ireland or in the north of Scotland. That is not redistribution; that is just fairness, which is utterly absent from this regime.
We are not necessarily asking the Minister to agree with the Scottish National party or even the Democratic Unionist party on this issue. We are asking her to agree with herself and with her own Government’s one nation rhetoric. If she cannot do that, perhaps she can explain to us why.
Mrs Main, I took the precaution of speaking to the Clerk beforehand, and found out that it was in order to speak in Welsh, Norman French or English. Given that this is a regional debate, I thought it was only right to speak in Welsh at the beginning, but she did advise me that a translation was always required, which I will of course be very happy to provide to both you and Hansard. I said: “Thank you very much, Mrs Main. In a week when Wales has done the whole UK proud, no debate should fail to celebrate the genius of the Welsh people, especially if they go on to beat the French or the Germans in the final.”
Ofgem concluded last year that from a regulatory perspective, there
“does not appear to be any clear justification”
for national network charges
“in terms of the regional concentration of vulnerability.”
However, as we shift towards cleaner energy to deliver our legal climate targets—an issue on which the Minister has nailed her own colours to the mast—we must also overhaul the management of our energy networks to become smarter and more flexible.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee remarked last month:
“Networks are transforming. We recognise that this presents challenges for the Government, but it has been slow to present a clear, holistic plan for the evolution networks need”.
That Committee’s June report, “Low carbon network infrastructure”, concluded that networks
“are at the heart of the UK’s low carbon ambition”,
yet network charges
“form an increasing proportion of consumer bills.”
The Committee called out
“outdated and inflexible regulation and governance”
as potential obstacles to making our energy network fit for the 21st century. Remarking that network connection costs “remain geographically skewed,” the Committee called for Ofgem to
“assess the costs and benefits of levelling connection costs across Great Britain”
and Northern Ireland in order for the Government to consider whether geographical disparities can continue to be justified.
Ofgem also found last year that it is
“legally possible to introduce national network charges but the change from the current approach would need to be justified against various criteria in European law, particularly on cost reflectivity.”
Although I am mindful, Mrs Main, of your admonishment of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for straying into the whole debate around Brexit, it seems appropriate, given that that is the legal situation, to ask whether the Government have sought new advice on this issue in light of the vote to leave the European Union.
The “Low carbon network infrastructure” report also recommended:
“DECC should investigate the disadvantage UK generators may consequently face against other European generators as Great Britain becomes more interconnected, and the impact this may have on development of domestic renewable generation.”
Given the vote to leave the EU, I also ask the Minister to provide greater clarity on the future of the UK’s electricity interconnection with the continent.
It is also worth noting that transmission tariffs for generators are higher in Great Britain than in the rest of the EU. The UK is one of only three EU member states with locational transmission tariffs. The Minister recently wrote to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, stating that
“one of the main drivers for transmission costs is the need for new network investment to accommodate renewable generation in areas such as Scotland.”
I therefore ask a further question: how much is being invested in upgrading our networks to be able to carry clean energy? Is that spending based on projections that include meeting our 2020 clean energy target?
The debate is also important in highlighting the systemic problem of the lack of transparency in an energy market that is failing the overwhelming majority of customers. The Government’s response to the Ofgem inquiry, in answer to a written question by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), was to reassert their objective to keep
“overall costs down for bill payers across Great Britain.”
I note that they did not say Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is no longer in his place, so I will add “and Northern Ireland,” because I trust that that is what the Department meant.
Network charges on a typical dual fuel consumer bill have risen by approximately 30% in the past four years, according to British Gas—we need some sort of explanation for that from the Minister—and seven out of 10 customers are currently being overcharged for their energy. As a result, millions of households cannot afford their energy bills, as the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, for Strangford and for Aberdeen South (Callum McCaig) said, yet Ministers are still letting the energy companies off the hook and failing to ensure that the drop in wholesale energy prices is passed through to bill payers.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee reported on energy network charges in February 2015 and recommended that the Government and Ofgem should
“publish an evidence-based analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of introducing national tariffs for transmission and distribution network charges.”
Following that recommendation, Ofgem published its report, but it found principally that electricity distribution charges are indeed higher than average in the north of Scotland, exactly as the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said, but also in Merseyside, north Wales and the south-west of England. The charges are of course lower in London and eastern England. In contrast, electricity and gas transmission charges are higher in the south of England and lower in Scotland, and gas distribution charges are higher in London and the south of England and lower in Scotland and north-east England. Although this debate has largely been presented—I speak as a Scot here—in terms of the injustice that an English Parliament is doing to Scotland, the reality is very different.
I will, but I will make a little progress first. Ofgem concluded that there
“does not appear to be any clear justification”
for national network charges
“in terms of the regional concentration of vulnerability.”
That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman and I would wish to see: that evening out across the piece. So for a household with typical electricity and gas consumption there would be an increase or decrease to the network charge element of a bill, but it would be of less than £20 a year in most distribution network areas. There would be more significant changes in three electricity distribution regions, and they are: south-west England, would be down by £38; Merseyside and north Wales would be down by £26; and east Midlands would be up by £27.
Ofgem found mixed results on bills from a switch to national network charges, which would result in approximately 16 million households facing higher bills, while about 11 million would see reduced bills under such an approach. In most cases, the increase or decrease would be small—of that £20 a year margin. In Scotland, 1.8 million households would face higher bills and only 700,000 households would see reductions. It is harder to estimate the numbers for England and Wales separately because the distribution networks that serve Welsh households also operate across the border in England.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber tended to speak in percentages. Of course, when one speaks in percentages, things can sound really disproportionate. Why should someone pay 80% or 100% more in distribution costs in one part of the UK than in another? That is absolutely right, and the argument for fairness he made is correct. However, when speaking in percentages, one sometimes blurs the fact that the actual amounts are relatively small. Even households in the north of Scotland who use electricity for heating would benefit from maximum reductions of about £60 a year. That is just over £1 a week. Of course that should happen, but he should acknowledge the scale of the problem we are dealing with.
I think in my speech I referred to the price difference between the highlands and other parts of the UK as being 2p per kWh, so I gave both the percentages and the actual cash amounts. To someone in the highlands, £60 is actually quite a significant amount. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is about equity, fairness and creating in effect a universal service obligation? Will the Labour party join with us in calling for fairness, or will it let highlanders down and walk away?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a question of fairness. I agree that there should be a unitary basis on which this is calculated, and indeed I think the Minister is on record as having made statements that indicate that she agrees. As I have mentioned, there are issues relating to the way in which we are permitted to do that under European law that may now be freed up. They need to be investigated and, if we can do that, we should.
I simply wanted to put in perspective what I felt was the over-ebullience of the hon. Gentleman when he spoke. In the grand scheme of things, these are small injustices, not great ones, and they apply more widely throughout the regions of the United Kingdom than just in Scotland.
I will not use the word “you”. He talks about this being a small amount, but when you are faced with the costs of paying for off-grid fuel—oil and gas—the additional costs because you live in a sparse area and low wages in a low-wage economy, this is a devastating cocktail. Do you not agree that it is not as unimportant as you are making out?
I agree that many factors come together to push people into fuel poverty and into poverty. They have been ably outlined by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The point I am making is that here we have something that affects not just one part of the United Kingdom but many parts of England and Wales, as the Ofgem report clearly shows.
Mrs Main, I am mindful of your ruling. I simply wanted to say I accept that there is an issue of justice and fairness, but wider effects are being felt all around the UK. If we keep this issue in that context rather than trying to make it about “us” and “them” and simple victimisation, we will have a much better opportunity to resolve the problems that do exist.
I accept the point that they may be relatively small figures for individuals—they may be generally quite important to them for the reasons outlined—but, to use the hon. Gentleman’s own figures and multiply the £60 benefit by 700,000 people, this is not quite back-of-a-fag-packet but that is £42 million being needlessly taken out of the economy of the north of Scotland. That would make a transformational impact if it were reversed, and that is the point being made.
If it were true, but the hon. Gentleman should know that it is not. If he does the arithmetic correctly, he will see that those 700,000 were of the £20 maximum variation, not £60. He will also recognise that more than double that figure—1.8 million—in Scotland would face higher bills. He really needs to try to see this issue not through the lens of victimisation but through the lens of reality. With that, I conclude.
This is an incredibly important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing it. Over the last year we have had numerous debates in Bill Committees and elsewhere about the vital importance of addressing fuel poverty. On that, we are absolutely as one.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) that it is not that those outside of Scotland are doing fine and those in Scotland are being somehow penalised by the Westminster Government. While I do not think that any of the hon. Gentlemen from the Scottish National party would say that is the case, that is the impression they are giving. As the hon. Member for Brent North made clear, fuel poverty affects the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, which has a different distribution and transmission network. This is an issue for all of us and we need to address it as a United Kingdom, taking account of the interests of all our citizens.
In presenting this debate, I have tried to argue for fairness across the UK. I reflected on the fact that we have 14 regional markets, which I believe to be unfair, because that penalises people based on where they live. I argued about the specific circumstances of the highlands, but specifically I am asking the Minister to deal with that by creating a universal market throughout the United Kingdom so that everyone is treated in the same way. That is the correct manner for this House. It is not about dividing people; it is about recognising fairness and equity.
I will certainly address those issues; I wanted to make it very clear up front how important they are.
The costs of distributing and transmitting energy vary by location. Those differences are reflected in the charges paid by generators and consumers in a particular geographic area. The idea behind that cost-reflective approach is that it helps to drive down costs for all consumers, and it is proving successful. For example, Ofgem estimates that network costs are 17% lower in 2014 than before privatisation, while system reliability remains above 99%. However, it is right that the Government should consider action if one region has markedly different network charging levels from any other. It is also true that network charging mechanisms could never provide an efficient or effective way of providing targeted support to specific groups of vulnerable consumers within a region. I will explain some of the actions we are taking on both counts to ensure consumers right across Great Britain are receiving a fair deal.
The particular challenges of electricity supply in the north of Scotland relate primarily to the relatively large and sparsely populated terrain, meaning that it inevitably costs more to distribute electricity there than elsewhere. I reassure all hon. Members that the UK Government remain committed to ensuring that consumers in the north of Scotland do not bear an unreasonable burden of those electricity distribution costs. The response we published yesterday to our consultation on electricity distribution costs in the north of Scotland confirmed we will continue the hydro benefit replacement scheme at its current level. That scheme helps to protect electricity consumers in the north of Scotland by providing £58 million of assistance to the area, which is worth an average of £41 to each household in the region and is funded by charges on all licensed suppliers across Great Britain.
In addition, our response confirms that the Government remain committed to GB-wide funding for a Shetland cross-subsidy. That will protect consumers in the north of Scotland from the costs of replacing the ageing Lerwick power station in around 2020 and will be delivered through the hydro benefit replacement scheme. The full details will be confirmed once the replacement of Lerwick power station is known. That will have the effect of reducing costs for all consumers in the north of Scotland from the end of the decade.
The Government certainly note the calls, not least from SNP Members, for a move to a single national network charge, but we continue to believe that the priority must be minimising overall network costs for consumers across GB. As I mentioned, network charges vary regionally to reflect the costs of running the network in a specific area and the number of consumers those costs are spread across. Such a significant move away from the important principle of cost-reflective charging would be unhelpful as it risks weakening the pressure on each network company to keep overall costs down for its local stakeholders, which could lead to an overall increase in costs.
I will in a minute. It is also important to note, as the shadow Minister pointed out, that a move towards a single national network charge would produce winners and losers. All hon. Members will be aware that in October 2015, Ofgem published a detailed analysis of regional differences in transmission and distribution network charges. It found that, for Scotland specifically, 1.8 million households would face higher bills through a national network charge while 700,000 would see reductions. For Great Britain as a whole, 16 million households would face higher bills while around 11 million would see reduced bills. Ofgem concluded that there is no compelling case, from a regulatory perspective, to move to a national network charge. However, we will of course continue to consider any new evidence that is presented on the matter.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she has been very generous with her time. Does she appreciate that we have a universal market for the delivery of telephone and broadband and we all pay the same price, regardless of where we live? We pay the same price for a postage stamp. We are still not addressing the fundamental point: people are paying higher prices for transmission of electricity simply because of where they live. We are generating higher levels of fuel poverty as a direct result of that.
On the whole argument about winners and losers, this is about fairness. The Minister talks about being “one nation”; we should be talking about delivering fairness to everybody and not discriminating against people, which is exactly what this Government are doing.
Thank you, Mrs Main.
As with other aspects of our network charging regime, Great Britain’s transmission charging regime is governed by the principle that the user pays. In other words, the costs of operating and maintaining the system are met by those who benefit from it: generators and demand customers. That ensures the economically efficient use of the transmission network and limits the overall cost to consumers across the country. I say to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber that it is not a postal system; it is a transmission system. He makes the case that there is one cost for a postage stamp. In a transmission system, the clear case has been made that locational pricing is needed to keep costs down for all, as that makes it more efficient for everybody. Otherwise, if I can simply add costs to the system in the knowledge that those will be socialised right across Great Britain, I will not face those competitive pressures to keep costs down.
I see the hon. Gentleman rolling his eyes but he must look at the evidence. He must also bear in mind that, in Scotland alone, there would be 1.8 million people whose bills would go up as a result of the measure he proposes.
The higher transmission charges for generators in certain areas of the country reflect the costs they impose on the transmission network in transporting electricity to demand centres. Conversely, demand customers in generation exporting areas pay lower transmission charges. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to note that that means Scottish generators pay higher transmission charges than their counterparts further south and nearer the centres of demand, but Scottish consumers face significantly lower transmission charges.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that fuel poverty is a big subject for both the UK Government and the Scottish Parliament, and is a devolved matter. This Government are fully committed to tackling fuel poverty, and it is clear that we must look beyond network charging mechanisms to do so. We absolutely want to be there right alongside the Scottish Government in dealing with fuel poverty, and I will run through some of the actions we are taking to tackle that issue.
Last week we published our proposals to reform the energy company obligation. We proposed to increase the support for low income and vulnerable households from £310 million to £450 million per annum. Scotland certainly receives more than her fair share of ECO measures with 40 measures per 1,000 households, compared with 28 measures per 1,000 households in England. There is clear evidence that through our fuel poverty measures we are seeking to support Scottish households in fuel poverty.
We also support low income households through the warm home discount. We have worked with both the Scottish and Welsh Governments on how those policies could be amended to tackle the root causes of fuel poverty in all UK nations. The devolved nature of fuel poverty action allows different nations to take measures appropriate to them, and each nation has policies tailored to address fuel poverty at the local level. We will work with the Scottish Government to set up a process and methodology for evaluating the impact of schemes implemented in Scotland—on their own and in conjunction with schemes implemented in England and Wales—on the GB energy market and any relevant UK commitments and obligations.
We are determined to help households facing the highest energy costs, including those that are off the mains gas grid, which are much more likely to face higher energy costs and more than twice as likely to be in fuel poverty as households connected to mains gas. Last year, we announced £25 million in funding through the central heating fund, which is designed specifically to help support non-gas fuel-poor homes by funding the installation of complete central heating systems.
Strong competition among suppliers is a key way to keep prices down, drive innovation and improve customer service. We have seen an unprecedented number of new companies enter the market over the last couple of years. There are now more than 40 companies competing to supply households in Great Britain. In 2010, there were just seven small suppliers and the big six.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
We have worked with industry to cut the time it takes to switch supplier from five weeks to a maximum of 21 days, and we are working with Ofgem to move to reliable next-day switching. The number of customers switching supplier continues to rise with 2 million energy accounts switched just between January and March this year—25% more than in the same period last year. As we know, on average consumers can save hundreds of pounds on a dual-fuel bill by switching, which is incredibly important for keeping their costs down.
We are taking a range of different actions and have seen some improvements through lower energy network costs and lower energy bills, but it is clear that this area requires continued attention. I thank all hon. Members who have participated in this valuable debate.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I have to say that I am disappointed by the Minister’s response to our appeal for fairness, which at the end of the day is what we are talking about. The Government talk about being a one nation Government. Surely to God, in such a situation people should be treated in the same way, irrespective of what part of the United Kingdom they live in. The reality is that those living in the highlands and islands are having to pay a surcharge to live in that area. What a disgrace that the Government are treating them in such a way.
Perhaps I should not be surprised. I was in my constituency yesterday, attending a meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee, of which there are four Tory members. Not one of them came to Skye yesterday to listen to what local people were saying about the demographics and population of the highlands. That is the contempt this Government have shown for the people in the highlands, and it has been well and truly demonstrated this afternoon in this Chamber.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered regional differences in energy network charges.
Asylum Seekers: Glasgow
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the provision of services for asylum seekers in Glasgow.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. May I thank the Minister for being here to listen to this debate and for taking time to consider this matter? We met to talk about these issues when extraordinary revelations were published in The Times and by BBC Scotland on the treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow. Since that meeting, more extraordinary revelations have been published by the Sunday Herald newspaper, showing that persistent problems are leading to perverse outcomes.
This debate is very timely. Persistent issues remain in the delivery of housing, which is the lifeline public service for a group of people—women, men and children— who are seeking protection and who, by definition, need more than most the stability that a home should bring. The asylum process is difficult enough without problems of poor housing and treatment to contend with too.
The revelations published recently in the Sunday Herald include the story of an Iraqi woman with health problems and her young child being placed in a dirty second-floor flat for months, despite a doctor’s letter and instructions not to carry her child upstairs. She also claimed that drug addicts were frequenting the shared close. Another asylum seeker said that, despite reporting to the police four times racial harassment against herself and her baby outside her flat, she and her toddler had not been moved. Serco said that a housing officer had visited and was taking the complaint very seriously and monitoring the situation. I do not believe that to be acceptable.
One asylum seeker raised alleged aggressive and intimidating behaviour by the Orchard and Shipman staff who evicted him late last month—an allegation that was reported to Police Scotland. Agencies have also reported pregnant women and families facing eviction. In the past few weeks, up to 20 single men have been bussed from Glasgow to London and Manchester at short notice, with a total of 44 expected to be relocated within a month. Twenty families will then be moved to Glasgow. Another asylum seeker case brought to my attention is that of a constituent who is a single mother of three young children living on the third floor of a tenement building where she is unable to lock her windows.
Organisations representing asylum seekers continue to have concerns. Mike Dailly, principal solicitor and director of the Govan Law Centre, has said:
“There are also repeated cases of overcrowding and severe disrepair. This organisation is largely unaccountable despite receiving significant public funds to protect some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
Shafiq Mohammed, a former Orchard and Shipman employee turned volunteer for the Asylum Seeker Housing Project—ASH—said:
“I would describe some of the properties that we’ve come across as slums. In essence, asylum seekers are living in the poorest-quality accommodation in the city.”
Others have reported insect-infested couches; dirty carpets, walls, bathrooms and kitchens; and common stairwells where people regularly urinated. Two women said that their children had developed skin infections.
Too often we have found that the housing provided through the Home Office’s outsourced commercial contract to Serco, which is then subcontracted to Orchard and Shipman, provides not stability but, sadly, aggravation and harm to those who should be treated with dignity and given housing that is safe and secure. Indeed, the Scottish Refugee Council report of September 2014 shows that what was exposed this year has roots in 2012. There has been a transition from the more locally-rooted and therefore accountable, flexible and efficient model of providing housing for those seeking protection to what we must remember is an experiment in terms of asylum accommodation—a thoroughly market-based approach to the provision of such a vital public service. There is something rather valuable in having devolved, local oversight and delivery of housing for asylum seekers in terms of weaving them into joined-up services, democratic oversight and accountability, the flexibility to, for instance, flip accommodation at the point of positive decision to enable continuity of housing for the refugee and in terms of community cohesion.
Outsourcing may well suit the UK Government, as it allows them to outsource not only service delivery but a fair degree of accountability. Many of us have lost count of how many carefully drafted freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions have not been answered, on the sometimes dubious grounds of disproportionate costs or commercial confidentiality. I trust that the Home Affairs Select Committee will look at that issue; I am pleased to see its Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), in his place. It may well also suit the UK Government to have their contractors on the front page of media exposés rather than Ministers. The reality is that taking such hits for future contracts could, in the long term, be worth it.
Let me return to the present issues in Glasgow. The Sunday Herald article spoke to a system that is increasingly chaotic. Symptoms of that chaos include the one and a half years that Glasgow, alone in the UK, did not have an initial accommodation facility where everyone could access the new services upon being newly dispersed to the city. In practice, that has meant that not all get their orientation briefings or health screenings done, with delays in accessing financial assistance.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I have visited some houses in Glasgow at the invitation of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) knows, the Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into this matter.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that should be explored is the dispersal arrangements? The dispersal map of asylum seekers shows that they are concentrated in certain urban areas, but the whole country should take a fair share of asylum seekers.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right that we must look at dispersal. It is to Glasgow’s credit that the city council decided 16 years ago to tell the UK Government that it was happy to take asylum seekers. We in Glasgow are proud of that approach, but the dispersal issue needs to be looked at.
As the Sunday Herald article detailed, there is persistently high use of hotels and hostel-like accommodation for asylum seekers across the board. We know that the numbers in such accommodation quadrupled between November 2015, when the figure was over 100, and May 2016, when it was over 400. This trend shows no sign of weakening. People are being lost in the system and not getting the safe and secure housing that this approach is ostensibly there to ensure.
We appreciate that priority is being given to taking newly dispersed families out of hotels and hostels as soon as possible, but we have been aware of cases over the past few months of families being stuck in such accommodation for six or seven weeks, with the consequence that they feel isolated and unable to put down roots and their children are not entitled to enter school. These specific issues are underscored by persistent reports of people being placed in unsuitable and often overcrowded accommodation and being shunted around Glasgow at short notice and between Manchester and London with insufficient regard to their wellbeing and needs, as the Sunday Herald piece suggested. With an increase in numbers, the system is struggling to cope.
The Scottish Refugee Council and other agencies, such as the British Red Cross, Govan Law Centre and many others, are finding that too often a crude housing-led approach prevails and the needs of individuals and families are a second or third consideration. What action has the Minister taken since the Sunday Herald article was published? What steps has he taken to ensure that these problems do not persist? Will he tell us what actions or penalties are in place for breaches of contract and poor performance by contractors? Can he remind us what penalties or mechanisms are in place that would result in a contractor being removed from provision of these services?
I want to touch on gender and asylum support. One persistent casualty of the housing-led approach is the visibility of women seeking protection. As the Scottish Refugee Council has articulated many times, the asylum support regime effectively silences women. In a recent written answer, the Minister stated that he had no plans to generate or publish asylum support statistics by gender. We think that is an unacceptable omission, which amounts to the UK Government stating that gender is an irrelevant or insufficiently important part of identity to merit analysis or publication in asylum support policy. In my experience of representing constituents, I believe that is a crucial factor.
Just on the asylum accommodation issue, many agencies and groups have documented that women have, inter alia, felt very unsafe in shared flats with no locks, including on bedroom doors, and that housing officers have entered the accommodation unbidden. There is a lack of women-only initial accommodation, and it is unclear what competence and training operational and management staff have in gender and preventing violence against women. Will the Minister reconsider implementing a gendered review of asylum support? Will he publish different statistics for women asylum seekers? Will he look into how women have been treated, particularly in respect of privacy issues?
There is no list of registered social landlords, but there is an issue relating to whether accommodation meets the regulations under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010. We assume that Orchard and Shipman is not registered under the housing regulations and is therefore not a registered social landlord. That leaves the question of who, under the 2010 Act, has general consent to provide housing services. The regulation of asylum seeker housing seems to be non-existent. I wrote to the Scottish Housing Regulator, who could not tell me who was a registered social landlord under the current Act.
Does the Minister have a list of registered social landlords in Glasgow who provide asylum accommodation? Does the Home Office ensure that social landlords provide housing quality that meets the regulations of the 2010 Act, or does it have a different standard? What expectations does the Minister have to ensure that any accommodation provided by Orchard and Shipman meets the standards of the Act?
COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts are priced by UK Ministers at such a low level that only large private-sector companies with no footprint or interest in areas of asylum dispersal can afford to bid for them. It is now clear that the Home Office has three current contractors over a barrel and are keen to extend them into 2017-19. I am aware that one contractor has already asked to extend a contract to 2018. Orchard and Shipman has reported that its Glasgow subsidiary is deriving profit from its asylum seeker contracts and many of us have an issue with that. Serco Group announced to the London stock exchange in February 2016 that central Government justice and immigration contracts were marked out as priorities, both globally and in the UK.
We believe that a different approach would benefit local statutory bodies and communities, and those in the accommodation. The Home Office should seriously consider at least a substantial revision of the outsourcing approach to the provision of housing. The Home Affairs Committee’s asylum accommodation inquiry is one place where I hope that that argument will be taken on. However, it will not be effective if the Home Office decides, inappropriately, to extend the COMPASS contracts to 2019 before the Committee reports and its recommendations are considered. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there will be no extension of contracts until then.
There is clear evidence in our great city of Glasgow of asylum seekers and EU nationals being in fear of their future following the Brexit vote 10 days ago. We are dealing with our fellow human beings, who are fleeing oppression and persecution. Many of them are women fleeing sexual violence. Many, like us, had professions and careers, but are now seeking sanctuary and safety. We have a duty of care to our fellow human beings, and we must treat them a lot better than we do. I hope we can treat asylum seekers as we ourselves would like to be treated if we were in their situation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I have met him to discuss specific concerns, and the invitation to do so again remains open to him. If he has received specific complaints or concerns from his constituents, or from charities or non-governmental organisations operating in Glasgow about standards of accommodation or related services, I certainly extend my offer for him to contact me and to raise any matters directly, as I have indicated.
I again underline my willingness to continue discussion and dialogue outside the debate this afternoon. If issues are being brought to his attention directly, I want to know whether individual cases are being raised in relation to property standards or otherwise, so that we can ensure that they are dealt with effectively and promptly, not just in terms of the contracting arrangements we have with Serco, but equally to enable asylum seekers using accommodation in Glasgow to be reassured about the seriousness that we attach to complaints when they are made.
May I make a general point about intimidation or hatred towards anyone as a consequence of their background, faith, colour or creed? I take a very uncompromising approach to that: it is utterly unacceptable. We are working with the police here and with Police Scotland to ensure that we have a clear understanding of incidents that may occur. Equally, we want to give a strong reassurance about the approach that this Government take, working with the devolved Administrations and in particular the Scottish Government, who have the devolved responsibility in relation to crime. All right hon. and hon. Members present in the debate would want to give the very strong response that, whatever our feelings about the result of the referendum, that does not provide any excuse, any succour or any opportunity at all to sow division or hatred in the United Kingdom or the countries that make up the UK. We all stand united in confronting and combating any of that, wherever it may occur.
I thank the Minister for those comments; I agree with him wholeheartedly. Is it the Government’s intention to meet organisations such as the Ethnic Minorities Law Centre in Glasgow, which represents EU nationals and asylum seekers? They are reporting to me, as a Glasgow MP, the fear that asylum seekers and EU nationals have. Given the message the Minister is sending, it would be very useful if the Government wrote to such organisations or met them. I hope he will consider that.
If the hon. Gentleman has details of groups or organisations that are making those representations to him, I will certainly be pleased to follow up on that. There are regular visits to Scotland by representatives of UK Visas and Immigration, which has the lead responsibility on these issues. I had officials there last week in relation to a number of these issues. However, if the hon. Gentleman is picking up specific concerns and if there are groups that he thinks there would be a shared value and benefit in meeting in order to understand those concerns and to telegraph the clear message that I hope I have given in this debate, I will of course be very willing and happy to follow up on that. I am grateful to him for his intervention in that regard.
I underline the fact that the UK has a proud history of operating an asylum system that looks after individuals seeking refuge from persecution and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while asylum cases are considered. I am very grateful to the city of Glasgow for its participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme and for the support it has provided over many years to asylum seekers.
I welcome this debate. There have been a number of debates on issues relating to support for asylum seekers. As I have already said, I certainly want to continue the dialogue and ensure that we are getting feedback from colleagues as well as from non-governmental organisations and others that take an interest and are engaged in these matters.
For those asylum seekers who do not have independent means of support, the Government provide access to support services in accordance with the obligations of the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees—the Geneva convention. The COMPASS contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board accommodation, in so-called initial accommodation, while their means are assessed, and then with accommodation throughout the United Kingdom—dispersed accommodation—and a small weekly allowance of £36.95 per person per week for food and other essential expenses while their asylum application is considered.
Our existing policy is aimed at ensuring an equitable distribution of asylum seekers and refugees across the country, so that no individual local authority bears a disproportionate share of the burden.
I will of course give way, but let me just finish this point. Historically, Glasgow has been the only local authority area in Scotland to take part in asylum seeker dispersal. However, we are working with COSLA—the Convention of Scottish local authorities—and local authorities in Scotland to encourage other areas to participate. Similarly, my officials are meeting and working with local authorities across the United Kingdom to broaden the number of areas in which supported asylum seekers will be accommodated. I now give way to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, Glasgow is taking a very large proportion of the asylum seekers—I think it was top of the list for the entire United Kingdom that the Select Committee published in our last report. The Minister’s own local authority and other local authorities in the south of England are just not doing enough. I know that he is encouraging them, but why can they not do more to relieve the pressure on local authorities such as Glasgow?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he has questioned me on this issue in the Home Affairs Committee previously—we have a voluntary arrangement for dispersal in respect of asylum seekers. Yes, we are taking steps to encourage more local authorities to contribute and provide that support. It is important to see this in the context of both the really positive support that many local councils across the United Kingdom are providing for the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme and the pressures on some local authorities in respect of asylum-seeking children. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the separate dispersal arrangements that we announced last week in relation to that. Therefore, different councils are contributing in a number of different ways. It is important to recognise the different ways in which many local councils are providing support for refugees and asylum seekers, whether they be adults or children, with the different challenges that each group presents. It is important that we provide appropriate support for them.
In Scotland currently, the only dispersal area is Glasgow. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West recognises that, and we have had discussions about it previously. A meeting took place in February with other local authorities in Scotland to seek their consent to widen the dispersal of asylum seekers beyond Glasgow. Follow-up meetings have explored these issues further, but I certainly encourage the hon. Gentleman to continue to work with the Home Office and the Scottish Government to ensure that we are working together to encourage more local authorities in Scotland to recognise the need to extend that beyond Glasgow.
I pay tribute to the work that many local authorities are already doing in providing support for Syrians arriving under the vulnerable person resettlement scheme. In some ways, that is unlocking many more local authorities, which recognise the contribution they can make and the role they can play. That is a conversation that I am very keen to continue, to ensure that we are indeed looking at the particular concentrations in Glasgow and seeing how we can work together to extend dispersal into other parts of Scotland.
Accommodation standards were the core part of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. The Home Office is working with its contractors to ensure that all the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is safe, habitable and fit for purpose and that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, taking account of their vulnerability. We are also ensuring that the system is effective and efficient and provides value for money for the taxpayer. I am of course concerned about any allegations of substandard accommodation or misconduct or mistreatment of asylum seekers by our staff or the staff of any contractors. Such allegations are taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly.
The suppliers’ housing inspectors are required to visit each property at least once a month and when asylum seekers first arrive at, or depart from, a property. The Home Office also inspects properties and will inspect one third of the properties in the Scotland and Northern Ireland contract area over the course of this financial year. Where Home Office inspections find that accommodation does not conform to the required standards, contractors are provided strict time limits to remedy the defects.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office can, and does, impose penalties on any provider who fails to meet the terms of their contractual agreement. Between April 2015 and April 2016, four service credits were applied for accommodation standard issues in Glasgow. In those cases, the required improvements were made but not within the prescribed timescales; therefore service credits were applied.
The Home Office has improved its inspection regime over recent months not only to ensure that the accommodation standards are being complied with, but to ensure that asylum seekers have opportunities to raise any concerns they have or report any complaints that our providers have not resolved to their satisfaction. This was a core part of the review that we undertook to ensure that we were getting full feedback from service users and therefore not simply relying on providers to provide that feedback, and also to engage with NGOs and charities. That is something that I remain committed to doing to ensure that we get that further, full feedback.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been most generous and we may well get to 4.53 pm. In relation to inspections, one of the big concerns is that asylum seekers are unable to lock their own accommodation and have privacy issues. That is a key concern, so will the Minister look at that and also ensure that inspections are done in such a way that asylum seekers are not left frightened of seeing someone with a uniform, which will mean something different to them from what it would to us?
I am very happy to look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted. If there are concerns about security, assurance or safety, those are of course the sorts of issues that I would want to know are being investigated, so that those in receipt of accommodation have confidence in their surroundings. Equally, I will certainly reflect upon his point about the manner in which investigations and inspections are conducted.
One of the points I was concerned to ensure we reflected upon properly was the manner in which inspections are conducted, so that service users can be confident that they can report problems to those who are inspecting without fearing some comeback to themselves and so that there is no barrier to that taking place. That is why I made the point about talking to NGOs and charities. Sometimes service users do not have that confidence, for whatever reason—whether that be from past experiences of contact with authority figures in their own countries that they have fled from—but if there are issues and they feel confident to be able to report them, we can get the appropriate feedback to understand whether issues are emerging. On that point, it is important to stress that the Home Office has established an advisory board with key NGO stakeholders to better capture the views and concerns of the asylum seekers we accommodate.
The hon. Gentleman raised the point about hotels as well. Under the COMPASS contracts, providers are able to use contingency accommodation to cope with high levels of demand. Again, I have made it clear to providers that this is only ever acceptable in exceptional circumstances and asylum seekers must be moved to appropriate longer-term accommodation as soon as possible. If there has been that accommodation in hotels in Scotland, it is possible that the movements he described may be to move asylum seekers to longer-term, more dispersed accommodation, which is obviously something I would want to see, in terms of overall stability for them. We have been working with the providers on that and have seen recent improvements.
Will the Minister look specifically at the issue in relation to women asylum seekers? I am thinking about asylum seekers who are unable to get what is known as an HC2 form for healthcare and getting access to a GP. This is a real issue for women asylum seekers, particularly those coming into the country fleeing sexual violence, for example. I would be obliged if the Minister looked specifically at that issue.
If there are some further specifics, I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman wrote to me or provided the details. I was aware that towards the end of 2015 there were some temporary issues with attendance at NHS appointments, following the closure of the initial accommodation block and an increase in the number of service users. My understanding was that these issues had been addressed and all asylum seekers are triaged by the NHS for health screening when they arrive, but if there are emerging issues or if there is a specific point about the form that he highlighted, I would be very pleased to look into that for him.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time; he is always generous in these debates in taking interventions. Taking him back to his point about hotels, of course they sometimes have to be used in emergency situations. Does he agree that it is preferable in those circumstances that the entire establishment, or a wing of the establishment, is used, rather than parts of an establishment? There is evidence that it causes an enormous amount of resentment on the part of the normal paying customers in a hotel when asylum seekers are present. Indeed, the asylum seekers themselves feel disadvantaged, because they are getting different meals to those who are normal hotel-goers. This should be exceptional, but there is a crisis in asylum accommodation and it does have to be dealt with.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. There are examples where we have sole-use hotels, as well as examples where rooms have been taken as part of the continuing use of the hotel. My focus is on seeing those numbers come down and moving to a position where there is not a need for reliance on hotel accommodation, and is therefore on looking at that overall capacity issue. That also comes back to his point about widening and looking for new areas to establish dispersed accommodation and working with providers to find ways to get further access. A significant amount of work has been taking place on that over the course of this year, and there is continued work engaged on that.
Where there is a need, at times, for hotel accommodation to be used, whether that be shared-use or not, it is important that providers do that in a respectful way, ensuring that no issues of stigma are attached. I am obviously familiar with the discussions that the right hon. Gentleman and I have had on other things relating to issues of stigma. Again, I take a firm view on ensuring that we do all we can to prevent any of those matters from arising. That is a clear point that we have underlined to our service providers on the approach they take. I suppose what I would say to him is that I recognise the points he makes about sensitivity and the appropriate use of accommodation. We take that into careful consideration and we make those points to the providers.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West also highlighted the potential extension of the COMPASS contracts. Officials are continuing to carefully consider the extension of existing contracts in accordance with their terms. The timing of any decision to extend the COMPASS contracts is subject to ongoing commercially sensitive discussions with providers. In deciding whether to extend the contracts, the Home Office will take a number of things into account, including the performance of the contracts and the value for money they offer to the taxpayer.
The Government are committed to doing everything necessary to protect the rights of asylum seekers and provide them with the safe and secure accommodation they deserve. Any complaints relating to the standard of accommodation will be investigated promptly and necessary remedial action will be taken. In closing, I reiterate my thanks to Glasgow for the proud role it has played in welcoming and supporting asylum seekers over many years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the provision of services for asylum seekers in Glasgow.
Dormant Betting Accounts
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dormant betting accounts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this Westminster Hall debate. Members here today will know that problem gambling continues to blight too many communities across the United Kingdom. Like alcohol or drug addiction, gambling has the terrible power of being able to destroy a person’s life and inflict financial and emotional misery on victims and their families.
In recent years, there has been greater recognition of gambling-related harm and the damage that it can cause. Despite the greater awareness and increased funding for support services, it has been suggested that there are still around 450,000 problem gamblers in the UK. The sheer scale of the problem makes it clear that the UK Government have a responsibility to do more. I have devoted much of my time as a parliamentarian to pursuing this issue. I believe that the money contained in dormant betting accounts could, and should, be used as an additional source of revenue for organisations to assist people with gambling-related harm.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and I share his concern about the devastating impact of gambling addiction, but does he recognise that the gambling industry has started to take some measures in that respect, such as the “When the Fun Stops, Stop” campaign, which is very high profile? Betting is a private transaction between an individual and a bookmaker and we must be very careful about setting a precedent for the state confiscating private property, even in such a worthy cause.
I have no issue with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I agree that “When the Fun Stops, Stop” is a very strong campaign led by the gambling organisations, and they should take credit for that. I am not here to lambast gambling as a concept; what we are looking at is problem gambling and facilitating a trigger that I believe we can use to help people who find themselves in that unfortunate situation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that gambling and debt are often symptomatic of economic and social decline and that the creative use of dormant bank accounts could benefit and bring some relief to such communities ?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and colleague, and hopefully I shall shine some light on that later in my speech.
Why do dormant betting accounts exist? When I was a boy in the ’60s, I used to enjoy watching the racing on the television with my Uncle Charlie. We would spread out the pages of the newspapers in front of us and gamble. We would watch the racing, pick our horses and calculate how much to bet. Spread betting taught me more about checks and balances than my economics teacher ever did. Because Charlie was a regular gambler, he had an account with the local bookies. From the comfort of his living room he phoned the bookie and placed his bets. Charlie would drop into the bookies during the week and pay his debts or pick up his winnings. The bookie knew Charlie, and the books were balanced weekly.
As technology has advanced, so has our ability to access gambling, which we can do from our phones or tablets at any time of the day. We also now live in a more disposable world. People once worked their entire lives at the same company, lived in the same street all their married lives, banked with the same bank and went to the same place on holiday every year. Now it is easier to change, and we are encouraged to change and move and to take up new offers.
Betting companies tirelessly promote free bets and other generous offers to encourage new customers to sign up. It is not unusual for people to have half a dozen or more accounts with different companies to take advantage of those offers. People can only remember so many user names, passwords and accounts, and eventually, they lose interest or forget about an account that may only have a few pounds in it. Over the passage of time, the accounts become dormant, but do we know how many accounts there are and do we know how much money they contain? The answer to both of those questions is no.
In preparation for the 2010 Department for Culture, Media and Sport report, companies were approached to give a financial breakdown of the amount of money involved in dormant or similar accounts. A majority refused, either on the grounds of commercial confidence or because they claimed to be unable to produce the figures. Betfair provided data about the size and scale of dormant betting accounts, but on a confidential basis. Under the current arrangements, dormant betting accounts are simply reverted to the company profit line after a specified amount of time.
I shall certainly go on to do that because it is an area of some concern. There is no definition of that as yet and I think there should be.
Companies have different definitions of “dormant”. For instance, Gala Coral define it as 400 days of no activity whereas Ladbrokes define it as 12 months. The report commissioned in 2010 for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport proposed that when a betting account became dormant, 25% should be added to the company profit and 75% should be transferred to good causes. The report also concluded that if a voluntary scheme could not be established with betting companies, legislation should be enacted requiring them to contribute 75% of the unclaimed amount. Dormancy in this instance was defined as 18 months of no activity and the money was only taken once all efforts had been made to contact a customer regarding their account.
In April this year, I wrote to Ladbrokes, Gala Coral, Paddy Power, William Hill and Betfred regarding their policy towards dormant betting accounts and problem gambling. Unfortunately, Betfred and Paddy Power did not respond to my letter. William Hill, Gala Coral and Ladbrokes gave me the courtesy of a response, but all strongly rebuked my statement that the issue of gambling is one that blights a number of communities and households.
The response from Ladbrokes was perhaps the most insightful for people wishing to learn how gambling companies view their own services. It said that
“rather than a blight on local communities and individuals as you suggested in your letter, I strongly believe that our shops are a real part of their local areas. Many of our colleagues know their customers by name and face and our shops often provide a social outlet for customers to meet other people, over a cup of tea or coffee, whilst having a flutter on their sport of choice.”
Betting companies may paint a rosy picture of gambling as a harmless pastime, but that is a misconception. The reality is that the proliferation of betting shops on our high streets is seen by my constituents as an unwanted symptom of economic and social decline.
Online betting accounts are also part of the problem, making it easier than ever for problem gamblers to become bankrupt, fall behind on their mortgage payments or experience divorce or family troubles because of addiction. Is that the experience of most gamblers? No, it is not. Do the majority of punters bet responsibly? Of course they do. The experience of the problem gambler—that is who we are seeking to help—and the wide-reaching ramifications of their actions far outweigh the experiences of the majority of punters who visit the bookies for a cup of tea and a £2 bet. For example, I am aware of one problem gambler who stole almost £850,000 to fund his addiction. The Gambling Commission concluded that Gala Coral had failed in its duty to prevent money laundering and problem gambling and added that the company’s safeguards against both were inadequate. Gala Coral agreed to pay back £850,000 to the victims of the crime and to pay £30,000 to the commission for the cost of the investigation.
Some will say that enough has already been done to tackle problem gambling and that adding money from dormant betting accounts is not necessary. They will highlight the financial contribution that betting companies already make to organisations that assist with gambling addictions. Figures released by the Gambling Commission show us why we should be sceptical of those who say that enough is already being done. Last year, British gamblers lost £12.6 billion and losses have risen every year since April 2011. Online betting accounted for a third of the total losses. In 2014-15, the charity GamCare reported an 18% increase in calls from problem gamblers and a 39% rise in clients receiving treatment.
We can conclude without hesitation that betting companies have no interest in voluntarily signing up to a dormant betting account scheme such as that envisaged in the 2010 Government report. Their view has been unambiguously stated through their unwillingness to outline how much money is in dormant accounts and their hesitation in engaging with me on the subject.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister takes away three points from my contribution. First, the UK still has significant and worrying levels of problem gambling. Secondly, betting companies have no interest in voluntarily signing up to a scheme as proposed in Don Foster’s 2010 report. Thirdly, only the UK Government have the power to ensure that good causes benefit from the potential funding locked in dormant betting accounts. The UK Government have a duty of care and the time for paying lip service is over. It is time for the UK Government to act on the recommendations laid out in the 2010 report, and in turn help the many individuals and families who have been affected by gambling-related harm.
Because of the injury time carried over from the previous debate, this debate can, in theory, go on until 5.53 pm. The recommended limits for the Front-Bench spokespeople are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, but obviously we have a lot of time to play with.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this important debate, and I declare an interest as somebody who spent seven years of her life working in high street betting shops.
The potential negative effects that gambling behaviour can have on those who develop an addiction is an issue that does, and should, cause great concern.
I understand the concerns about problem gambling, and I think we all share those concerns. However, for a moment, we ought to consider the fact that the gaming industry creates thousands of jobs, and 70% of the population take part in some form of gambling during the year without any poor side effects. Gambling is not always a negative story.
I take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman makes so well. He encourages me to jump forward to something that I was going to say later, which is that, although most people gamble responsibly, we have to recognise that in some cases gambling causes huge problems and distress not just to families but to communities. The proposal to use dormant betting accounts to help deal with the damage that gambling often causes for too many people has something of a beautiful synchronicity to it. I take nothing away from the fact that gambling, for most people, is an enjoyable pastime. One thing does not necessarily preclude the other. We can recognise the benefits and the negative consequences of gambling.
The problems caused by gambling should make us pause for thought from a public health and policy perspective. Indeed, the prevalence and ease of access to gambling should give us all cause for concern, even those of us who do not have a particular problem with gambling. Gambling behaviour is increasingly a subject of public health and policy interest, and there is widespread recognition that some people who engage in gambling activity can experience harm. I think we can all agree that the deregulation of gambling in 2005, allowing online gaming companies to advertise on UK media, gave rise to potentially worse problem gambling while, at the same time, offering greater leisure opportunities for those who enjoy gambling in a healthy spirit.
The online gambling industry is worth nearly £2 billion a year in the UK, which shows that it makes a significant contribution to our economy, but we must not let that blind us to the difficulties that it throws up and that we have to deal with. There is plainly a need for more education and support, and the matter of dormant betting accounts has already been visited in this place.
There are a number of reasons why dormant betting accounts arise. It might be that the account holder has died or has decided no longer to engage in gambling at all. Given the current competitiveness in the market, customers may regularly transfer their credit between betting accounts held with different companies, meaning that old accounts can easily be forgotten.
In the event that a betting account falls into a dormant state, betting companies will try to contact the customer to make them aware of it. However, companies will often use the dormant account as a way to coax customers back with promises of free bets. In the event that the customer does not reactivate their account, the money left in the dormant account reverts to the company’s profit line after a period of time through an accountancy procedure. For the information of the hon. Member for Chester on the definition of a dormant account—
That must have been what I was thinking of. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for changing his constituency without consulting him.
For the information of the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the definition of a dormant account may vary depending on who is asked. If we were to move the matter forward, that is an argument we could have. Would an account be dormant after, for example, 12 months or 18 months? There is a debate to be had about that. Today, that is beside the point because we are talking about the principle of dormant accounts, not ones that have simply been unattended for a few months.
Has the hon. Lady gathered any evidence as to exactly what steps the betting companies take to locate the person who holds the dormant account? It is often the case that people deposit from their credit or debit card, and can withdraw money at will. Betting companies hold people’s debit and credit card numbers. In the hon. Lady’s estimation, would it help if funds were just returned automatically after a certain amount of time, if that card is still live? Might that obviate some problems we are discussing?
It might obviate some of the problems but, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, debit and credit cards also fall into disuse. I own credit cards that I have not used for months or years and that I probably could not use now. Cards get changed and personal identification numbers get updated, so I am not sure that that would be a permanent way forward. The problem is that, when betting companies make contact with people who have dormant accounts, it is very often a lever to encourage them to gamble more. I am not sure that that is helpful.
The way forward is to use the funds from accounts that have fallen dormant to do some good for those who have difficulties with gambling. To be quite honest, I cannot see what is controversial about that. Hon. Members might throw up all sorts of issues such as privacy and the intrusion of the state but, in the long term, we are talking about doing something for the greater good.
The key point is whether the amount of money required to administer such a measure would swallow up virtually all the money that is brought back from the dormancy arrangement. There are no definable figures, so a good starting point would be to pressurise betting companies to find out exactly how much money is in dormant accounts. We would then know exactly what good that money could do.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point; he talked earlier about the voluntary participation of the betting industry. To establish the exact sums involved—which I believe are significant, although I could be wrong—we really need the betting industry on board. Companies are quite reluctant to go down this road, for reasons that I am sure they could explain well enough themselves. The proposal has some merit, but how much money are we talking about? Let us have that conversation. Why would anybody be afraid or reluctant to have that conversation? I leave that thought hanging in the air for the hon. Gentleman to mull over at his leisure.
I have no doubt that the sums held in dormant accounts may be surprisingly large. Why do I say that? For the National Lottery, which allows 180 days for people to claim their prize money, unclaimed winnings, although not the same as dormant accounts, amounted to 1.5% of sales in 2008-09. That is not a high proportion, but it amounted to £78.2 million, a sum that any charity or group of charities would be delighted to have. We are talking about significant sums of money that could do much to mitigate the harm, damage and distress that gambling addictions all too often cause. We are not talking about a hill of beans; we are talking about quite a windfall—pardon the pun—for gambling charities. In 2009-10, unclaimed pool betting dividends on UK horse races totalled £944,000. Again, such dividends are not the same as dormant accounts, but the figure indicates the kinds of forgotten sums that could be put to better use rather than sitting in some account or being used on somebody’s profit line.
Of course, as with any proposed change, we will have naysayers, not least in the gambling industry, telling us that it cannot be done. They will say, “This is the intrusion of the state. Where is people’s privacy? Where are people’s rights? We cannot ensure that the money will minimise gambling-related harm.” Why not? What is the obstacle here? I know the gambling industry is an obstacle, but surely policy cannot be made due to pressure from companies with a vested interest in the status quo. Whenever someone makes a proposal on any aspect of public life, there are always a hundred reasons to say no, but in this place surely we can look to the greater good and find enough reasons to say yes.
We are not starting from scratch. A way forward can be found by implementing the findings of previous reports, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde, in the form of a voluntary scheme for high street betting shops, while requiring online and remote gambling operators to have their accounts annually audited to identify accounts that have been unused for, say, 18 months—the amount of time is up for debate. As a starting point, the operators could then provide 75% of the money in those accounts for good causes. What could possibly be wrong with that? Using money left in dormant accounts to help fund organisations working to minimise gambling-related harm would have a beautiful synchronicity that I find quite compelling, and I can honestly see no downside. All that is required is political will.
Ronnie Cowan gets two minutes at the end to try to sum up the debate, which I am sure he is looking forward to. I am looking forward to the next speech from the hon. Member for Luton North. What a great day it is to see such a stalwart of the Back Benches propelled on to the Front Bench of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will try to live up to your flattery—it may have been a compliment, but I feel flattered.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate. I want to call him my hon. Friend, because he is a friend. Although he is not a party political friend, we are both members of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs and we have spent many happy hours discussing matters on that Committee. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made another excellent speech. I agree with both speeches in their entirety, but I will share a few thoughts of my own.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde is seeking effective Government action to address dormant betting accounts, which is a matter of great seriousness. He has, not for the first time, raised the issue of problem gambling—compulsive or addictive gambling—about which I, too, have been concerned for many years. I sympathise with his view. I am, of course, old enough to remember the first betting shops opening in the 1960s; later in that decade the first UK inland casino, Caesars Palace, opened in my Luton North constituency. There has since been progressive relaxation of regulations governing gambling establishments, the use of fruit machines in places of entertainment, and so on.
The last Labour Government were pressed by the gambling industry to allow the opening of many mega casinos across the country, which I and many others in my party opposed, and the proposal was largely seen off by the House of Lords. But that Government made the installation of fixed odds betting terminals possible. I think I was the first person to use the term “crack cocaine of gambling” in the Chamber to describe FOBTs, although I did not coin the phrase.
I occasionally gambled moderately in my youth. I bet a shilling each way on a horse or two, which shows how old I am. One of my dearest friends, sadly now deceased, wisely observed that gambling is a pleasure for which he usually had to pay. We would do rather better if we all had that attitude. However, that sensible attitude is not given to all gamblers. The opportunities and temptations to gamble dangerously have increased over the decades, and gambling addiction is now an enormous social problem. We need Government action and legislation to reduce harmful gambling, and I do not accept the spurious notion that freedom means that the state should not involve itself in such matters. The state has a duty to help protect us from danger, as with alcohol and other things.
I will address some of them later, but I will not be specific. I have only been in my job for a few days, and I have yet to be fully briefed on where my party stands on this matter, so I have to be careful—I suspect that I would go further than my party might like—but I hope to persuade my party to pursue proper action. I will not specify that action today but, so long as I am in this job, I will seek to persuade my party.
The notion of freedom is overplayed. We were the last country to make wearing a seatbelt compulsory in cars and, of course, a lot of people died because they did not wear their seatbelt. We all started wearing seatbelts after it became compulsory, and hundreds of lives have since been saved every year. That is just one of many examples where the state intervenes to protect us from ourselves and to make us more sensible than we would otherwise be. Most of us are sensible, but some people are not and require a little encouragement from the law.
Fixed odds betting terminals are, of course, responsible for much of the most problematic gambling in our communities. As gambling has been progressively relaxed, we have seen the problems increase. FOBTs continue to cause immense damage to people’s lives, destroying families and driving some of our poorest people into penury and massive debt.
Today, we are discussing what should be done with the considerable sums left in dormant betting accounts and suggesting practical ways of using those sums for beneficial social purposes. One suggestion is to find appropriate ways of using the moneys to help support problem gamblers, and detoxing is one way in which they could be helped. There should be a suitable public agency—here we go, perhaps my left-wing views are coming out now—or public fund to which these moneys could be transferred with appropriate safeguards. If all dormant betting accounts were required by law to be declared and specified in the accounts of gambling companies each year, we would know how much those accounts were worth. We could then decide what to do with them. The sums might be very small, and it might not be worth doing anything with them because the administration would be too expensive, but like the hon. Members for Inverclyde and for North Ayrshire and Arran, I suspect that the sums will be considerable—they will be in the many millions and possibly even billions.
The 2010 Department for Culture, Media and Sport report by the former right hon. Member for Bath, Don Foster, who has now been elevated to the other place, suggested that new bodies should not be created. Although I applaud his good work, I beg to differ. A publicly accountable body that operates transparently could provide a useful and secure home for such dormant account funds. Former ownership could be registered with all necessary and available details so that if the moneys were ever claimed, they could be returned to the rightful owners, but many owners will have forgotten or lost the money, or died or whatever. Considerable sums could be collected and used for beneficial public purposes. Support for sporting activities, especially for the young, would be another obvious use. No one would lose, and claims by rightful former account owners would be honoured.
Well, yes, profits might be dented a bit, but I doubt that employees would lose, especially if they were properly represented by trade unions, as many of them are. I am frequently lobbied by members of my own union about their jobs in local casinos. It is possible that profits might be affected by the interest earned on such accounts, but the money could be used for good social ends rather than being wasted through lost opportunity costs.
Legislation would be required, of course, to facilitate such a system and require bookmakers and others to release the funds, but I see no downside for the public in what I suggest. I hope that these thoughts take hold at least within my own party, and hopefully with the Minister too, who I know is socially concerned. I hope that she, like me and the Scottish National party Members, is concerned about the damage caused to many ordinary people by dangerous gambling. I do not wish to say any more. Perhaps in another debate I might branch out rather further into my interventionist approach to policies to make people’s lives better and safer.
On day two after returning from maternity leave, I already have the honour and pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I place on record my thanks to my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) for covering my portfolio for the past five months. I also take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on his appointment. We have worked together on many issues, not least due to our shared interest in alcohol addiction. This is an opportunity for him to use his freedom to make policy while nobody is looking. Go for it!
I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss dormant betting accounts and the incredibly important issue of research, education and treatment for gambling-related harm. I thank the other hon. Members who have participated in this debate for their informed and helpful contributions.
Gambling is a legitimate leisure activity enjoyed by many people, but I am absolutely clear that we must do all that we can to protect vulnerable people from gambling-related harm. Hon. Members may well be aware that I am extremely passionate about this issue and have championed it for many years. I will touch on that in more detail in a bit, but first I will concentrate on dormant accounts and unclaimed winnings, which is worthy of consideration in some detail.
“Dormant accounts” tends to refer to online or telephone accounts in which a customer has deposited funds and which have then seen no activity for a set period. That time period, as others have said, varies between operators and can be anything from a few months to more than two years. If the account remains dormant beyond that period, many operators will absorb the funds into their profit line.
The previous Government commissioned an independent report to investigate whether unclaimed winnings or money in dormant accounts could be put to good use. The report was undertaken by Lord Foster of Bath, and acknowledged a number of practical, technical and legal issues that would need to be considered in order to take forward any proposals in the area. One of the report’s key findings was the lack of information about how much cash was lying dormant in such accounts. Further work would need to be explored, either in voluntary discussions with the operators or by introducing a new licence condition via the Gambling Commission, although I heard what the hon. Member for Inverclyde said about his own approach to getting some of that information from the operators.
In my view, any additional money for the treatment of gambling harm must be a good thing. Therefore, I see the potential benefits of directing funds that have been left dormant for a set period of time towards education on gambling-related harm, research into it, treatment and prevention. Members may be aware of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008, which allows the Government to direct money left untouched in bank and building society accounts for more than 15 years to good causes.
In March this year, a new independent commission on dormant assets was established to support Government, to identify additional pools of unclaimed assets and to work with industry to encourage the voluntary contribution of those assets to good causes. The commission will report and make recommendations to Government on the feasibility of expanding the dormant assets scheme before the end of the year, and it is considering unclaimed gambling winnings as part of its asset scoping work. Relevant sector organisations, including the Gambling Commission, have provided submissions to the call for evidence. Officials from my Department are in contact with colleagues at the Cabinet Office, and I will stress to them the need to work closely together, to see what progress can be made as part of the forthcoming recommendations on the feasibility of expanding the dormant assets scheme.
I have taken a close interest in gambling addiction for some time. By all accounts, it is the silent addiction—the one that gets the least interest and funding, especially compared with drugs and alcohol. Sadly, there is often a link between gambling addiction and other addictions that might not always be identified. Therefore, as the secondary harm, gambling addiction might well go unnoticed until it is too late. Research indicates that the vast majority of those who gamble do so without problems and overall rates of problem gambling remain low, at less than 1% of the total adult population, yet I am sure that we are all acutely aware of the devastation that gambling addiction can cause. The NHS website estimates that there are nearly 600,000 problem gamblers in Great Britain. I was struck by GamCare’s estimate that for each problem gambler, there may be 10 to 15 other people whose lives are adversely affected by their activities.
The health implications of problem gambling are such that there is a clear overlap with public health policy and practice, especially on mental health issues and substance misuse. I have spoken with my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health, and officials from that Department and mine have met to discuss the issue. My officials continue to take this work forward.
Returning to funding for gambling-related harm, it would be remiss of me not to highlight that the gambling industry contributed more than £7 million to the Responsible Gambling Trust to fund research, education and treatment for gambling-related harm last year. Under their current licence requirements, all gambling operators must make an annual financial contribution to one or more organisations that perform research, education and treatment. The vast majority choose to contribute to the RGT, the leading charity in the UK committed to minimising gambling-related harm, which aims to prevent people from getting into problems with gambling and ensure that those who do develop problems receive fast and effective treatment and support.
The RGT’s funding priorities are guided by the national strategy advised by the Responsible Gambling Strategy Board and endorsed by the Gambling Commission. I was heartened to see in the national responsible gambling strategy that the gambling industry is now committing significant resources to harm minimisation, over and above its voluntary contributions to the RGT.
I agree completely. I know people who have lost everything in their lives to gambling. We must ensure that we work across Government not just to tackle harm but to prevent people from getting into such situations in the first place. The one thing that I know about gambling is that it is pretty indiscriminate in terms of who becomes addicted, much like addictions to alcohol or drugs. When we talk about vulnerable people, and especially when we talk about gambling in general, we often think about deprived communities—I see it in my own community in Chatham—but the truth is that people from any walk of life can become addicted to gambling and lose absolutely everything as a consequence. That is why we have to do much more on prevention and treatment of gambling.
To return to what we are doing in research, education and treatment, it is clear from the strategy that gambling-related harm is a complex area—I know that at first hand from speaking to people in my constituency, from knowing individuals and from reading the letters I have received as Minister responsible for gambling policy. I therefore welcome the work undertaken by the RGSB in the national responsible gambling strategy published in April. For the first time, the strategy was put out for public consultation and subsequently agreed by all those who have implementation responsibilities. It will help the industry, the Gambling Commission and the Government to focus our responses, and indeed our resources. The areas that the strategy will support include setting research priorities and determining best practice in preventive measures, effective treatment and targeted interventions aimed at reducing gambling-related harm. The RGSB is now working with the RGT to estimate the costs of the activities identified in the strategy, and the Government will work very closely with the Gambling Commission and the RGSB on its implications.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made the point that this is a debate about principle, and she is right. Let me be clear: I am sympathetic to the principle. There are practical issues that need to be discussed, but my view is that every extra pound put into preventing or treating gambling harm is a good thing. I thank the hon. Member for Inverclyde again for securing this debate and other Members for their valuable and informed contributions. I take problem gambling seriously and am deeply committed to ensuring that the gambling industry makes appropriate contributions to these important areas, including funding programmes of research, prevention and treatment of gambling-related harm. It is clear that Members who have spoken so passionately on this issue today and in other debates share that aim.
I believe we are heading to a vote, so I shall be extremely brief. I welcome the Minister back from maternity leave; I hope the transition is not too difficult for her. I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) for his kind words—keep the faith, comrade, despite your new lofty position! I also thank my comrades the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) and those Opposition and Government Members who were here earlier.
I am not lambasting all gambling. The issue is problem gambling, and we have to address it in some way, shape or form. The funds are potentially there to be partitioned off and used responsibly. BetVictor is based in Gibraltar and many other betting companies are based abroad. They have the technology, and their first option must always be to trace the owners of the money. If they cannot do that, let us see what we can do with it in a positive fashion.
I believe I heard words of progress from the Minister. My one reservation is that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s report, which was written by the then Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster, was published in 2010 and we do not seem to have moved any further since then. I hope we are now starting to move in the right direction.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered dormant betting accounts.