Tuesday 25 April 2017
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Post Office Closures
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Post Office closures.
It am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. The number of right hon. and hon. Members present shows how important it is—who would have thought that there was an election on? I am aware that many Members wish to speak, so I will keep my comments as brief as possible. If hon. Members wish to intervene rather than make their own speeches, I will try to take some interventions. To help with the timing, I intend not to speak at the end of the debate.
I appreciate that the last debate on the subject, which was held as recently as November and was led by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), aired many issues that I am sure hon. Members will wish to repeat today. There is concern that plans for the Post Office will be delayed by the forthcoming election, and there are also outstanding concerns from November’s debate—I think the Minister was rather rudely cut off by Divisions in the House—on which it would be good to get some clarity today. I will briefly mention, first, my local post office closures—I am sure that every hon. Member present wants to air a local post office closure —and secondly, the bigger picture of the long-term sustainability of, and game plan for, the whole post office network.
I recognise the good work done by the Government since 2011. The network has been stabilised, the number of closures has been reduced substantially and the subsidy to the network has been managed down from £210 million in 2012 to some £80 million this year as a result of flexibilities under some of the new arrangements. There are upsides as well as downsides. There are something like 200,000 additional opening hours every week, many of them at weekends when post offices would normally be closed, and some £2 billion has been invested in the network transformation plan since 2012. That stands in contrast to the previous 10 years or so, in which half the network branches were closed. My constituency lost more than half its post office and sub-post office branches. When I became an MP in 1997, there were nearly 20,000 branches, and that figure is now down to about 11,500. There are some encouraging signs, but also some very worrying signs when people are faced with the sudden closure of post offices in their own area. When the branches were being closed, we were promised that the Crown post offices were absolutely sacrosanct and would remain the main flagship of the Post Office on the high street.
Post office branches and Crown post offices are very important parts of the local community. Local businesses, including retail and other small businesses, rely on them heavily, because without an excuse to come to the high street to use the post office, people do not use the neighbouring shops. Post offices act as community hubs. They are well used by the elderly population, particularly in areas such as mine that have a high population of pensioners, and by those from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those who do not have conventional bank accounts. For those reasons, post offices remain popular and well used, with something like 17 million customers a week.
That is a very important point that I would like to come on to; it is a question about why the Post Office is not growing rather than retrenching.
In 2016, the Post Office announced the closure of 31 Crown post office branches— even though the Crown offices are now breaking even, after making a £46 million loss four years ago. Some of those post offices have not been converted into the new type of post office and their future is still uncertain. In January this year, a further 37 Crown post offices were identified for closure, including the last two remaining Crown post offices in my constituency, which were in Lancing and Shoreham. That caused huge concern among my constituents and gave rise to lots of petitions and demonstrations by people from all parties. I found it particularly disrespectful that the first I heard of it was when a constituent rang me up to ask what I was doing about it; the Post Office had not even had the courtesy to let the sitting Member of Parliament or councillors know what it was planning.
I organised an urgent meeting with the Post Office and it went through the procedures. I was reassured that firms such as WH Smith had taken on more than 100 of the franchises and everything was supposedly working well. I gather that the other firms that have taken post offices on include a chain called Bargain Booze, an off-licence with some 30 post offices—some hon. Members may have concerns about how appropriate that is. I was told that both the Crown post office branches in my constituency were unprofitable, which was why they were to be franchised out, yet the Lancing branch, along with one very small sub-post office right on the fringe of the village of Lancing, now looks after a population of 27,000. Not surprisingly, queues are frequent. It also services the second largest business park in the whole of West Sussex, with 228 firms that employ more than 3,000 people. The village has lost almost all its bank branches; we were told that when we lost them, we could do all our banking at the post office, so there was no great concern. If the post office branches are not making a profit, that suggests that they are not being run very well—it is certainly not for lack of usage or lack of demand from the local population.
I was told today that one of those Crown post office branches is to be transferred to a nearby convenience store, which is much smaller than the existing post office and has operated since only 2013. On the upside, there will be extended opening hours on Saturdays and Sundays and new disability access, but on the downside, nobody believes that the store is big enough to house a replacement Crown post office. It will have fewer serving positions, when there are already serious concerns about queues, and it will not be able to offer the biometric enrolment service for Home Office applications. There are also concerns about staff transfer: we know that in the post offices that have so far converted, only 10 of the 400 staff have been TUPE-ed across and they are often going into minimum wage jobs. There are question marks over ongoing training for staff who now work in non-Crown post offices, which have tended to have a big turnover of staff. In many of these shops, staff hours get cut and, after initial promises about extended opening times, the shops tend to retrench.
What happens if the model fails? Some 8,000 sub-post offices are now in convenience stores, which have seen a 4% reduction in staff hours since the national living wage came in. Some 30% of businesses also face challenges with the revaluation of business rates. The Daltons website currently shows 705 post office branches for sale. There is a lot of change and churn in the sector, so longer-term questions arise about the viability and sustainability of the new arrangements.
Both my Crown post offices are co-located with sorting offices. Although the sorting offices are run not by the Post Office but by Royal Mail, they are very conveniently placed next to the post offices. Experience has shown that without those anchor partnership tenants, sorting offices are relocated to out-of-town sites, which are much less convenient for people who need to get their deliveries, particularly in places with many elderly people who may not be so mobile.
There is going to be a consultation on my post office. It will be extended because of the election, but we all know that not a single consultation has overturned any of the proposals to transfer these post offices, so I fear that it will be something of a token exercise. The measurements of an access door may be changed by a few inches or the sweet counter may be relocated because it gets in the way of guide dogs, but frankly the consultation will be a token exercise.
I am aware that Citizens Advice does a good job as the oversight body and that some of its research has suggested that in some cases there have been some improvements to access and to service with the new format, but overall the fears are that the queues will get longer, transactions will take longer and the service will be less consistent. People are dealing with different and new staff, and it is just not as good as it used to be.
That brings me to my second point. Where exactly is the Post Office going? Everything that the Post Office has done—I have cited the statistics about making it more efficient, reducing losses and so on, and perhaps extending some opening hours—is all based on retrenchment, which is a policy that sees the post office, especially the directly owned post office, getting smaller and offering fewer services to its customers. There are now fewer than 300 post offices that are directly owned Crown post offices.
The financial services part of the Post Office, which should be a big money-spinner, is diminishing. At the beginning of the year, 150 financial specialists were made redundant. There was a specialist financial office in the Lansing post office, but it was closed earlier this year. I gather that the specialist mortgage advice that the Post Office gives, because of its relationship with the Bank of Ireland, generates a one-off payment of just £800 for brokering mortgages, and there is no ongoing revenue. The Post Office seems to be selling itself very cheap in that regard and it is caught in that relationship until 2023, and it does not sound as though it is a very profitable one for the Post Office.
My question to the Minister, which I hope she will be able to answer to enlighten us, is: why is the Post Office not making more of banking and financial services in particular, given that it is a trusted name and a presence on the high street, at a time when conventional banks are disappearing from high streets?
Post Office revenues roughly break down as follows. I gather that about 47% of the revenue of post offices is from stamp sales, but increasingly stamps are available to buy anywhere. There are also Government services, including Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services, fishing licences and the Department for Work and Pensions card account, but of course those services are all being squeezed and the revenue from them has been diminishing. The Post Office also offers access to current accounts. Banking protocols have been sorted out so that there can be cross-fertilisation of different bank services within a post office, which had been a problem. And then there are the Post Office’s financial services, but again that seems to be a declining market for the Post Office.
Why is the Post Office not copying the challenger banks, for example? Banks such as Metro Bank and Handelsbanken are making a really good fist of expanding into new markets. Metro Bank now has 915,000 customers; it has taken £8 billion in deposits and has 110 branches, and it is growing. Alternatively, as hon. Members have asked in these kinds of debates before, why are we not doing what has been done in France? One thing that we might want to copy from France is La Banque Postale, which was founded in 2006 specifically as a tool to help to tackle financial exclusion and in 2016 had a turnover of €5.6 billion and a pre-tax profit of just over €1 billion. There are similar examples in New Zealand and Italy. There is surely a fantastic opportunity for the state-owned Post Office to take advantage of changing markets and changes in how we conduct our financial business, as a body that is trusted and that is already on the high street. For some reason, the Post Office is not taking that opportunity.
Similarly, why is the Post Office not making more of click and collect services? Everywhere I go now there are shops sprouting up on high streets specifically for people to collect their Amazon and other deliveries, because they are not at home to receive them. The Post Office is already on high streets and surely could offer that kind of service, and yet I gather that 80% of post offices do not have those kinds of facilities. There will be even fewer post offices with them if they are moved to smaller premises that just not do have the room to store and collect parcels.
The overall commercial revenue of the Post Office has been virtually stagnant in the last few years. So it is a great mystery why it is not expanding and becoming more profitable, which would be better for the taxpayer and customers, rather than following a long-term strategy that appears to be based on retrenchment and shrinkage.
Finally, I have some questions for the Minister, in addition to the bigger question of what the big game plan is for the Post Office. The network transformation programme is due to end by March 2018, by which time some 7,500 traditional sub-post offices will have been converted to the new model, but what comes after March 2018 in terms of subsidy and further transformation revenues? In opinion polls, 85% of the public have expressed support for the Government—the taxpayer—continuing to subsidise the Post Office, and not just to deal with the obvious challenges that face rural post offices, which will always face the sparsity challenge. Are any further reductions in Crown network offices planned for the next year? Citizens Advice has suggested that there should be an automatic break if 5% of branches announce that they are to be closed without breaking the access criteria, which is quite hard to do anyway. Will that happen?
The biggest question is: why is the Post Office not taking current opportunities to expand instead of retrenching, particularly as it has the security of Government backing for its revenues and is a trusted name? In 2010, when the Government promised to transform the Post Office—
I am on my final sentence, Sir Edward. In 2010, the Government promised to transform the Post Office into a genuine front office for the Government and that there would be a significant expansion of the Post Office’s banking services, but they have failed so far to implement those measures, as the revenue from Government services has fallen by 40% and income from financial services has stagnated. Closing down flagship branches, getting rid of experienced staff and putting counters into the back of a WH Smith store or a Bargain Booze outlet is surely not a plan for greater innovation, which I think is what our constituents want to see.
I have a problem, because I have got a list of at least 12 people who want to speak. I will have to impose a four-minute limit on speeches. If people intervene, then some other people will not get to speak.
I should probably choose first our most senior Member here today, David Winnick.
Thank you, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who made some valid points. Because of time, I will simply concentrate on the Willenhall Crown post office in the Walsall borough. A second attempt is being made to close it. The first attempt was in 2013, which led to an Adjournment debate. The town was unanimously opposed to closure, which should have come as no surprise, even in a place where, as in other areas, there is not normally unanimous opinion. I found no one in Willenhall who wanted to see the post office close.
Then came the welcome news, and it was indeed welcome, that the Post Office management had changed their minds. Instead of closing the Willenhall post office, it had decided to retain it and invest in it, which was part of—listen to these words—
“building a modern, profitable and sustainable network”.
Joy does not last long where the Post Office management are concerned; under the latest proposals for closures, Willenhall post office is due to face the axe.
The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about public consultation. I am all for consultation, but as far as the Post Office is concerned there is as much consultation as there is in North Korea. There is as much choice as Henry Ford offered when he said of his cars:
“You can have any colour as long as it’s black”.
So there is no consultation. Indeed, when I received the original letter that stated there would be consultation, I asked, “If residents come along, or write, and make it clear that they are opposed, will it make any difference?” The answer was quite clearly no. There would be consultation on alternatives to the Willenhall post office, on whether there would be toilet facilities in any alternative location, on car parking, and so on, but on the crucial issue of whether the Willenhall post office should close, the decision had been made and there would be no change. So much for consultation.
What concerns me is not simply the closure of Willenhall post office. What I have found is that bank and post office closures tend to go together, whether the bank or the post office closes first. Such closures certainly have—as is bound to be the case—an adverse effect on local communities.
We had a demonstration the other week. The union was involved, along with elected representatives and, of course, the public. We were just outside Willenhall Crown post office staging our opposition to the closure. What was happening inside? I will tell the Minister, if she is listening: there was a lengthy queue. There was no lack of business. This post office is clearly central to Willenhall, but that does not seem to matter to the Post Office or to the Government. The Post Office management is acting under intense pressure from the Government; we should have no doubts about that.
What is happening is most unfortunate and I will continue to do my best with other people in Willenhall and with the unions to retain the Crown post office there. The chances are very slight, but I conclude with these words: I used the opportunity in the last Adjournment debate to make the voice of Willenhall heard in the House of Commons and I do so again today in the hope of a reprieve.
I will be brief. I completely support my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who initiated the debate. He has made all the basic national points. I also support much of what the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said about his post office.
I am here because it has been announced, although I do not think I received any specific notice of the proposal, that the Crown post office in George Lane in my constituency is to be closed. Ironically, it is situated very close to a sorting office, which I understand the other side of the fence now wants to shut. We will therefore have a serious blight in the area. With the loss of the post office, people who want to pick up parcels will perhaps have to go all the way up to north Chingford, which is some distance away and the traffic is never that easy. We will have a real calamity on the high street.
It is worth reminding the Post Office and the Government that post offices are part of the chain of integral elements on a high street which, bit by bit by bit, are being removed. The banks have disappeared, and now, in many areas and even in my own, there is real pressure to get rid of small industrial estates, which are vital to the life of communities because people who work on them use the high street during the day, to find their food, to shop generally and so on. There is continuous life there. The post office is an integral element because it brings people into the community, particularly elderly people who do their shopping there. The high street will therefore suffer as a result of the closures.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, there are much better ways to do this. The absence of any sense of innovation in the Post Office is remarkable, given that it owns prime sites that could be used flexibly. When I was at the Department for Work and Pensions, I wanted to persuade the organisation to allow post offices to be used for outreach. The Post Office was utterly negative about the idea and did not want to entertain it, but the Government need to press it again. With terminals where people, particularly the elderly, could receive at the very least reasonable advice about benefit claims, post offices could easily be utilised for further Government activity, beyond all their other work.
The banking side is another consideration. About five years ago, the Post Office was told absolutely clearly by the Government that if it came back with positive responses about how to set up a banking facility, it would be given a reasonable hearing. It took a year for it to come back with absolutely no response whatsoever, except to say—this was connected with the Post Office card account or POCA—that it did not think it was feasible for the Post Office to do that. All along, there has been negativity from the Post Office regarding any ideas about using its facilities in ways that could genuinely increase its revenue and make it more flexible.
Nearly eight years ago in my community we lost a sub-post office on the high street. We were told, “Don’t worry, the Crown post office will be able to take all that business”, and now we find that that post office is about to close as well, leaving us with no postal service at all in the area. I, the community and the unions are absolutely adamant that that is the wrong way to go. The Post Office must think again, and I call on it to be more flexible and reasonable.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who introduced the debate, and his colleagues on obtaining time from the Backbench Business Committee.
It is almost trite to say that post offices, and sub-post offices in particular, are central to the life of many of our small rural and village communities, but that is very much the case. Indeed, as we see the withdrawal of other services, such as clearing banks, from such communities, they will only grow in importance. Maintaining a vibrant and viable network of sub-post offices across our smaller and more rural communities is therefore now more important than ever.
In my time in Parliament I have seen a large number of post office closures, although whenever there is a structured programme of closures we, in Scotland, generally do quite well out of it; we do not see very many post offices close because we have a small population spread over a large area of terrain. However, there has been a constant process of attrition. Time after time, sub-post offices have closed temporarily because the person running them has retired or moved away or is simply fed up with managing the business—and who can blame them? In fact, I have one post office that is about to reopen in the next month or two in the village of Finstown in Orkney. It has been a Herculean effort to find someone to take it on, but it shows that it is still possible to achieve that if there is willingness from a handful of people to make it work.
It is difficult now to make a sub-post office work as a stand-alone business, and for that reason the few businesses that are left are generally being folded into shops, garages, cafés and other places. That is good for those businesses, but it requires a bit more flexibility and sensitivity on the part of the Post Office. I am thinking of the example of Stromness, the second largest town in Orkney, which for years had a stand-alone sub-post office. When that sub-post office was no longer allowed to continue, it was moved into a bakers and general store. The community does not feel comfortable, despite the best efforts of the shop owner, to go along and get their pensions on one side of the counter while standing next to someone buying their messages on the other.
The Post Office needs to be more proactive in supporting people who are prepared to provide a sub-post office service. I spent an hour on Sunday night with the owners of the Palace Stores in Birsay in Orkney—a great little local shop that also includes the post office. They tell me that they have probably lost about a month of post office business because of poor connectivity. The broadband connection that is necessary to run a sub-post office is unreliable. That obviously has more to do with BT Openreach and Fujitsu, which provide the internet services for the Post Office, and their inability to speak to each other, but it is a good example of how the Post Office could make a real difference if it took a more proactive role in supporting its sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. A small country shop in Orkney going to talk to BT will get treated as if it were a small country shop, but a big organisation such as the Post Office would be listened to and taken much more seriously and, in that very practical sense, it would be able to support people who have for years provided one of the most important services in the communities I have been privileged to represent. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will take to the Post Office management the message that that should be its priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate.
I would like to raise the case of Diss Crown post office in my constituency, which is at the heart of the marketplace in Diss. In that geographically central area of Diss, 10,000 local residents, which is more than twice the number of people on the electoral role for the area at the time, turned up to welcome the Royal Anglian Regiment—the Vikings—home after its tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. The post office is very much at the heart of the community. In particular, it is not only at the heart of Diss, but it will be at the centre of the regenerated Diss following the newly reinvigorated Diss heritage triangle project. That £3 million regeneration includes £1.65 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Part of the scheme will relocate some of the town’s facilities, including the tourist information office, further north towards the centre, away from the supermarkets on the fringes of the town. The proposal to close the Diss Crown post office cuts completely against that project.
WH Smith has expressed an interest in taking on the franchise, but the WH Smith branch in Diss must be one of the smallest in the country. It is up some very narrow steps through a narrow door. In fact, there are two narrow doors either side of the shop window, but they are not in the remotest bit suitable for disabled access and nothing that could be done would make a serious difference, because the footprint of the store is very small. My local district council, South Norfolk Council, has invested £400,000 of council tax payers’ money in the heritage triangle project. Indeed, paragraph 2.32 of the South Norfolk local plan refers to the need to protect primary shopping centres, including the Diss heritage triangle.
The proposal to transfer the post office further south to the WH Smith branch would, apart from the inaccessibility problems, put it on the wrong side of town. That would be to the clear detriment of public investment in restoring the old town centre. It would also mean that many public events, such as the welcome home parade to which I referred and the annual Remembrance Day parade, would, instead of taking place against the background of a heavily used, vibrant public building—as other Members have said, it is surprising that it is not possible for such branches to be profitable, and I find it almost impossible to believe that it is not—take place against the background of a closed, redundant, empty building, since there is no word on what Post Office Counters would do with it. In the case of Diss, it would have a damaging effect by counteracting significant public investment in a project that aims to revive Diss town centre.
The Post Office’s current proposal is to relocate the branch to WH Smith, which are the wrong premises in the wrong place. That goes against the trend of local public investment aimed at securing regeneration in one of our finest market towns, which has some of the oldest town records anywhere in the country. Diss could and should be a flagship example of the regeneration of our market towns, with the successful Crown post office at its heart. I hope the Minister will take these points to the Post Office. She should explain not only that we want a much more commercial and proactive approach, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, but that there are certain Crown post offices where the proposals are wholly unsuitable. We need and deserve something better.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who moved the motion, was absolutely right in his thoughtful speech when he said that there would be repetition of many issues, but that we would concentrate on our local areas. Post offices are the heart of our communities and are vital for businesses and local communities.
The beautiful isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn, is well known to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). In 2014, the Post Office tried to close down the branch in the market town and put it out to franchise. There were no suitable premises and nothing has changed, yet the Post Office has come back, repeating exactly the same measures to close it down. The branch is purpose-built in the centre of town. It has access outside for buses and elderly people. It is perfect.
When there were sub-post office closures in rural areas in my constituency, we were told that the Crown post office was the hub of the whole area. Now the Post Office wants to close down the hub. The Post Office is not listening, but it needs to start listening to local communities and local businesses, because across the country we are seeing not only local post office closures, but mass bank closures as well. Local businesses are finding it difficult to do cash handling and run their businesses. When the Post Office closes down Crown post offices, we get empty buildings where lots of money has been spent on regeneration. That will be the legacy of the Post Office, and it is counterproductive. I know that the Minister is as anxious as we are that that should not happen, but we need a proactive Government and a proactive Post Office. We need to look at innovation. We need to look at the brand, to improve it and Post Office products. There are great opportunities.
We are going through a period of mass bank closures. I suggest that the Minister listen to the Communication Workers Union, which is proposing a Post Office bank, which would help with loans for local businesses. We have just been through global financial difficulty, where local banks were not facilitating local businesses in the way that they should have been. I believe in a mixed economy. When the Government have a stake in the Post Office, as they do, they should intervene in a sensible way through the Post Office with a Post Office bank.
People regularly go to do their business and their trade in Llangefni. It is an historic market town, but it is modern too. People do things in a more digital way these days, but as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, broadband facilities can be poor. We need to improve our infrastructure and our post offices. We need to begin listening to local businesses and local communities, because post office and bank closures are ripping the heart out of our local communities.
The Government rightly talk about localism, but local people and local businesses do not want this closure programme. They oppose it firmly. As representatives—this is not the first time I have stood up here for my constituents—we are making coherent points. We want the Post Office to work for our communities, our businesses and the future. I urge the Minister to look closely at the CWU proposals. Let us have the Post Office doing what it used to do when I was a kid: having savings banks and helping businesses in communities. That is the way forward, and I hope the Minister will take it on, on behalf of the people of Ynys Môn.
Thank you, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). I want to talk about three post offices in my area, the first of which is in Lostwithiel. The post office closed, but it now half-opens, for two days a week. Sadly that announcement was made on social media for political gain before consultation with the local community, but it was welcome. However, Lostwithiel is due to lose its permanent bank, and it will have a mobile banking service for two sessions a week. There is no bus service. I am pleading for the Minister to do everything she can to ensure that my constituents in that town, which is bereft of vital public services, can have a permanent post office again. It is an ancient stannary town. It has a lot of antiques businesses and privately owned local businesses. They need a permanent post office service that is open for hours that serve everyone in the community, particularly workers.
We have had a bit of a reprieve in Looe, where my late husband was a fisherman. We saw the post office closed in east Looe. Fortunately, just like in Lostwithiel with its two days, a hard-working postmaster from another village has come in and taken over. Working very closely with my local councillors and local council candidates, we have secured a temporary reprieve, but we need a permanent solution. It is a major tourist town. Tourists do not want to come to a town where they cannot even access post office services.
Finally, in Torpoint, which is very close to my home town, we have had the bank close. People have been told that to use banking services they can go to the post office or make a three-hour round trip. Someone has looked on a map and measured the distance and not taken account of the fact that, on the Rame peninsula, it is an hour and a half’s bus ride to access the alternative bank. The post office is already heavily used and people are very worried that it will not be able to cope with the extra pressure. Will the Minister take account of rural post office services in places such as South East Cornwall to ensure that people get the service they want?
Drumchapel post office on Hecla Avenue is under threat of closure. Drumchapel is an area in the north-west of Glasgow with a population of about 13,000. It was developed post-war to move people from urban slums to the outskirts of the city, but much of the housing that was built was poor quality, and lack of amenities meant that Drumchapel experienced serious social issues, many of which persist. Digital literacy is low and one in every two children lives in poverty. Although there are one or two shops around the estate, the heart of Drumchapel is the small shopping centre where the Hecla Avenue post office is located.
There is a small post office counter at the opposite end of the estate, but it offers a much reduced service. A quick check shows that it offers Drop & Go and foreign currency, whereas our main post office on Hecla Avenue offers passport services, banking, car tax, travel insurance and bus tickets, to name a few things. This is of greater importance when we consider that, in Drumchapel, a high number of people are not able to access the internet. A recent study by Citizens Advice Scotland estimated that 50% of people in areas of deprivation do not have internet access. Many of the tasks that we can do at home are not possible for many of the residents of Drumchapel.
I have visited the Hecla Avenue post office numerous times in the past few months and have listened to residents’ concerns. They have said that it will be difficult to travel to the next-nearest post office—for some disabled people it will be impossible. The post office is busy with queues at the counter, so the locals feel strongly about its potential closure. I have a petition with 640 signatures and another 500 online, which I will present today.
The post office is at the heart of the local community. Its removal would be devastating for Drumchapel. This is about more than commercial viability. The post office is a key public service that must be protected. Will the Minister tell us whether there has been an impact assessment on the area of Drumchapel? Has the mobility of residents been considered when looking at closures? Closure of the post office must not go ahead. It would be devastating for the community.
The title of this debate was the title of the first debate that I had in my name in Westminster Hall when I was elected in 2015. I vowed I would continue to speak on the subject, so I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for giving me this chance.
For more than a year in my constituency, 8,000 constituents were unable to access a post office in Heathfield because the previous landlord had locked the doors and refused to allow trading. Alternatives were suggested during that time, but no business was willing to take the post office on. I therefore use this opportunity to thank Mr Sanjiv Patel from Unique Wines in Heathfield, who had vision and was willing to take the risk and take the post office on. Almost 12 months on, that business is thriving and I pay tribute to him for taking that risk. I hope other hon. Members will find entrepreneurs willing to do likewise in their constituencies to solve the problems that have been outlined.
At this juncture, I want to give credit to post office business. There are 25 branches in my constituency. As a result of a lot of co-operation, 17 branches have received investment to modernise, transforming into either a main post office or a local. I have six branches that have community status as the last shop in the village—they have received access to investment funding. I have 600 additional branch opening hours per week and 10 branches open on a Sunday. I wish our GP surgeries would follow suit.
I want to come back briefly to three points made during the debate, which are important for reform. First, despite not having a post office or a single business willing to put itself forward, and having only one option, Heathfield still had to run a consultation exercise, which delayed the inevitable decision to go with the one business willing to put itself forward. Secondly, the point has been made as to whether franchises such as Bargain Booze are suitable. Unique Wines is obviously an alcohol-selling business, but we have not seen any notable impacts as a result. Frankly, if such a business is willing to take a risk when no others will, I will support it.
Thirdly, the point was made about the post office as a financial services provider. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham had a great idea. Given that such a large part of the customer base is pensioners, and that we need more high street providers to provide equity release solutions to pensioners for social care, perhaps there is an obvious match.
Finally, in a settlement where there are more than 5,000 residents who have had no post office for six months, I would like to see the post office provide both the base and the postmaster for the future.
Today’s debate is not about being against change. Those of us who have concerns recognise that the world is a very different place. I will wager there is nobody here who managed to do a degree with the help of Wikipedia. Indeed, some of us have jumpers older than the internet. [Interruption.] I have to say I have seen them on the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). However, the question is about what drives the changes. Opposition Members are concerned that changes driven by the market alone rarely deliver the best outcomes for the public and often end up hitting the poorest hardest. Of the changes and closures that we have seen in the past couple of years, 40% have been in poor urban communities such as my own. Indeed, under the latest proposal, two post offices in Walthamstow are threatened.
In the short time available, I want to flag up a couple of points with the Minister. First and foremost, closures are not happening in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of bank closures, as many of my colleagues have said. I caution the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) because, with the closure of banks and the services that post offices provide, it is simply not the same for residents. They might be able to get cash out or do a balance enquiry, but they can do precious little else. That matters in communities such as mine.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who said he is happy to see franchises with anybody and everybody. I am not sure we want shots with our stamps, and I am certainly concerned about the evidence that services have deteriorated in franchises with WH Smith, particularly in terms of disabled access and queue times.
I complete agree. For those of us facing closures such as those in Walthamstow and on Lea Bridge Road—our main post office is in Walthamstow—the question is the alternative future. What could make them sustainable, not as white elephants in the provision of public services locally, but as jewels in the crown? For me, that comes with the role of financial services, particularly the missed opportunities with the link-up that could happen with organisations such as credit unions. I know that some Government Members did not think DWP services should be part of our post office system, but there is an opportunity when it comes to financial services.
We know that under-banking is still a major problem in this country. Some 2 million people have no access to a bank account, including 8% of all 18 to 19-year-olds. We know there is rising debt in our communities. We see it in our surgeries. In London alone, we see people who have too much month for their money and there are big increases in consumer borrowing, so the credit union is never more needed. It is a missed opportunity. I want to hear the Minister tell us why in six years of the Government talking about working with credit unions, we have not seen a link-up with post offices. We know that the trade unions, which have done fantastic work uncovering the impact of the closures on communities such as mine, would support such work. In my local area, the Government have not even asked the credit union whether they could work together, and they are talking about closing two local post offices. They now say the consultation is over and it is too late to start that conversation.
We must not lose the opportunity to build the financial inclusion that all of our communities need by bringing those two communities together. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has pointed out, there is a very different future for post offices in France, rooted in those financial inclusion services. What is the Minister doing to bring credit unions, not Jägermeisters, into our post offices, to give them a properly sustainable future that will serve everyone in our communities?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this incredibly important debate. I was the shadow Minister for postal services for most of the last Parliament and was told by many Ministers that this closure programme would be the last, in order to make the Post Office sustainable. It appears that that is not to be the case. I remember the phrase in the Conservative party manifesto of 2010—that dusty tome now on the shelves of political history—that said that the Government would make the Post Office the front office of Government. They have done little to do that, which has led to the situation today, where we have a number of post office and Crown office closures, including the incredibly popular Morningside post office in my constituency.
Having been in this place for seven years, I may be cynical, but I do not see the Morningside post office franchising system as being about franchising—it is about closing the post office. I remember doing a public meeting in Alloa when the first Crown post office franchising policies were going through. The Post Office was pressed on what would happen if a franchisee did not come forward to take on one of those post offices. The answer was, “We would probably have to invest in it.” I would suggest to the Government that they have perhaps got this a little bit round the wrong way. They should be investing in our post offices to make them places on our high streets that people can use, enjoy and access the services they need.
We have a crisis on our shopping streets and high streets. Clearing banks are closing their branches—incidentally, if a clearing bank closes its branch on a local high street, people get a letter to tell them they can use the post office for the services that it will no longer supply. Local shops are in trouble. Pubs are in trouble. The post office is the iconic place on the high street that drives footfall, drives pride in the high street and gives stability to the operations of retail units. As an aside, it is not just the franchising and potential closure of Morningside post office that is not helping in terms of the high streets in my constituency; the rates for some retailers in some of those shopping districts have just gone up by more than 100%. That is surely unacceptable if we want our high streets to thrive.
I would love to, but we are going to struggle to have enough time to get everyone else in.
I have seen the financial figures for the Morningside Crown post office. It is financially viable for the Post Office to run it, but it is financially unviable for anyone else to go in, given the capital and rental payments required to make it a sustainable business, which makes me suspicious that it is just a vehicle for closing the post office.
It is time to make the post office the front office of Government. The Minister has to abide by that phrase and do something that the previous 2010 to 2015 Government did not, and invest in our Crown post offices.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing today’s debate on this extremely worthy subject, given that it could be one of the last debates we have in this Parliament. I declare an interest as a proud trade unionist. I believe that the Communication Workers Union has done as much as anyone. It has put post office closures at the forefront of political debate and campaigns in communities, such as the one I represent in Norwich South, to defend vital public services—the Post Office is a vital service.
The issue needs to be aired thoroughly, not least because of the job losses that sit behind the closures, and the substitution of good jobs with insecurity, and not just because it shows the Government’s contempt for those who responded to the closure consultations, who contributed time and expertise, and took the process seriously, only to be met with silence from the Government. Perhaps the Minister could today touch on the reason for that.
It needs to be aired not just because the closure of Crown branches is very likely to have a negative impact on the Post Office’s overall revenue—some might describe that as deliberate managed decline. For me, a key issue that draws the impacts together is this Government’s attitude to communities and those who live in them. When branches are closed or franchised, the lives of many of the people we are here to represent get a little bit worse. The small amount of research that we have points to a longer time spent queuing, lower levels of expert advice and poorer disabled access—in short, a poorer service.
I feel strongly that we must add to that a further erosion of what it means to live in vibrant community—a place that has resources and services that are not dependent simply on the ongoing existence of WH Smith; where people and the details and experiences of their lives count; where the expertise of those such as postal workers is valued; and where we can rely on their support to run our businesses, send parcels to our families, and send and receive goods. We do so in the knowledge that those serving us fully participate in our community, and that those with disabilities can be part of that normal life.
Every week we make 17 million visits to post offices. That is not a niche activity but part of ordinary life. Chipping away at that is yet another example of this Government’s thinning out of everyday life. Those are policy choices and those who make them erode the quality of people’s lives.
We have seen the decline of a great British institution over a long period of time, and it is one that the public are very attached to, not just on sentimental grounds, but on practical ones. There has been a radical shift in the delivery of postal services, and not for the good. There has been a contraction in the network of about a half over a period of time, and a withdrawal of support.
Ten years ago, there was a major closure of sub-post offices, but on that occasion, at least the Post Office listened. Eight sub-post offices were threatened with closure in my borough. With a very vigorous campaign, we managed to keep five open. That left us with a viable working network. Unfortunately, despite successive Governments promising that there will be no further closures, what has happened since then is almost as bad: main post offices are moving to less good sites because they are cheaper, and there are what are described as temporary closures, which sometimes run into months or years.
Let me explain what I mean with reference to what is happening at the moment in Shepherd’s Bush, the second main town centre in my constituency. At the moment, the last of our Crown post offices is very busy, with queues out of the door. The staff are incredibly good and have been there a long time—they are even quite famous because they often feature in the columns of the comedian Richard Herring, who is a regular user of that post office. That office is being forced out of its current premises. I spent many hours trying to negotiate another location in the town centre, particularly the West 12 shopping centre, but it is going to the Westfield regional shopping centre, which is very inaccessible to local people because it will go into the back of a WH Smith branch.
The WH Smith deal is good for the Post Office because it is cheap space. It is good for WH Smith because it increases footfall. It is not, on the whole, good for customers. Therefore, I am pleased that we are retaining our last Crown office, but it is in a much less satisfactory way. The Post Office’s concession—it has at least listened on this—is to provide a new sub-post office in the town centre of Shepherd’s Bush. Unfortunately, I see little prospect of it finding a location, because the two nearest sub-post offices have been closed—one in White City since last year and one on St Anns Road for two years. Both of them serve large, very deprived communities—the White City estate and Edward Woods estate. They are also growing communities because there is a lot of development in the area.
I fail to see what is going wrong. We must have a continuing network. We cannot have those temporary closures. They are happening because the offer made to shops and to existing sub-postmasters is simply not good enough. As other Members have said, this is part of the decline of our high streets—the loss of banks and markets and of everything that local people rely on.
In 2014, the post office on Stockton High Street was downgraded from a Crown office to a lesser franchised branch buried away inside a WH Smith store. At the time, I likened that to privatisation through the back door. It ignored the public consultation that took place and put staff at risk of losing their employment. Last year, the Norton post office was franchised and moved half a mile away from the high street and main shopping thoroughfare, again to be buried inside a shop. Then in January this year, the Post Office announced that it would be closing the Billingham Crown office branch, making it yet another franchise. It is therefore more than a little ironic that, within the past few days, I received a briefing from the Post Office that talked about bank closures and about how it could help to fill the service gap. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) talked about the opportunities, but if we do not have a robust post office network, branches will not be able to deliver their usual services, never mind others on behalf of the banks, which are axeing their branches on our high streets more and more.
Citizens Advice pointed out that 88% of people think that their local post office has the same or more importance to their local community than it had five years ago. The Government should adopt its recommendations by confirming appropriate levels of funding to maintain the current network and raising awareness about public consultations on the closing or franchising of branches.
The Communication Workers Union sent me a great brief outlining the key issues and wrote to me about the idea of a post bank, which I support. It talked about the impact on customers, queue times, service times, disabled access, customer service and replacing good jobs with insecure employment—the majority of staff in a Crown office will leave when it is closed and a franchise partner is found. The Post Office will not confirm how much public money is given to retailers such as WH Smith. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. There is also a wider social and economic impact with the loss of jobs and the physical removal of the shop from the high street. Those are all valid and strong points.
If we do not fight and challenge the proposed changes and closures—the post office in every single major community in my constituency has been downgraded—it will be to the great detriment to our constituents, who rely on us to speak out for them. I just hope the Minister will rattle some cages.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate and on setting the scene so well. I thank him for giving us all a chance to speak by curtailing his time.
I am an advocate of the Post Office. I represent a community that is both urban and rural, and I have long been concerned about the isolation of my constituents—my rural constituents in particular—who rely on the Post Office. That reliance is greater in the Ards peninsula and Strangford—the area I represent—because the banks are closing. As other hon. Members have said, when banks close, they always state that they have an agreement with the local post office, but when the post office closes, people have to jump on the bus and go on long journeys on already limited public transport to towns to access banking services.
The news in January that the Post Office would close 37 of its largest branches, leaving more than 300 people out of a job, was shocking and unexpected. Although I understand that the idea behind franchising branches is to keep services
“where customers want and need them”,
and to allow post offices to operate in rural areas, the fact that the large post offices are under pressure does not bode well for smaller post offices.
During the five-day strike, members of the Communication Workers Union referred to jobs and pensions. Branch closures, including the proposed closure of my local branch, have unsettled them. The fact that the Post Office is now seeking partners for 37 of its directly managed branches as part of its effort to secure its services in communities around the UK has added to workers’ job uncertainty.
The fact is that each and every one of us as MPs has fought hard to ensure that benefit payments are made to post office accounts. The number of post offices has reduced by some 50% in the past 30 years, and people are uncertain about where they will be employed. Staff must have more security. I have been told that staff confidence levels are at an all-time low, and morale levels are at a critical level. I call on the Government to respond as a major stakeholder and investor in the Post Office, and I urge the Minister to confirm that this rate of closure will not continue and that there will be investment to enhance, rather than cut, services.
Just before Christmas, I received word of the strike action that was to affect my area. The letter stated:
“As you may be aware, the CWU has called for further strike action, on 19th , 20th and 24th December, in 300 directly managed Post Offices and, on 22nd and 23rd December, in our cash distribution operation.
I would like to reassure you, and your constituents, that people working in 97 percent of our network—the 50,000 individuals who work in over 11,000 independently-run Post Office branches—will not be involved in this industrial action.”
Those are not accountancy figures. They are people who work hard to pay their mortgage and who need our support. That is what I am doing now, and I ask the Government to do the same and to offer the support that is needed, not just for the workers in post offices but for those who use post offices across Strangford, the Ards peninsula and the whole of the United Kingdom of this great nation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate. It is testament to how passionately people feel about this issue that so many Members are here fighting for their local community in the last week of this Parliament. I expected to walk into an almost empty room, but I am amazed and delighted that so many people are here.
This is the second time I have spoken on this issue. I could not possibly sum up everything that everyone has said, but I can give examples from my own area. Motherwell is about to lose its post office, which is situated in the town centre. The number of businesses that will be affected if the closure goes ahead is incalculable. People go to the town centre to go to the post office, to get their pensions and to spend money. We do not have a WH Smith in Motherwell any more. We do not have one in Wishaw, either: it closed very recently. The Wishaw Crown post office closed a number of years ago, and we saw the effect that that had. It was relocated into a nice, good shop which, unfortunately, was not designed to be a post office. Access is difficult and queues snake round what are effectively the old Woolworths long shelves. It does not work. We are really concerned.
The CWU has been out trying to save the Motherwell Crown post office. I conducted a survey of customers, and they are all absolutely incandescent: 84% of the people I spoke to said that they use the post office every week, and they have to queue. People said that if they lose that post office, small businesses that use the post office services will be hugely affected. They do not know where they will go, because we are losing banks in the area. Although there are still other banks, that is not what those small businesses want. They want to use banking services in the post office and do postal work at the same time, because many of them rely on the post office to get things out to customers.
It is really disturbing that, although the Government claimed that they would use post offices as the front office for Government, that has not happened. I have spoken to postmasters and postmistresses, and the loss of Government business has affected their business in general. I could not find any figures about Motherwell Crown post office’s turnover and why it was picked. I was told that it was all commercially confidential. If some Members have accessed that kind of information, why cannot all Members do so? It is not right.
At the end of the day, we need to keep our post offices. We have lost a number of sub-branches, which have moved from very accessible local places further out into estates and housing schemes that are not accessible for the majority of people. They suit the people who are there, who can go to their local convenience store, but they do not suit other people. In fact, a post office in the Motherwell civic square closed, right next to where the local authority has hundreds of workers. They cannot access a post office. If the one in the main town centre closes, there is going to be a loss of work for those in the post office and in the businesses around it.
I feel very strongly about this issue, and I am glad that there is such cross-party opposition to the recent round of closures and the effect it has on the poorest and most elderly in our communities, who use post offices the most. I ask the Minister to put pressure on the Post Office to halt this latest round of closures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the Communication Workers Union, which helped us highlight these issues to the public and MPs.
The Post Office is a trusted national brand with a long history. It is instantly recognisable to people across the United Kingdom. It forms part of the everyday fabric of life, offering a wide range of products and services, but it also provides an anchor for communities, decent jobs and, importantly, access to services in rural or urban deprived areas. Instead of making the Post Office fit for purpose for the 21st century, the Government have let that well-loved and trusted institution fall by the wayside and contributed to its managed decline. The Government are intent on privatising our public services. They used to say that they would support a robust Post Office, which former Prime Minister David Cameron promised would be the front office for Government, but they have totally failed on that promise by overseeing a steadfast strategy of cuts to the service that have caused thousands of job losses as well as a decline in the services provided.
The Labour party has made it clear that it would halt further privatisation of the Post Office and instead invest the £80 million of public money that goes into it to ensure the long-term sustainability of branches and services. We will ensure that services are retained and promoted, click and collect facilities are expanded, and banking and financial services, which we know are vital to financially excluded people, are provided.
There were 62 closures and franchising programmes and 500 job losses from the Post Office’s cash handling section in 2016, and more than 2,000 jobs have been lost in total since 2016. On 10 January 2017, it was announced that a further 37 Crown post offices would go under the same franchising scheme, meaning that 300 experienced post office staff and some 127 financial specialist roles will be cut across the network.
Crown post offices typically are directly owned and run by the Post Office. They have directly employed staff and they are often located on prominent high streets. Although there are only 286 Crown branches, they bring in a significant amount—between 10% and 20%—of the Post Office’s overall revenue. Privatising Crown post offices and transferring them into shops such as WH Smith hugely compromises the services provided, causing overall consumer satisfaction to fall, longer waiting and servicing times and poorer access for disabled customers. There are 10% fewer counters per branch in WH Smith branches than in Crown post offices, and 17% fewer foreign currency and business banking positions. At least 30 postmasters have retail businesses in a Bargain Booze franchise.
Not all franchises have worse provision than before, but the overall trend is saddening. Recent independent research for the Government showed that the Post Office continues to deliver more than £4 billion in social value each year to people and businesses throughout the UK.
My hon. Friend highlights research that proves that the service deteriorates when post offices move into WH Smith branches. When we add the fact that 40% of closures are in the most deprived urban communities, we can see that the most disadvantaged people in this country are in dire straits when it comes to having access to a good post office.
I completely agree. It is saddening that people in deprived areas get further and further away from accessing the financial services that are necessary to them.
The privatisation of Royal Mail was, quite simply, the transfer of large sums of public money to the already well-off. Since that privatisation, the Government have promised a transformative vision for the Post Office as
“a genuine Front Office for Government”,
and a significant expansion in its banking services, but neither of those promises have borne fruit. Post Office revenues from Government services have fallen by some 40%, and its income from financial services has risen by only 2%—it has not even kept up with inflation. The Government talk about cost-cutting measures, but £3.3 million was spent on refurbishing branches that were then franchised in 2016, at an average cost of £100,000 per branch.
I was pleased that the Government initiated a consultation about the Post Office last December. At that time, the CWU delivered 75,000 postcards signed by members of the public calling for the Post Office—the “People’s Post”—to be saved. Only weeks later, before a consultation response had even been produced, the Post Office announced 37 more Crown post office closures. In fact, nearly five months later, we still await the Government’s response.
The Government’s track record shows that they have been happy to cut public funding at any cost. They have shied away from communicating with the people affected. The Government’s response to the consultation that closed on 21 December has been delayed. Will the Minister tell us when she planned to publish that response? Why have financial services been cut instead of a promoted? Why have we not looked at the example of a Banque Postale in France, which has successfully provided income for the Government and, crucially, financial services for those who need them most? What contingency plans are there for franchises that are coming up for renewal and new franchises? The Association of Convenience Stores has major problems with its members who, due to the hike in business rates, may no longer wish to provide franchise services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this crucial debate. Today’s attendance and the passion with which Members have spoken about the value of post offices in their local areas shows what an important topic this is. I suspect that, for several of us, this will be our last debate in this Parliament.
The Government certainly recognise the crucial role that post offices play in communities across the country. Between 2010 and 2018, we will have provided almost £2 billion to maintain, modernise and protect a network of at least 11,500 branches across the country. My hon. Friend talked about post office closures. There are more than 11,600 post office branches in the UK, and the network is at its most stable for decades. The number of branches declined substantially in the 13 or so years before 2010, but since then it has been kept absolutely stable. Graphs show that that is absolutely accurate. That is down to the transformation and modernisation of the network, thanks to taxpayers’ investment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his positive remarks about that network transformation programme, which has secured the transformation of more than 7,000 branches. I am sure that I am not alone as a constituency MP in having felt and seen the benefits of that transformation in the branches in my constituency. More than 4,300 branches now open on Sundays, nearly 1 million additional opening hours are to be added to the network every month, and losses have been reduced from £120 million to £24 million. That is a substantial result achieved by management and workers in the Post Office network. The subsidy that the taxpayer is obliged to put in has fallen by 60% since 2012. That is why the network is more stable than it has been for a generation. The Post Office has managed that transformation while maintaining customer satisfaction at more than 95% throughout the programme.
I agree that we need to invest in the postal service, and we are doing that. I hope that we shall continue to do so. However, I am afraid that one aspect of investment is making the existing structure of Crown post offices more efficient and affordable. Through the process of modernisation and franchising of Crown post offices, we have been able to reduce losses. That is a way for us to uphold our promise to keep post offices open in poorer and more rural areas that are not economically sustainable. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least understand that we are not just closing branches; we are franchising them and making them more efficient. We are then able to fulfil our promise to areas that need a postal service but would not have one if we continued to invest in loss-making Crown post offices.
I will not give way. I accept that not all Crown post offices lose money; but the majority of those that have been franchised did.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) put the case very well for the investment made by taxpayers and the Post Office in the service in his constituency; I join him in congratulating Mr Sanjiv Patel on taking the risk, as many others around the country have done. They have then found that it was good not only for their business but for the consumer. The Post Office is doing more for customers and doing it more efficiently for the taxpayer, and it is ensuring that post office services remain on our high streets throughout the country.
Franchising or hosting some Crown branches is part of the Post Office’s long-term plan to ensure that the network is sustainable. It is not about closing services; it is about moving a branch to a lower-cost model, often in a better location for customers, and securing and improving delivery of services. The change from a Crown to a franchise or host branch has been undertaken previously in many locations and is a proven success in terms of sustaining services, as post offices share staff and property costs with a successful retailer. We have heard examples of that this morning. As I was saying, Crown branches have moved from a £46 million annual loss in 2012 to a break-even position today. That is no mean feat. There are still loss-making Crown branches, which is why I do not think we can stand in the way of the Post Office as it makes its service more efficient and sustainable and more accessible to a wider number of people.
The Chamber is packed. What the Minister believes to be the facts, as she has given them to us, do not ring true with the concerns and experiences that even Conservative Members have described. It seems bizarre that when so many of us tell her there are problems she says the Government should not stand in the Post Office’s way; it does not seem the correct response. It seems to me that we have the responsibility; the Government must provide a proper service for all communities. Clearly, the figures that many eloquent Members have given today are at odds with the Minister’s view.
I have talked so far mostly about financial issues. It is undisputed that the Crowns were losing £46 million and are now breaking even. There are still some loss-making ones to deal with. I appreciate that changes of the kind we are considering are not easy, especially when they involve staff who have worked in a place for many years. I know that the hon. Lady has had a briefing from the Communication Workers Union, and I have had meetings with it on several occasions; I sympathise with its position. However, it is essential that the business should continue to manage its costs to ensure that it can meet the challenges faced by high streets, let alone the Post Office, now and in the future, as the way we shop and get access to services continues to change.
Several hon. Members made points about Government services, and I agree that in 2010 the Government had hopes that the Post Office could take over many more such services; but the rapidity with which some of them migrated to the internet meant that that hope did not bear enough fruit. The staff in Crown branches that are being franchised have the opportunity to transfer to the franchisee in line with the TUPE process; or they can choose to leave the business. The Post Office offers a generous settlement agreement, which reflects the hard work, commitment and dedication that many employees have shown over the years. However, I reiterate the point that a more efficient Post Office is able to support and supplement thousands of small businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) noted; she spoke with great authority about the needs of people in her largely rural constituency. The Government take those needs seriously and have honoured a commitment to maintain a service, even where it is not viable on a financial basis, to people living in the rural parts of her constituency.
I will not give way; I have no time left, really.
I agree with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) that poorer urban areas also have a great problem with access to local services—it is not just rural areas. I am pleased to tell her that the Post Office is now focusing on that issue. The Post Office is revisiting some poorer urban areas where it closed branches 10 years ago, to talk to retailers about setting up a local post office counter. I hope that that will succeed in the hon. Lady’s area.
No; I have very little time.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows); I listened to her heartfelt concerns about an accessible post office in the town centre in Motherwell, and I will ask the Post Office to meet her again to discuss the most sustainable option for a service there.
Many hon. Members talked about banking, and I agree that that is an opportunity for the Post Office. However, the Post Office bank idea was looked at closely in 2010-11, and it was decided at that time that the money that the Government had would be better invested in the transformation of networks to secure sustainable access to services.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. As we are at the end of term, and as many of us have raised issues, which the Minister is refusing to give way to answer, can you give me some guidance as to whether the Department will be able to give us the information as quickly as possible?
I am not refusing to take interventions; I am trying to conclude my response to Members’ legitimate concerns. I think that I have responded to quite a number; but I must allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to conclude the debate.
Okay, but I am not going to fill it with interventions; I am going to carry on.
Hon. Members have said that post offices do not have click and collect services, but I want to reassure them that there are 10,500 local post offices that do provide those services. That is another area of potential growth. I invite Members to write to me if their constituency branches do not have them; we will look into it. As to the allegation about hours being reduced in convenience stores, I am pleased to confirm that that is not the case. Opening hours are not decreasing in the fullness of time.
The Minister has just told the House that the Post Office is working with credit unions, but that is not what they tell us; they say that they are open to doing so, but that nothing has happened in the past five years. The Opposition are all talking about financial inclusion; will the Minister commit to revisiting the issue and actively working with alternative providers who will deliver?
The Post Office does work with credit unions where it can, but there is a common link through the Co-op in some transactions. The difficulty has been—and as the hon. Lady is an expert on credit unions perhaps she can help us to solve the problem—not having a common banking platform. When a common banking platform has been developed, further inter-working with credit unions should be possible. We take financial inclusion seriously.
I want to talk a little more about banking; I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is happy for me to continue.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Dog Attacks on Dogs
I beg to move,
That this House has considered police force and local authority guidance on dogs attacking other dogs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to open the debate, the aim of which is to raise the issue of dogs attacking other dogs and to call for effective legislation and guidance to help tackle the problem.
Dangerous dogs are clearly a serious problem. While we know that dogs can attack humans, sometimes with tragic and even fatal consequences, in recent years there have also been a number of high-profile dog attacks on other dogs, which are often caused by irresponsible owners failing to keep control of their animal. That is exactly what happened to one of my constituents, Jill Mayes, and her cocker spaniel, Ozzy. In 2013, Ozzy was set upon in a local park by two large dogs that had been let off their leashes. Thankfully, Ozzy survived the attack, but the experience has traumatised them both to such an extent that my constituent will no longer go to that park and Ozzy’s confidence remains shattered.
Sadly, another of my constituents has also been left traumatised, after her Jack Russell cross was killed by a Rhodesian Ridgeback while out for a walk by the Grand Union canal near their home in my constituency. To make matters worse, the owner of the other dog refused to take responsibility for the attack, leaving my constituent to cover all of the vet bills. Both of my constituents were told by police that the incidents were classed as dog on dog, meaning no criminal offence had occurred and therefore no criminal charges could be brought.
Those cases are in no way uncommon. At the end of last year, I put in a freedom of information request to all police forces in England for information on how many dog-on-dog attacks had been reported in the past two years—14 of the 39 forces that responded held easily accessible data on that type of incident. In those 14 areas, there were more than 1,700 reported dog attacks on other dogs. Sussex police alone recorded 828 such attacks in the past two years, while the force responsible for my constituency—Leicestershire police—recorded 32 incidents of a dog attacking another dog, and an additional 82 cases in which a dog attacked both a dog and a person in the same incident. That is clearly very concerning, and it is important that police forces and local authorities have the powers that they need to tackle the problem and reduce the number of attacks.
I have worked on this since becoming a Member of Parliament, and in 2013 I was delighted to support a campaign led by two of my constituents to highlight the problem. As part of that, we submitted a petition to the Government asking for the law to be tightened and calling for the same legal rights for dogs when they are attacked as currently stand for humans and guide and assistance dogs. The petition collected 2,080 signatures and received the backing of a number of animal charities, including the Dogs Trust, the Blue Cross, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club. I was pleased that the then Minister for Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), visited Fearon Hall in my constituency to hear first-hand the problems faced by dog owners and to collect the petition. His enthusiasm for the campaign was welcomed by local residents.
Since then, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been passed into law, which provides police forces, local authorities and courts with greater powers to respond to cases of antisocial behaviour involving a dog before the situation becomes dangerous. When considering whether a dog is a danger to public safety, courts have to consider a number of relevant circumstances, including whether the owner or person in charge of the dog is a fit and proper person to look after it. I am pleased that that gives courts the ability to intervene earlier to prevent attacks on people and other dogs.
I recognise that the Act also strengthens the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and improves the response where a dog presents a risk to public safety. For instance, the offence of owning or being in charge of a dog that is dangerously out of control has been extended to all places, including the owner’s home.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. She will recall that, only a few months ago, police had to shoot a dog in the street because it was totally out of control. I am concerned by the number of cases of babies being attacked by dangerous dogs. In my view, the prison sentence—it is only six months—for allowing that should be extended a lot further. I support everything she has said.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, which shows that, although the Chamber may not be packed, this is a great concern right across the country in all of our constituencies—I also know that from looking at social media. He is absolutely right, and I will come to sentencing and the fact that incidents can sometimes lead to personal injury or even fatality, particularly of young children. He makes an excellent point.
The amendments to the 1991 Act extended the maximum penalty in a case involving the death of a person to 14 years, to five years where a person is injured and to three years in any case involving the death or injury of an assistance dog. That is welcome, but it still does not give the legal rights to dogs when they are attacked that it gives to humans and guide and assistance dogs. It is important that all dogs have the same protections, and that local authorities and the police have the power to properly punish the owner of the dog responsible. I am interested to hear more about the Minister’s current thinking on that.
As well as the 2014 Act, Ministers have introduced new powers to help frontline professionals to tackle antisocial behaviour involving dogs. Police and local authorities can intervene and issue community protection notices if a dog is causing a nuisance by repeatedly escaping or acting aggressively, while the owners of such dogs can be required to take a range of remedial action, such as attending dog training classes, keeping the dog on a lead in public or repairing fences to prevent the dog leaving their property. Those are clearly steps in the right direction.
However, that brings me to the other reason that I applied for the debate: local authorities and police forces need to be made properly aware of the existing powers the Government have provided to successfully tackle the problem. I know the Minister is working on this. Last December, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs animal welfare team issued a voluntary survey to police forces, local authorities and social landlords on measures to address dog control and reduce dog attacks in England. The survey’s aim was to inform the team of the existing measures’ effectiveness, and to allow it to identify how intervention can be made more effective with minimal burden on enforcement agencies. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that survey.
Charnwood Borough Council in my constituency responded to that survey and raised some interesting points that I will raise with the Minister. First, it feels that the incremental approach to processing dog attacks, as well as the need to prove persistence, makes the process lengthy, which can often lead to frustration for the victim. The need to prove a breach of process means that a dog has to attack three times before the owner can face the ultimate sanction of prosecution. That is clearly concerning because it provides the opportunity for a dangerous dog to attack two further times with potentially tragic or fatal consequences for another dog, or even a child or adult, exactly as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has said.
Sadly, that is what happened in another case that I am assisting with. My constituent’s niece, four-year-old Lexi Branson, was killed by a dog at her home in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). Her family had adopted the dog from a local rehoming centre and were unaware that it had previously attacked another dog. I will raise specific issues from that case with the Minister separately, I wanted to mention it today because it demonstrates the need for urgent action to be taken to ensure that a dangerous dog is not free to attack again. I cannot emphasise enough that, just because a dog has attacked another dog, it does not mean that there might not later be an attack on a human involving serious injury or potentially fatal consequences. One fatal incident is one incident too many. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I welcome the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home campaign to stiffen the sentences for animal cruelty. There are some truly horrific cases of animals being mistreated.
I do not intend to labour the point, but there is also the issue of irresponsible ownership. As candidates, I suspect we have all been in situations, and perhaps will be in the next few weeks, where we are walking up a path, intending to knock on the door or deliver a leaflet, and are faced with a rather angry looking dog. The owner may say it is friendly, but we are never entirely sure—I see you smiling, Sir Edward—whether it really is friendly or has a particular appetite for canvassers. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Coventry South speaks from personal experience.
Returning to the survey, Charnwood Borough Council finds the guidance provided helpful but feels that it can sometimes be too generic. For example, the advice on criminal behaviour orders is difficult to apply to a case involving a dog. The council has therefore suggested that it would be useful if the guidance were made more specific to dogs being living beings rather than property, and if it dealt with the issues that arise for the welfare and cost of keeping the dog once action—for example, seizure—has been taken. It would also welcome more advice on escalating cases when there is no other option but for the owner to forfeit the dog.
I am pleased that Charnwood Borough Council has a good compliance rate of around 91% when it issues a warning to owners at the first stage of a community protection notice. However, the council feels that there is a lack of clarity in the Government’s guidance on whether a case should be handled by the police under the Dangerous Dogs Act or as a civil case by the local authority. I note that all Leicestershire local authorities have a memorandum of understanding with the local police about who handles each type of dog attack, but the council has said to me that it would like to have more formal guidance. I would be grateful if the Minister would consider those points as part of his Department’s review.
It is clear that dangerous dogs continue to be a serious problem in our local communities. Of course, many tens of thousands of dogs are walked responsibly every day, and their owners take great responsibility for them and go about their daily lives with no incidents or trouble whatsoever, but there is a problem. The freedom of information numbers show that the level of incidents is serious, but I pay tribute to those who look after their dogs well, deal with any aggression and take responsibility.
I welcome the positive work that previous Governments and the current Government have carried out to help tackle this problem, but I believe that the law needs to be tightened further to ensure that dog attacks on other dogs are a criminal offence. That would bring the legal rights of dogs in line with those of humans and guide and assistance dogs. In addition, it is crucial that local authorities and police forces have comprehensive guidance available to them that details all the powers at their disposal to prevent the tragic consequences that can arise when dangerous dogs attack.
I am grateful to the House authorities for allowing me to bring this debate to the Chamber. I know the Minister is committed to animal welfare and all related issues, and I look forward to hearing his response.
I would like to begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this debate on police force and local authority guidance on dogs attacking other dogs. I understand that it must be incredibly traumatic for owners whose dogs are attacked by other dogs, particularly as the owner is often a witness of the attack. She described two incidents, and I would like to express my sympathy for her constituents, the owners of Ozzy the dog and of the terrier that was attacked by a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I completely understand that it is an incredibly distressing time. It is completely unacceptable for owners to allow their dogs to be dangerously out of control, whether it is around people or animals. Attacks of this sort can affect animals’ confidence and lead to dogs changing their behaviour and becoming afraid of going out.
Over recent years, the law on out-of-control dogs has been strengthened, and the Government looked at that area in the previous Parliament quite closely. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 now applies the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to all places, not just public places or places where a dog has no right to be. That means dogs need to be under control in all places and at all times. As my right hon. Friend said, that is of particular relevance to those of us who will be delivering leaflets and going on to people’s property. I am sure we have all had experiences of dogs in those circumstances.
The law also makes it a specific offence to allow a dog to attack an assistance dog, for which the maximum penalty is three years’ imprisonment. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we introduced that provision recently. The reason for specifically including an offence in relation to attacks on assistance dogs was to emphasise people’s dependence on them. It was considered that an attack on an assistance dog in these circumstances was an aggravated attack and almost an attack, by extension, on the individual person.
There are real problems with attacks on assistance dogs. A huge amount of work goes into training those dogs. There have been many sad examples of assistance dogs that, despite all the work to train them, lose their confidence to do their job as a result of a one-off attack and have to be retired from duty. That is why we took the view that assistance dogs were a very special case.
Other penalties under the 1991 Act were also increased significantly. In particular, the maximum penalty for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control was increased from two years’ imprisonment to 14 years’ imprisonment in cases where it results in the death of the victim, and five years’ imprisonment where the victim suffers serious injuries.
Other laws were introduced as preventive measures. Measures under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allow police and local authorities to take action in low-level incidents of antisocial behaviour, including those that involve a dog, where the dog is causing a nuisance but no offence is committed under the Dangerous Dogs Act. In such circumstances, police or local authorities can take action by issuing a community protection notice to the owner or person in charge of the dog at the time, ordering them to control the dog and stop the nuisance behaviour. Failure to comply with a CPN can lead to a fine of £2,500. That power means the police and local authorities can take action before a dog becomes dangerously out of control. A criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act was that it dealt with issues only after they had happened. Many animal welfare organisations, dog-keeping groups and veterinary organisations campaigned for the introduction of those types of notices.
For more serious incidents of antisocial behaviour, such as using a dog to actively intimidate someone, there is the criminal behaviour order. A CBO would be used in cases where a court was satisfied that an individual had engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Finally, for more general matters, there are public spaces protection orders, which place restrictions on dogs using clearly defined areas such as children’s playgrounds or sports fields. PSPOs are aimed at all dogs rather than individual dogs.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough reported that Charnwood Borough Council wants to see dog-specific guidance on the antisocial measures. In October 2014, to assist local authorities and the police, DEFRA published a practitioners’ manual entitled, “Dealing with irresponsible dog ownership”, which provides practitioners with guidance on how to use the antisocial behaviour measures specifically in relation to dogs. I was a Minister in DEFRA at the time. I did not have responsibility for this part of the portfolio, but we had a debate in 2014 in which a number of people said that we should adopt measures similar to those in Scotland, where there are specific dog protection orders. Our legal analysis was that community protection notices served the same function, but because a number of people had raised concerns about whether they could be applied to dogs, I asked my noble Friend Lord De Mauley, the then Minister with responsibility for dogs, to address the issue, and that prompted the guidance sent in 2014, almost three years ago, to all local authorities.
The practitioners’ manual differs from the Home Office guidance document, which was aimed at the broader use of antisocial behaviour measures and perhaps is what Charnwood Borough Council has read and what my right hon. Friend has referred to. My Department’s practitioners’ manual can be found on the gov.uk website, but after this debate I will arrange for my office to send her office a paper copy of it.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to a debate that took place on that very matter a few weeks ago. The Sentencing Council recently issued new guidance, which took effect this week, that makes it far easier for courts to award custodial sentences at the upper end of the range for those sorts of offences. Obviously, sentencing is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that it keeps those issues under review.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough said that the police claim that there is a three-strikes rule and that unless a dog has attacked three times, prosecutions cannot be brought and a community protection notice cannot be used. I am reliably informed by my officials that that is not the case. There is nothing in the law that says that there must be three offences. The Dangerous Dogs Act can be used the first time there is an offence. There is nothing in the law that stipulates that there must be three offences before a CPN can be issued. I therefore think that there is an issue, which I was going to come on to, about enforcement. It may be that sometimes police forces that are reluctant to look at these issues because they want to focus on other things will come up with internal operational procedures of that sort and internal operational guidelines, but those are created by the police and are not a matter of law.
I thank the Minister very much for that clarification; it is really helpful to hear it. I will certainly pursue it with Charnwood Borough Council, but I have to say that I think Charnwood is a very responsible authority. As I said, it works closely, through the MOU, with Leicestershire police, so if they are labouring under misapprehensions, I suspect that that is very widespread among local authorities and police forces. One purpose of today’s debate was for MPs to express their concerns and for the Minister to show how seriously the Government take these incidents. Does he think that it might be worthwhile to write to local authorities to reiterate some of the powers that they have?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I very much welcome this debate, which is timely. As a Minister in DEFRA in 2014, I felt that we had addressed this matter by issuing the practitioners’ guidance, but although I accept that the powers are available for local authorities to use in all sorts of situations in which dogs are causing problems, I also accept that there are still many instances of dogs being out of control. That is why, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, my Department has been looking at whether the powers are being used by the police and local authorities and, if so, what effect they are having. And that is why, as she said, we issued a voluntary survey. We invited all police forces and local authorities in England and Wales to respond to the survey about the use of those antisocial behaviour measures.
We received many responses to the survey and are currently analysing them. I am told that we expect to complete that analysis by the end of May, so while we are all busy avoiding dogs on the doorstep during the election campaign, officials will be studying those responses, but I understand that initial indications and impressions from the evidence that we have received are that there remains some misunderstanding about the powers that are already available to local authorities and police forces and, if that is the case, we will obviously want to ensure that we raise their awareness of the powers that they have.
The focus of this debate is obviously dog-on-dog attacks. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes it an offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control, regardless of where it is. It is a long-held belief among enforcement agencies that so-called dog-on-dog incidents cannot be dealt with under the 1991 Act. We do not believe that is the case. The 1991 Act provides a definition of when a dog must be regarded as dangerously out of control. That refers to a dog being dangerously out of control when there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will attack someone. However, that definition is not exclusive. The words of section 3 could include, for example, a case in which a dog attacks another dog or other animal.
There is case law in this area. In 2008, a Court of Appeal judgment specifically pointed out that the definition of “dangerously out of control” in section 10 of the Dangerous Dogs Act is not exclusive, and made it clear that the ordinary meaning of the words in section 3 should be applied to any given circumstances. The case in question was the Gedminintaite case. The Court said that it was inclined to go further than existing case law. It stated:
“In any event, the definition section, section 10, is not exclusive. It does not read as a matter of construction, ‘for the purposes of this Act, a dog shall only be regarded as dangerously out of control...’ and then proceed to the definition. Therefore we feel ourselves entitled to go back to the straightforward words of section 3”.
Our lawyers believe that that does indeed mean that there are instances in which the Dangerous Dogs Act could be used for dog-on-dog attacks, but I appreciate that there is a widely held view that it cannot. Our officials can of course consider that as part of their wider review of the evidence that we have received from the survey that I mentioned.
I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on this timely debate. I am sure that the contribution that she and others have made will be taken on board by my officials and considered as they reflect on the survey responses that they are looking at now. Although, as I have explained, I believe that the law already allows police and local authorities to take action in incidents involving dangerously out of control or even just nuisance dogs, I completely agree that there are some issues about consistency of enforcement. That is why the review of evidence and survey responses is going on. I look forward to seeing the results of that, and no doubt my right hon. Friend will also follow it closely.
Question put and agreed to.
Food and Farming: Employment Opportunities
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered employment opportunities in food and farming.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The agricultural sector is essential to the social, environmental, cultural and economic landscape of this great nation. Food production and farming not only make a valuable contribution to feeding the nation but provide employment, help preserve and maintain our beautiful countryside, and contribute to tourism.
Agriculture is the bedrock of the UK food and drink sector. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, providing 3.9 million jobs and opportunities across the country. Some 476,000 people are employed on agricultural holdings across the UK, including full-time, part-time and seasonal workers. In west Cornwall, my neck of the woods, the agricultural sector’s contribution is hugely important, accounting for £1.4 billion of the south-west’s economic output, 8,800 businesses and 27,300 employees. Working in farming or fishing can be an exciting career choice, offering a huge variety of opportunities for highly skilled and ambitious people. It is a global industry that uses cutting-edge technology, innovates constantly and makes important contributions to the national economy.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on manufacturing, I agree that food, not aerospace or engineering, is our major manufacturing sector. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the brilliant further education provision in his area of Cornwall has been largely responsible for its great innovation skills? I wish we had provision as good as that all over the country.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the sheer scale of manufacturing in the sector and the good work done by FE in west Cornwall, but the manufacturing opportunities in farming and food production, and the wealth that they share and create, are spread across the country rather than being concentrated in one area.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I held a debate here early last year on food security and the need to create confidence in what we produce. The only way to do so is with clear labelling, so that consumers know exactly what they are buying, know that we are looking after animal welfare and the environment, and know that people are being paid properly. I agree completely that leaving the European Union allows us to provide direction and clarity about those things.
The food sector generates £1.8 billion in value to UK plc. Jobs in the sector range from engineers and scientists, to farm managers and vets. Given that the industry faces the challenges of an ageing workforce, it is clear that, like any industry, it will need a ready supply of new entrants with new ideas, energy and enthusiasm. As the industry becomes increasingly technologically driven and more reliant on its ability to understand and implement the latest science, businesses across the sector will need the right mix of skills among their employees.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, which reviews unemployment statistics every month. The latest show that just over 500,000 young people are unemployed. Does he agree that the sector provides a great opportunity to tap into some of that talent, upskill those young people and, most importantly, give them a place in the working world?
I am sure the Minister will want to comment on that. There are jobs to be filled in the sector—that is certainly the case in my part of the world. The challenge of offering jobs to those young people is ensuring that their schools properly prepare them for the work, so that they understand what is required and have the skills needed. Employers would then provide them with opportunities and training. I will consider apprenticeships and training opportunities later in my speech.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about jobs. In Northern Ireland, we have 70,000 jobs in the agri-food sector, including 50,000 farmers and workers, 23,500 of whom are involved in food and drink processing. It is worth 3.25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added and £1.1 billion in basic prices. Does he believe that, when we leave the EU through Brexit, the agri-food sector will be able to grow even more?
I completely agree that there will be opportunities to invest in, grow and encourage food production and farming. I also recognise that population growth here and around the world means more mouths to feed. The UK has an opportunity to rise to that challenge and ensure that people, wherever they live, have the food that they need to survive. We have an opportunity and a moral responsibility to invest in and empower the food and farming sector to meet our growing needs.
So far, I have concentrated on agriculture, which is natural, but it is important not to forget the economic and social contributions made by the fishing industry. In 2015, fishing contributed £604 million to the UK’s gross domestic product, employing just over 12,000 fishermen—meaning people with fishing expertise—half of whom were based in England. One need only visit Newlyn in my constituency, which the Minister knows well, and see the small open boats, beam trawlers, longliners and crabbers in its 40 acres of harbour to realise how essential fishing is to the region.
It is fair to say that fishing and farming, like other parts of the food chain, face numerous challenges in attracting the right number and quality of new entrants. Some of those challenges relate to the perception of such jobs as low-skilled, low-paid, lacking in career progression opportunities and involving hard physical labour in all weathers. When I was at school, I was frowned on for choosing a vocational career in the construction sector rather than going to university, but times have changed and we must recognise that a job in the countryside is a worthwhile career choice that has many benefits not offered by other careers.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for fishing and farming, which are essential to the economy of Yorkshire, as he will know. However, as we approach the election, will he please address the deep uncertainty in the farming and fishing community about what will replace the present system of farm subsidies and fishing rights?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention—we have until 4 o’clock. I am not gifted with that particular answer, but if we can encourage farmers and fishermen to continue caring for the environment and providing the food and skilled jobs that we need, I cannot see any reason why a Government of any colour would not support that.
On exports, we have a wonderful opportunity. We should be proud of and talk much more about the sheer quality and diversity of what we produce. Small and large businesses deliver produce that other people around the world deserve to know about and get their hands on. That is how I would like to approach leaving the European Union.
Other considerations include the rural location of farming and fishing businesses and the cost of rural housing. Also, many young learners consider that it is a career only for those from a rural background. As a result of those challenges, fewer and fewer individuals are interested in pursuing a career in the sector, which is why I requested this debate. We face a generational crisis in the farming, fishing and food sector. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, only 13% of farm holders in the UK are under the age of 45. That figure represents a decrease of 5% in the last 10 years alone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He makes a good point, because although the Government have had tremendous success in expanding apprenticeships and vocational training opportunities in many industrial sectors, there is a problem in getting younger people engaged in farming. What are his thoughts on taking a more holistic view of farming, in the context of the whole supply chain and the food and drink industry generally, as an opportunity to get young people engaged in training courses?
I have personally done some work on that. Only last year, I brought 36 producers, many of them farmers, into Westminster Hall, the Jubilee Room and other rooms of the House, to celebrate their wonderful, innovative work to develop their produce. I wished to expose their produce to the London market and we made some progress. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must celebrate all avenues in the sector, so that more and more people see the opportunities.
I have always wanted to say that.
According to data from the Department’s farm business survey in 2013-14, the greatest barriers for individuals who want to join the farming sector are the non-competitiveness of salaries, which was cited by 64% of respondents; the lack of job opportunities, which was cited by 55%; and the fact of not owning a family farm, which was also cited by 55%. You can do the maths, Mr Walker. We must increase our efforts to change the perception of the sector, to attract new entrants, to come up with solutions and to provide assistance for young people to overcome barriers to the industry. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what has been done since the release of those figures to address the concerns that they raise.
Examples of initiatives to address this challenge include the industry-wide careers initiative Bright Crop, which seeks to inform school pupils, parents and careers advisers about the range of careers and progression opportunities available in the industry. Other industry career campaigns should be co-ordinated around Bright Crop to provide consistent information that helps to inform and inspire young people about careers in the sector, and outline clear career frameworks that show progression. We need young people, as well as people of all ages, in the food, farming and fishing sectors, because they bring ambition and creativity.
Events over the last decade have demonstrated that food security should not be overlooked. We are still dependent on food imports, because the UK’s farmers produce only 61% of what the nation consumes. Productivity has been rising at an average of 1.5% per annum, but we are in great need of young and highly skilled farmers to come up with ways to keep increasing it. We need technically savvy entrepreneurs and driven young people to use the available state-of-the-art technology, from GPS mapping systems to high-tech milk machines, to keep British farming at the cutting edge of production trends and to fulfil demands. Additionally, because of the current uncertainty over the value of sterling, retailers and consumers are looking increasingly closer to home to meet their needs. The creativity of young people would also help farms across the UK to achieve diversity goals highlighted in a VisitEngland survey in 2016, which showed that 28% of young people were looking at tourism, 16% at contracting, 14% at property and 12% at opening farm shops.
I regularly meet fishermen and farmers and their representatives. On Friday, I met the National Farmers Union and local farmers and we discussed the skills gap at length. The NFU is a founding member of the industry-wide AgriSkills Forum, which seeks to respond to the skills gap by professionalising the industry through skills development and lifelong learning, so that it is seen as a career of choice rather than a last resort. As people enter the industry, it is important that they are encouraged to undertake professional development that helps them to progress in their careers. Continued emphasis on lifelong learning and development will help to attract new entrants to the industry and retain skills within it. The agricultural industry has put significant effort into working towards that goal by launching training and professional development schemes across different sectors. For example, the dairy sector has launched Dairy Pro, which enables workers across the sector to participate in relevant, demand-led training that recognises their experience and builds on their practical skills.
I am concerned that not enough is being done in schools, by careers advisers or in Departments to promote careers and opportunities in the sector. Having said that, I recently joined hundreds of children at an open farm day in Chyvarloe, near Gunwalloe and Helston, at the invitation of local farmer Paul Parfitt. It gave the children the opportunity to see at first hand how our food is produced and what careers are available in food and farming. I also took my family to Tregullas Farm, which is run by the Amiss family on the Lizard, for its open farm Sunday. Open farm Sundays are a successful initiative to increase public awareness of farming and food production. Such initiatives help to dismiss the image of something similar to Tolkien’s character of Farmer Giles. In case hon. Members are not familiar with him, Farmer Giles was a fat gentleman with a red face who chewed on straw and enjoyed a slow and comfortable life which, given recent events, may be something that hon. Members covet over the next few weeks. I may well find myself doing so on 9 June, but I am not quite there yet.
In reality, farming is far from that picture. Farmers are dynamic and hard-working members of society. I have been privileged to discuss with farmers, both during my time in this place and in my pursuit of becoming a Member of Parliament, the opportunities and challenges that they have faced and will continue to face. If we are to address the specific challenge of recruitment, we must move away from this image of Farmer Giles. We must inspire young and talented individuals to look at the sector and do justice to those who already work in it. I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about hoping to see
“more young people being encouraged to engage with countryside matters”.
We must change young people’s attitudes towards agricultural careers and inspire more young people to get involved. I ask what the Government can do. In an age of population growth both here and overseas, in which there are more mouths to feed, there still seem to be more jobs than people. What can the Government do to address the exodus of talent from rural areas, which is something that we are very aware of in Cornwall and on Scilly? I support farmers and food producers who say that schools and careers services must work with the industry to promote farming as an aspirational career choice, and must make better links between STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and their applications in farming. A greater understanding of the range of opportunities in the sector would help to dispel the myth that farming is low-paid and low-skilled. It is important for there to be opportunities for the industry to engage with organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, and for the National Careers Service to work with the sector to provide continuous careers advice and informed information about career and work prospects in the agriculture sector. We need a partnership approach with the industry, with cross-party support, that recognises agriculture as an important and attractive sector to be in. That would be of benefit in further challenging the existing perception.
It is important to recognise that fit-for-purpose qualifications have a crucial role to play in apprenticeships for our industry. I understand the Government’s aspiration for apprenticeships to be the qualifications of the future, but the industry, the employers and the apprentices, and their parents and families, will need a minimum period of transition to allow the inclusion of qualifications that fall outside the current Government criteria while the new trailblazers provide their credentials. I ask the Government to work with employers in the industry even more than they are doing already to develop the 16-to-19 skills plan, so that vocational and technical qualifications and courses are made relevant to the industry and appealing to young people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again—he did say that we had a reasonable amount of time. I do not want to criticise his very good speech, but it is a bit male-dominated. Does he agree that one of the real challenges is the number of women who are becoming farmers or coming into the sector, and that it is time we did something about it?
I was talking about a story that was written several decades ago, but the hon. Gentleman is right. What encourages me is that, when I am out and about on farms or visiting food and farming businesses, I see a number of young people engaged in them, particularly girls. I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, which is doing a huge amount of work to understand how we can encourage more girls and young women into STEM subjects, because there is a shortage of them and they provide a viewpoint from which we can and must benefit.
My next point might help to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The Department for Education must encourage schools and careers services to work with the industry. It is vital that the Department understands that, although the five GCSEs that we all want our young people to achieve are important, we need to work equally hard within our schools to help young people to realise the opportunities that are available to them outside the school gates in their local area. That would be of huge benefit in addressing some of the challenges that exist. It could allow young people to avoid the pressures of getting into student debt, which I know concerns many people. I am asking the Department for Education to work with the industry to promote farming as an aspirational career, and to establish better links between farming and STEM subjects and their applications.
To conclude, the agricultural industry has been incredibly resilient and courageous in facing numerous challenges in the past. The problems it faces today require the same approach to be adopted. We must be able to maintain the vibrancy of the rural economy and we must also continue to meet our food security needs. Overseas conflict and increasing population growth mean that British farming must have the capability to produce the lion’s share of the food we need to feed this nation, and young people—both girls and boys—offer us an opportunity to meet that challenge. The fishing industry also needs fresh blood. Ensuring that youngsters are recruited to fill the jobs available is crucial not only for the future of south-west Cornwall, but for the future of the entire UK fishing fleet.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. Food and farming is clearly a significant industry in Scotland, where 98% of the landmass is considered rural, whether that is “remote rural”, which is defined as an area that is more than a 30-minute drive from the nearest settlement, or merely “accessible rural”, where an area is within 30 minutes of a settlement of 10,000 people or more. Almost one in five of the population of Scotland lives in a rural community. Therefore, jobs in the rural sector are vital to the Scottish economy. It is important that, despite the uncertain times we are in, we continue to support the industry, to ensure that it is on a sustainable footing for the future.
Currently, Scotland’s natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum and supports more than 60,000 jobs. Between 2010 and 2015, the total turnover of our food and drink industry increased from £10 billion to £14.4 billion; exports in 2016 were worth £5.5 billion, which was an increase of 40% since 2007. So Scottish food and drink really is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. We can see that and we also know the quality that exists within the industry, which is something I will return to later in my comments.
However, there are challenges. The average age of Scottish farmers is now around 58, and only 9% of farm occupiers in Scotland are aged 40 or under. So, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, it is incredibly important that we find ways to bring new young people into the sector, to ensure that it remains sustainable and resilient. We must continue to support industries that are so vital to all of us.
In Scotland, the Scottish National party Government are very keen to support young people to go into the industry, to make sure that fresh and bright young farmers keep the rural economy going in the future. Earlier this month, the Scottish Government announced a fund of £2.5 million to help to develop new entrants into farming. That funding will support the next generation of farmers while increasing the opportunities for young people to establish a career in agriculture. The latest award will see a further 47 new farming businesses share the money, to help them to create and develop their businesses.
I suppose that one of the biggest challenges for any business in a rural economy is the access and uptake of broadband. That is an issue we continue to return to in this House and, as I say, with 98% of Scotland being considered rural, the rollout of broadband to support businesses as we move into an ever more technical world is critical, as it helps the running of rural farming and food businesses.
We are in an uncertain world just now. The UK vote to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty in the agriculture sector. The “hard Brexit” that we so often hear about would be absolutely devastating for sections of Scottish agriculture. For example, cattle and sheep farmers potentially face both high tariffs and loss of subsidy support. There is also the risk to the protection of Scottish protected food names, such as Scotch beef or Stornoway black pudding. We do not yet know what will happen to protected name status. Will we have a scheme here in the UK, given that we will no longer have access to the European scheme?
We also risk losing the common regulatory frameworks that help to maintain food safety, and animal and plant health standards, as well as to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. Jobs and investment opportunities have been put at risk. For example, there is uncertainty over entering into multi-annual contracts under the Scottish rural development programme agri-environment or forestry schemes. Some of Scotland’s remote rural communities have fragile populations, and EU migration helps to ensure the resilience of those communities. Without that movement of people, there is a real risk, not only for the food and farming industries but for entire communities across Scotland.
The Government’s gamble with our EU membership has created significant uncertainty, with Scotland now facing the loss of much-needed seasonal workers. Agriculture directly employs 65,000 people and underpins our £14 billion food and drink industry, which is one of the fasting growing and most successful sectors in the Scottish economy. Along with other rural businesses, agriculture relies heavily on seasonal workers. However, despite repeated questioning, we have not yet had a clear answer from the UK Government as to what rights will be protected for seasonal workers; an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 seasonal workers are employed in the sector annually. Berry picking alone requires a significant number of seasonal workers, and more than a third of the UK’s soft fruit comes from Scotland.
Clearly, the industry faces challenges. There are common agricultural policy payment issues—there is no point trying to pretend that there are not—and addressing them will be the No.1 priority for the Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government. We have started making 2016 CAP payments, and it is expected that by the end of June the vast majority of farmers and crofters will have received their 2016 basic payments. We understand the frustration felt by the President of the National Farmers Union Scotland with the current IT system for CAP payments. The Cabinet Secretary in Scotland has kept him and other NFUS officials advised of developments in that area, in order to get their valuable input into what else the Scottish Government need to do.
As I have said, the industry provides so many benefits and opportunities for Scotland. It is growing quickly, but for it suddenly to come up against the challenges and risks that Brexit will create has put a big question mark over what we can get by way of guarantees from the UK Government. What protections can we secure for Scotland’s burgeoning food and drink industry, so that it can continue to grow and contribute to the Scottish economy?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate; he demonstrated that he has a passion for this issue. Although I am not the shadow spokesperson for fishing and farming, I think it is really important that he has raised this issue, which includes the future of fishing and farming, for debate today. This debate is particularly important because across the sector there are serious skill shortages that must be addressed if the success of the industry is to be maintained.
I will start by highlighting the situation in the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, which has up to 400,000 direct employees in roles ranging from sales and marketing to supply chain and logistics, and from production management to engineering. This industry has enormous potential as a high-value manufacturing sector, using innovative technologies in engineering, digital and life sciences to meet all the challenges of managing future food supplies and contributing to the wider carbon reduction agenda. That potential is being put at risk.
The Food and Drink Federation has highlighted that by 2024 more than a third of the sector’s workforce will have retired and 130,000 new recruits will be needed to fill the looming skills gap. A recent survey by the federation revealed that the top five skills gaps in the sector were in engineering, food science and technology, innovation, including product and process development, leadership and management, and customer service management. Although the ageing workforce and the skills gap are not new, the need to close the gap has become more urgent because, as in the rest of the agri-food supply chain, food and drink manufacturers currently benefit from bringing in skilled labour from the EU, which represents 29% of their workforce—120,000 workers. A high number of these workers carry out vital production, technical and specialist roles. Post-Brexit, the industry expects there to be restrictions on accessing non-UK EU workers, which will only intensify the skills gap.
To address the problem, the industry wants to see co-ordinated careers action and a more strategic approach to engagement with schools, to encourage homegrown talent for the long term. The Food and Drink Federation is also asking for technical education reforms, including with the institutes of technology, as the proposed T-levels fall short for the food and drink industry. The federation hopes to fulfil its pledge to increase the proportion of the workforce in food and drink manufacturing who are on apprenticeships to 3%—from the current 1%—by 2020, and to tackle market failures such as the fragmented apprenticeship provision for the sector and the lack of new standards at level 4 and above. I hope sincerely that the Minister will commit to addressing those issues with his appropriate colleagues in the relevant Departments as a matter of priority.
Some 11% of workers in the sector are employed in agriculture, with a high dependence on people from outside the UK. Up to 80,000 workers come to the UK every year to pick fruit and vegetables, 98% of them from the EU. In my own region—the north-east—farmers have told me that they rely on workers from abroad not only for seasonal jobs but to work on their farms throughout the year. Although it is important that young people are encouraged to take up careers in agriculture, the uncertainty in the agricultural and horticultural sectors about their workforce post-Brexit means that there is a need for urgent assurance from the Government. Farmers need the certainty of a good stream of seasonal workers, so if the Government will not give in to pressure to reintroduce the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—SAWS—will the Minister say exactly what measures are being put in place to encourage local people to fill the jobs?
Will the Government support schemes such as Wheels 2 Work, which helps young people in particular to access jobs in rural areas when there is no public transport? Finally, how much resource have the Government invested in plugging the gap left by the removal of SAWS? As food and farming accounts for 13.6% of the total workforce in employment, I hope that the Minister can fully address all the issues raised in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate, which gives us an opportunity to recognise the importance of the food, farming and fisheries sector, which, let us not forget, employs about one in seven of all workers in this country.
I should declare an interest, in that I, as some of my colleagues know, studied agriculture. I attended Writtle Agricultural College in the early ’90s and studied for a higher national diploma in commercial horticulture. I also did a number of other courses through the local further education college that was mentioned earlier—Cornwall College, down in Camborne in my constituency—which offered some very good work in this area. Also in my constituency I have Duchy College, which is linked to Cornwall College and is one of the country’s leading agricultural colleges. This is an issue that I am passionate about because it is an issue I chose to study myself.
The food, farming and fisheries sector provides a huge variety of career opportunities, including many requiring skills in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM. Food manufacturing is the biggest manufacturing sector in this country, as other hon. Members have pointed out. It employs about 400,000 people and provides about one sixth of the UK’s total manufacturing gross value added. In its 2016 productivity report, the Food and Drink Federation estimated that 130,000 jobs would need to be filled between 2014 and 2024, with food engineers and scientists particularly in demand. Clearly, therefore, there are great opportunities in the food manufacturing sector for today’s talented young people to build their careers.
Agricultural technologies are also transforming farming, creating new types of jobs needing new kinds of skills. Successful modern farming requires technical proficiency, business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. For example, I recently met a group of Tesco young farmers who were investing in developing their business, leadership and management skills and their understanding of the wider supply chain issues, while balancing busy jobs on poultry, dairy, arable and sheep farms.
The food and farming sector is also important to our nation as an industry that has a presence right across the country. It is interesting that we have had contributions from the far south-west—St Ives—and from Midlothian at the other end of the country about the importance of the sector to those areas.
And, let us not forget, Yorkshire. The sector is a particularly significant employer in Cornwall; indeed, I have a number of important food manufacturing businesses in clotted cream and fisheries in my own constituency. Farming alone employs about 64,000 people in the south-west, and the Food From Cornwall website lists more than 330 businesses producing quality Cornish food and drink. Cornwall is, of course, famous for Cornish clotted cream and Cornish pasties, but also for Cornish sardines, or pilchards, and Fal oysters.
Sardines and oysters lead me on to another sector that is important in parts of Cornwall, including, of course, in Newlyn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. The UK seafood industry offers a wide variety of careers, including in fishing, aquaculture, processing, retail and food service. There can be no doubt, therefore, that across the food, farming and fisheries sector there are fantastic opportunities for our young people to build exciting, challenging and successful careers.
I want to talk a little about the industrial strategy and the post-16 skills plan. To secure the skilled workforce that the food, farming and fisheries sector needs for the future, Government and industry must work in partnership to prioritise training and skills. It is crucial that there are clear entry routes into the sector to help young people embark on their careers, and that employers invest in recruiting, training and developing their staff. The Government have introduced a number of policies on skills. The industrial strategy Green Paper, published in January this year, includes skills as one of its core pillars and has a particular focus on STEM. The post-16 skills plan, published in July 2016, aims to reform technical education by introducing 15 routes, or T-levels. These will include agriculture, environmental and animal care; engineering and manufacturing, which will include food manufacturing; and catering and hospitality. T-levels will provide technical education to equip students for skilled occupations, creating clear routes into the sector.
Reforms to apprenticeships will create fresh opportunities for people to develop new skills and progress their careers. The apprenticeship levy, which came into force this month, provides a new incentive for employers to invest in training. Many employers in the sector are rising to the challenge, and the number of apprenticeship starts in agriculture, horticulture and food manufacturing increased by more than 20% in 2015-16 compared with the previous year.
The Department for Education is exploring options to allow up to 10% of apprenticeship funds to be transferred down the supply chain from 2018, bringing the benefits of apprenticeships to even more businesses. We were keen to promote that idea in DEFRA because it means small farm enterprises within a supply chain could find it easier to benefit from the apprenticeship levy.
Apprenticeships provide great opportunities both to train new entrants and to upskill and develop existing members of staff. I am delighted that exciting new apprenticeship standards for butcher, advanced dairy technician, and food and drink maintenance engineer have now been approved for delivery. Many more are currently in development.
The sharing of the apprenticeship levy down the line is welcome, although I have one point. In Suffolk, a lot of the businesses involved in the sector are small and medium-sized businesses. What will the Minister do to ensure that the discussions he has on T-levels and maintaining quality are not dominated by the larger sector, and that small and medium-sized enterprises that need the staff have their input?
That is an important point. We have experienced people from the food sector involved in the development of the new apprenticeships. The idea that I had came when I visited a McCain factory, which manufactures chips from potatoes. It was clear to me that it had a well-resourced and well-managed apprenticeship programme within McCain, but there are 300 potato farmers in its supply chain. In most cases, those farmers do not have a human resources director to take care and look after an apprenticeship programme professionally. There was an opportunity to use the organisation and the skill sets that companies such as McCain have to foster apprenticeships on farms in Norfolk and Suffolk and wherever potatoes are grown.
I have been privileged to meet apprentices as the Minister responsible for agriculture, fisheries and food at DEFRA, and I know what great careers can begin from an apprenticeship. For example, I recently spoke alongside a former apprentice at a Feeding Britain’s Future event for unemployed young people interested in careers in food and farming. The young man had decided to do a mechanical engineering apprenticeship instead of following a conventional university degree, and after four years of training was earning more than £40,000 a year. Apprenticeships are a brilliant alternative to university because they allow apprentices to earn while they learn. New apprenticeship standards are being developed at degree level. Apprenticeships provide fantastic learning opportunities by allowing apprentices to develop their new skills on the job.
Employers benefit from apprentices. It has been calculated that the average person who completes their apprenticeship increases business productivity by around £214 a week through increased profits and productivity, and better-quality products. Small employers provide fantastic opportunities for people to get on the career ladder. Some 96% of the food manufacturing sector are SMEs, which can also benefit from hiring apprentices. SMEs have to pay only 10% of the costs of training their apprentices—the Government pay the remaining 90%.
The Minister is making an excellent case for the steps that the Government are taking to promote apprenticeships in the agricultural sector. Given the fact that many people decide on where their careers will take them at a relatively early age—it is probably around age 13 or 14—what steps can be taken to encourage younger people to think about careers in agriculture and the whole supply chain, and what work is he doing with schools?
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives also made that important point, which I intend to cover later in my contribution.
The Institute for Apprenticeships began work on new apprenticeships this month and will in time oversee the development of both T-levels and apprenticeships, helping to drive up standards and ensure quality. I am delighted that two members of the board, Dame Fiona Kendrick of Nestlé and Paul Cadman from Walter Smith Fine Foods, bring expert knowledge of the food sector.
Finally, it is important to recognise that we must have continuous career progression once people are in the industry. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board runs a series of activities to boost farm competitiveness and sustainability, including farmer-to-farmer learning through business improvement groups and demonstration farms, so that there can be a sharing of expertise through open meetings, digital tools and knowledge exchange publications. Of course, there will be international benchmarking to learn from the experiences of other countries.
The Landex colleges last year came together to launch a new national college in agriculture, to thread together some of the activities that all of the Landex colleges are engaged in, and to try to secure the progression of more people towards level 3 qualifications, again with the aim of continuous professional career development.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned the image of the industry and the work being done to encourage more young people to go into it. Clearly, there are opportunities in the food, farming and fisheries sector, so we should encourage more young people to explore the sector when they think about their future. Overall, we currently have the highest employment rate—74.6%—since comparable records began, and youth unemployment has been falling, but it remains important to ensure that young people are able to make a smooth transition into the labour market, and that they consider the full range of options available as they prepare to launch their careers.
Careers in food and farming are too frequently perceived as low-paid, low-skilled and lacking in career progression opportunities. We need to challenge some of the outdated myths and champion the great careers that the sector offers. Across the country, engineers, scientists and technicians are at the cutting edge of innovation in agri-tech and food production. Industry-supported organisations such as Bright Crop, which my hon. Friend mentioned, IGD and the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink are working to tackle misconceptions and increase awareness of careers in the sector through initiatives such as Tasty Careers and Feeding Britain’s Future, which is run by IGD, and “The World is Your Oyster”, a campaign run by Seafish. All of those projects highlight the varied career paths that the seafood industry has to offer and the unique opportunities it can provide.
We are highlighting some of the superb apprentices already working in the industry, including by featuring them in the Government’s “Get In Go Far” careers campaign. In February this year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hosted a roundtable, bringing together a range of organisations to start a dialogue about what more industry and the Government can do together to champion the fantastic employment opportunities available in the food and farming sector. The roundtable heard directly from apprentices working in two leading food businesses—Nestlé and Mondeléz—about their experiences in the sector. The best people to sell the sector are often the young people who are starting out on their own careers in the industry.
The Minister is setting out some fine examples of what is happening, but may I press him on the industry’s need for seasonal workers? We want young people to get into the long-term jobs that he talks about, which is really important and probably the basis of the debate today, but there will be a continual need for seasonal workers. Without the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, how can we perpetuate our agricultural industry?
I shall return to that point—the hon. Lady also made it in her speech—as we have some time available, but the debate is predominantly about careers in agriculture and I wanted to focus on how to encourage more young people into those careers.
A number of hon. Members mentioned women in farming. I spoke at a “Ladies in Agriculture” event at the Farmers Club a couple of years ago—the former Secretary of State, the current Lord Chancellor, has also addressed that event. I mentioned a Tesco young farmers group earlier. Four of the 10 farmers in the group I met were women, so I believe we are making progress. It is essential not to overlook the great contribution that women can make, particularly when they are doing increasingly well in areas such as science. Many countries face the same challenge. Indeed, when I attended the G7 in Japan last year, one of their areas of focus was how to encourage more women into farming. Some of their ideas probably would not cut it over here—it was thought that a demonstration of a tractor with pink patterns on the side of the bonnet might help. I am not sure that would work here, but getting more women engaged in farming is a challenge for a lot of countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned the importance of encouraging school-age children to consider farming. The current school food plan actively encourages all schools to give children of primary school age an experience on a farm, so that they can see how food is produced. A number of the county show associations also run good projects. The Royal Cornwall Agricultural Association runs an event every year. It invites schools from across the county to come and learn about farming and farming careers. The Devon County Agricultural Association has as usual copied Cornwall and is running a similar project, which is great. We need as many areas as possible to promote farming as a career in schools.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) talked about the importance of farming and fishing north of the border, in Scotland. I regularly visit Scotland, particularly in connection with the fishing industry. I remember a visit to the Shetland Islands last year, where there is one of the key training academies for skippers and captains of fishing vessels. He mentioned the average age of farmers, which is another long-standing problem faced by many countries. The statistics often mask the reality, which is that the father is reluctant to let go of the purse strings but the actual manager of the holding is in the next generation down. Nevertheless, we are keen to do more to encourage more new entrants. There have been a number of projects, including some in Wales and some in Scotland. In Cornwall, the “Fresh Start” initiative worked on helping people to retire and creating opportunities for new entrants.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because of Brexit, it is an uncertain world. Brexit is a fantastic opportunity. I take a glass-half-full view of it. We have a great opportunity to design an agriculture policy that is better suited to all parts of the UK. Last week, I had a meeting with NFU Scotland to talk about some of its thoughts and ideas about how we could deal differently with policy in future. One thing of which I can assure him is that I have yet to find a fisherman in Scotland who would like us to rejoin the common fisheries policy having left it. The fishing industry almost universally believes that the decision to leave the EU was the right one, and relishes the opportunities that that brings to the Scottish fishing fleet.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), and indeed the hon. Member for Midlothian, mentioned labour. As the hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants to respect the rights of EU citizens who are here working in the UK. She made that point early on, soon after the decision to leave the EU, and also made the perfectly reasonable point that obviously we would expect that to be reciprocated, which is not controversial. She has also made it clear that she hopes the matter can be settled early in the negotiations. I believe we can give that reassurance to those living and working in the UK now.
The hon. Lady asked about seasonal labour. Having a controlled migration policy and ending the presumption of free movement does not mean pulling up the drawbridge and stopping all immigration. It simply means what it says—having control of migration. It would be for a future Government to decide what work permits they wanted to grant, and whether they should be short-term permits or permits for more skilled people. That could be done based on an assessment of our needs. If there is a need for seasonal agricultural labour, a future Government will have at their disposal the ability to grant the types of permit that would be needed. All those issues can be dealt with.
This was an important debate on an important subject that is dear to my heart. We have made good progress with our work on apprenticeships, and we have done some great work in schools to promote agriculture and food careers. There is further to go, but I believe we have made a good start.
I thank the Minister for encouraging me when I first arrived in this place to speak in plenty of Westminster Hall debates. I have done that, and he has had to respond to most of them.
The Minister said that opportunity exists in food and farming, and that jobs are increasing in the high-tech area. I agree that there is real potential to create many new well paid jobs. That is exactly what rural areas need to hear and to see realised.
The new T-levels are welcome. They are an important step in addressing the skills gap. I urge the Minister to encourage DEFRA and other Departments, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to work with the Department for Education to assess how effective and clear the pathway for children into food, fishing and farming really is, so that schools can be encouraged to focus on other things besides the journey towards a university degree or something similar.
Finally, as we introduce measures such as making tax digital, will the Minister contribute to the debate on how people in fishing, farming and food production, particularly those with small businesses, can embrace the opportunity of tax digitalisation, and how we can ensure we have the broadband and mobile phone capacity to deliver that?
I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate, and I thank all those who took part.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered employment opportunities in food and farming.
Wells Bid for UK City of Culture
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Wells’s bid for UK City of Culture.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am honoured to have secured a debate today—the penultimate day of this Parliament—to raise Wells’s bid to become UK city of culture in 2021. As a proud constituency MP, I have supported the bid since its genesis, which was not long ago. I will continue to support it because it has enormous potential to change the stars of both Wells and the wider Somerset area. Before I get going, it is important to place on the record that, in the absence of a large civic construct to put together this bid, it has fallen to volunteers in and around Wells to do so. One of those volunteers, Andy Webb, deserves particular note. The amount he has achieved in such a short time is phenomenal.
Before I talk specifically about Wells’s bid, I want to say a few words in my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the UK events industry, not least because I see that Nick de Bois hopes to return to Parliament and may well be restored to the chairmanship of the APPG when he gets here. It has been an absolute pleasure to chair that APPG for the past two years. I have learned an enormous amount about the ingenuity of the UK events industry and its role in driving our visitor economy and showcasing British business through the calibre and expertise of the events that we put on around the world. I have also seen the value of local, regional and national events, including the city of culture, which is a series of events over the course of a year or so. In Londonderry, city of culture status was worth £100 million to the local economy, and in Hull it has already been worth £60 million. Hon. Members can therefore perhaps see why Wells and the wider Somerset area are so keen on securing city of culture status. It would be transformative.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about an issue that is tremendously important for his constituency and surrounding constituencies. He mentioned that, unlike larger civic constructs—that is the phrase he used—the bid is being put together by a small, dedicated band of volunteers. I am sure that he has therefore already spoken to Visit Somerset, which used to be called Somerset Tourism. I hope it has engaged strongly in creating Wells’s bid, if only because the knock-on effect for the local accommodation industry close to my home in Weston-super-Mare may be profound. I hope Visit Somerset is providing the support my hon. Friend hopes for.
I very much agree. This is a huge opportunity, not just for Wells but for Western-super-Mare. Visit Somerset has been involved, along with several other local bodies, in supporting the volunteers in putting together the bid. However, we need to discuss the differences in Wells’s bid so that the Minister might satisfy himself that the bid process lends itself as keenly to rural areas as to urban areas. Wells’s bid is not about post-industrial regeneration, which was the centrepiece of the bids by Londonderry and Hull. There is a very different opportunity down in Somerset, which I will talk about later.
Our bid draws on a rich cultural heritage that is way out of proportion with the size of our city. We are England’s smallest city, but our cathedral has a centuries-long tradition in music, as has the now ruined Glastonbury abbey, which still hosts wonderful musical events during the year. We have the Glastonbury festival just down the road. There is Arthurian legend all over, with Avalon and Glastonbury itself, which will be a wonderful theme to draw on throughout the city of culture year. There are now internationally significant art galleries in Bruton. There is an opera festival in Wedmore, there are comedy festivals in Wells, and there are literature, food and film festivals. We have Cedars Hall, a brand new world-class concert hall. We are the location for many movies and TV programmes, and so much more. That all goes alongside a rural, agricultural life and an incredible natural history, but we are also embracing our emerging digital arts industry as we tap into the success of those sectors in Bristol and Bath.
The cultural offer is perhaps more developed and diverse in Wells, the smallest of the bid cities, than in other large cities, but let us be clear: we are much less well funded. The bid document quite understandably requires certain commitments about a bid’s underpinning. Does the Minister believe that that is fair, given that we are trying to build a country that works for everyone? We must recognise that that includes developing the economies of rural areas as well as urban areas. I wonder whether, in the few days he has left—I accept that his civil servants are almost locked down in purdah—he will satisfy himself that, when smaller local authority areas bid for such things, the process perhaps needs to be weighted to recognise that they are unable to underwrite bids in the same way as larger metropolitan areas. Are there other ways of doing it?
The great advantage of volunteers coming together as they have in Wells is that there is private sector engagement, which is encouraging. The Heritage Lottery Fund has been forthcoming in explaining what involvement it may have. If we are aiming to create a country that works for everyone, I hope the Minister will look carefully at the process to ensure that all regions can compete equitably, and that the bid process does not disadvantage rural areas and those where local authorities are unable to resource bids more fully.
I applaud my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the Chamber. One of the big drivers behind cities of culture is improving economic prosperity. As my hon. Friend says, Wells, with its cathedral, is a glorious location. It was the location for the film “Hot Fuzz”. My dad went to school there, at the Blue School. It is important to recognise that Wells sits in a poor rural environment. The effect of Wells securing city of culture status might reverberate out into the surrounding rural areas, including to my constituency of Taunton Deane and the rest of Somerset, and improve our productivity, which we so badly need to address. As Conservatives, we are addressing it, but we need to do more.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. If someone flew over our constituencies, they would see so many trees and fields that they would think all was well down below. It is so easy to assume that, but there is a hidden deprivation in rural areas that is just as significant a challenge as the challenge in inner-city areas. In fact, dealing with that deprivation is arguably a much greater challenge. Too often in rural areas, rather than deprivation being concentrated in one area and the aim of intervention therefore being clearly defined, families who live in deprivation are on their own. There might be only one family in a hamlet who live in such circumstances, or deprived families might be scattered across a town or a large village, making it much more challenging to intervene in their lives. There is an opportunity for city of culture status to uplift the entire area, so that we can find and engage deprived people who live in isolation—we can do something that could be transformative to their lives.
The Minister will be well aware of several obvious benefits of city of culture status that are common to all bid cities. The most obvious place to start is the visitor economy. Somerset’s visitor economy is already growing—it has grown from £1.2 billion to £1.3 billion in just the last few years. Visit Somerset has been on the front foot in looking at all sorts of ways of marketing our county, with huge success, as have the various tourism expos that have come to the county, several of which I have had the pleasure of hosting. I suspect that the Minister will want to pass back congratulations to Visit Britain, which has brought several international delegations of tour operators to Somerset. I hosted a group of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Mexican tour operators in Glastonbury just a month or two ago. It was great that Visit Britain brought them to the area to see what we have to offer.
Despite that, the reality is that Somerset is still too often the drive-through county on the way to the far south-west—that is music to your ears, Mr Streeter, but Somerset has so much more to offer and I am sure you will not begrudge us if we hold up visitors a little longer at our end of the peninsula. So much more could be done in the visitor economy in our part of the south-west, and it would be great to see the city of culture status acting as a catalyst for a growth in visitor numbers. It would also be fantastic to see the city of culture status acting as a catalyst for infrastructure improvement—the railway lines south of Bristol are not planned for electrification, while the line from Reading to Taunton and down to the far south-west is perhaps not being electrified as quickly as we might have hoped. Perhaps a major, internationally significant tourism event, such as city of culture events or something along those lines, might be a reason to accelerate the improvement of those lines.
City of culture status might be a great hook for a number of airlines that have been looking at bringing in daily services from Bristol airport to New York, Doha and Istanbul. Perhaps city of culture status might be the final encouragement they need to commit to those services, which would be great not just for Bristol and the greater Bristol area, but for the whole south-west peninsula. City of culture status could be a catalyst for that, and for road improvements. My hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) have been doing some great work on improving the route from the M4 down through Bath and into Somerset and west Wiltshire—it would be great to see that succeed. I have been working on getting some improvements to the A39 and the A361 for cars coming in from the M5 at Bridgwater north, in order for them to access Mendip more quickly. What a great thing it would be if city of culture status was to be the catalyst for those road improvements.
The Minister has been doing great work on broadband and mobile phone coverage—they have improved enormously in our part of the world in recent years. Given that there might be some growth in the emerging digital arts industry in the Somerset area, city of culture status might also catalyse that need for digital connectivity and see us accelerate.
I feel I am speaking up for the rest of Somerset, and perhaps the Minister might listen to this. Productivity in the south-west has historically been below that of the rest of the country—we are at about 7% and the rest of the country is at about 8%. Does my hon. Friend see city of culture status as a great opportunity to address that? The knock-on effect could be enormous. If we had a city of culture in the south-west—that would be unusual because the money is all going north—it could do so much good and have a big impact on productivity.
My hon. Friend is an excellent battle buddy to have in today’s pursuit of the Minister. She is entirely right that productivity is potentially one of the big gains, and I will come to it shortly.
City of culture status might help to achieve other things. We are blessed in Somerset with some outstanding schools and colleges, but too often we are training people up and giving them an education with which they think they have no option but to move away to pursue their careers. City of culture status might attract inward investment and create a buzz about living in Somerset. It might come about alongside the introduction of a university of Somerset in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and alongside excellent work on the arts—Strode College in my constituency delivers skills in digital arts and marketing and so on. In some small way, city of culture status might help to rebalance Somerset’s demographics by keeping young people in the county.
If we manage to improve the infrastructure and create a younger workforce with the right skills that are needed by the industries that are there and that are emerging, we will achieve a significant productivity boost, as my hon. Friend suggested. That would be a fantastic legacy for Somerset, not only because it would change Somerset’s stars in terms of the population’s skills and the availability of the workforce, but because the availability of the newly skilled workforce would bring with it inward investment, which would bring new companies. That would be hugely exciting. Perhaps we could see city of culture status as part of the legacy of Hinkley Point, which is already doing something to rebalance our region’s economy.
What if, having brought all of that expertise and know-how to the county, and with follow-on industries coming behind, there was city of culture status helping to reinforce what a wonderful quality of life one can have when living in Somerset? It all seems to work and the timing is right. I hope the Minister agrees that he has a significant opportunity to do something not just for the city of Wells but for the south-west region as a whole.
My hon. Friend is giving a catalogue of reasons that make Somerset glow and sound such an attractive place, which it is. We also have the massive wildlife offer in the Somerset levels, which is very close to Wells and which we could build on. Taunton in my constituency is the county town of Somerset, but it could build its links with Wells. We are trying to build our cultural offer. Similarly, we have the international Somerset County Ground. We could build the whole offer in Somerset, focused in Wells, but with spin-offs.
My hon. Friend is contributing powerfully on behalf of our county and her constituency. She is entirely right. England’s smallest city cannot do this alone. This offer encompasses Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Frome, Cheddar, Wedmore, Street and villages all over the county, but also places slightly further afield such as Taunton, Bath and Bristol. This is a hugely exciting regional opportunity.
The Minister might say: “So what? Every bid says city of culture status will bring more tourism, boost productivity and bring inward investment.” He is not wrong. However, that is where a bid from a small city in a rural setting becomes interesting. The challenge of yesteryear was the regeneration of post-industrial cities. The new challenge for the next decade is how we build more resilient communities that can deal with loneliness, an ageing population and the challenges of mental health, and particularly dementia among that ageing population.
Somerset has those problems acutely and is in the nation’s vanguard when it comes to the ageing population. City of culture status could be seen as an opportunity for the arts to bring communities together and enhance the culture of volunteerism, which already exists in our communities but which could become so much more, and therefore to build networks of people who are looking out for one another. It would be hugely exciting if the arts and city of culture status brings them together in the first place.
I hope the Minister will reflect that there is an economic challenge in the south-west. Although there are not the brownfield sites seen previously in other bid cities, he might reflect that the south-west has lagged behind in inward investment for some time, and that a flagship project of international significance could really drive the local economy. It would be exciting, and therefore ticks all of the boxes of a more conventional bid.
I hope the Minister also sees that one of the Government’s great challenges over the next decade will be tackling loneliness and helping the elderly to live independently in their own homes, so that they do not need adult social care and do not need to be in hospital. City of culture status could be a catalyst for developing that resilience, building that network of volunteers and embracing the huge horsepower that exists within community and voluntary groups. If a celebration of our community, culture and shared history can be used to create a legacy of support and of looking out for one another in a resilient community, that is hugely exciting.
Mr Streeter, you have indulged me and my colleagues from Somerset for long enough. It has been a huge honour to pitch to you and the Minister the value of a bid for Wells to become the UK city of culture. I know the Minister does not make the decision, but I hope that we might be successful in reaching the shortlist in due course, and that he will go away full of enthusiasm for what we have to offer.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in what I expect to be the final Westminster Hall debate that I will respond to in this Parliament. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) on securing this debate and on so powerfully arguing for Wells to become the UK city of culture in 2021. We can see why the people of Wells elected him. He has a deep passion for his city, and he touched on some of the things he has been able to do in the two years he has been an MP to improve the city and life for its residents. I wish him well in his bid to gain their trust to do that in the next Parliament. We can see today why such a passionate advocate is needed for the city of Wells and the surrounding areas. He made the broader case, including for the value of Wells becoming the city of culture to Somerset and the south-west more widely.
Under the UK’s city of culture programme, places can compete to hold the title once every four years, and the prize is that title. There is no formal funding support, although there is a huge amount of support to draw in funding from all sorts of places, private and public. The programme uses creativity and culture to transform a place, attracting visitors and bringing communities together. The competition was launched in January, and 11 places have registered their intention to bid: Sunderland, Perth, Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry, Swansea, Hereford, Warrington, St David’s, Portsmouth and Wells. The bids need to be received by the end of this week, so this is a very timely debate. They will then be assessed by the independent advisory panel, while Parliament is dissolved. A shortlist will be announced after the election and the winning city announced by the end of this year.
I thought it was striking how my hon. Friend described the way that a largely voluntary bid is coming together, drawing people from the community and the private sector—within the council area, of course, but led by volunteers. I pay tribute to those who have worked on the bid so far. As the smallest city, Wells has an iconic selling point.
We have heard today about the cultural assets that already exist in Wells. The city of culture is all about boosting the assets that already exist, as well as adding new ones. In Wells in particular, those draw from an ancient tradition and a long and illustrious history. There is the cathedral and the bishopric, which has been in place since 909. The seat has been the Bishop of Bath and Wells since 1245. The current bishop is Peter Hancock—no relation, but a great man. There is a great heritage, with 341 different listings, four of which are for the Bishop’s Palace alone. My hon. Friend also mentioned Glastonbury festival and Cheddar, the home of cheese. The variety and depth of the history is a real attribute.
The area has enjoyed significant investment from both Arts Council England, which has invested almost £700,000 in 48 projects since 2010, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has invested almost £3.5 million over the same period. The theatre and circus area of Glastonbury festival are benefiting from grants this year. Last year, the Palace Trust was awarded money for its “Dragon’s Lair” project to help children and families engage with the Bishop’s Palace. There has been significant public investment, as well as the private investment that my hon. Friend talked about.
I want to touch on a couple of things that my hon. Friend said. The backing of the steering team’s vision by Visit Somerset and the support of local councils, institutions, businesses, events, artists, festivals and carnivals working together are important. There is a strong sense of pride in the area. Wells has been a candidate city for a couple of months now, and I know from some of the officials who have visited that that coming together is an important part of delivering the project.
The thing that struck me most was what my hon. Friend said about looking at the city of culture competition in a different way, not only to support primarily physical and economic regeneration but to support and strengthen the resilience and value of communities in a small city and rural setting. He put that very well. He is right that Wells would be a different choice from previous winners, where the focus has been on the economic regeneration and social rejuvenation of an area that has had a difficult time over recent generations. Wells is about building on success and building stronger and more resilient communities. He put that well, and I have noted that and will ensure it is noted by the judging panel too.
The evidence is that the value of the UK city of culture competition comes to all bidders; just bidding brings value. It brings people together and it brings national attention, as this debate is doing. Preparing the bid can generate new ideas and create new partnerships. Bidding areas often think about the plans and development over time. Hull was successful only on the second attempt, but it has been hugely successful this year. Indeed, Rough Guides said that Hull was one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit this year. Hull expects a £60 million boost to its local economy and more than £1 billion of investment. That is the benefit of winning, but it is the taking part that counts also, because people pulling together with the goal of winning has its value.
I want to acknowledge the support that my hon. Friend has from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who put powerfully the case for the wider benefits to Somerset, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who made powerful supportive comments. Their contributions showed the value expected to the wider community, not just Wells. The bid is really about Wells in Somerset.
To pick up the Minister’s point about the rural connection, this is a massive selling point for the Wells bid. We are finding that the urban-rural divide is getting larger. If we could do something to link the two better, perhaps through the arts, that would be a really positive move.
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for her constituency and makes the case incredibly well for the importance of closing the urban-rural divide and ensuring that people in Taunton and right across rural and urban areas of the country benefit from the arts, culture and technology. I have very much taken that on board.
I will end by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells is a brilliant local representative and a terrific advocate for Wells. I give him and the bidders all encouragement in this bid. There is only one thing I cannot give him, and that is that which he seeks—victory today in his bid, along with many others, to make Wells the UK city of culture in 2021. However, thanks to his efforts, the bid that they are making has been brought to the attention of people at the most senior levels, so it will get the very best shot that it can.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Grandparents' Rights: Access to Grandchildren
I beg to move,
That this House has considered grandparents’ rights of access to children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to be able to bring this important debate to the House today, because the issue of grandparents being unable to access their grandchildren affects families right across the UK. I have received a significant amount of correspondence from my own constituents. They write to me after family breakdowns and changes in circumstances, seeking guidance on how to go about reaching out to their grandchildren or having legal access.
I adored all my grandparents from both my mum’s and my dad’s family and have fond memories of them from when I was growing up. It is a sad reflection on us that we have not managed properly to reflect in legislation the hugely important role that grandparents play in society. My own dad adores his grandchildren, Finley and Neve, and they adore him back, so whenever I am contacted by constituents, I naturally refer to my own family and simply cannot imagine how hard not having contact must be for everyone involved.
As many hon. Members will know, this is never a straightforward issue to resolve. Distance between grandparents and their grandchildren can come about in a number of ways: marital breakdown, bereavement and family disagreements, to name but a few. For the grandparents and the children from whom they are separated, it can be an incredibly distressing time. The issue has been discussed previously in the House in debates on private Members’ Bills, in Adjournment debates and, indeed, in conversations with colleagues on both sides of the House.
I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue in the House today. Like me, he has received many communications showing the real emotional turmoil that many grandparents feel when they are estranged from their grandchildren. Does he agree that it is always an error when, as is sometimes the case, grandchildren are used as weapons in messy divorces?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that this situation can be very distressing, and it is obviously wrong for children to be used as weapons by anyone, in any situation. It is very distressing for everyone involved. Often, with the constituents who come to see me, I see only their side, their version of events, and not that of the children involved, but I can tell from my own family that it would be very distressing for the grandchildren not to see their grandparents. This is an issue that does not go away and that does not have a simple solution, no matter how much I wish that there were one. In debates such as this, it is important to remember that the rights of the grandchildren matter as much as those of the grandparents. Children should be given the opportunity to visit their grandparents if they wish to do so.
I would like to use the opportunity provided by the debate to praise the charities and organisations that aim to help grandparents who have become estranged from their grandchildren, often through no fault of their own. One such charity is GranPart, which operates in my constituency of Northampton South and aims to help grandparents in the county with advice and services that allow them to try to reconnect with their grandchildren, or at least to share their experiences with others and share best practice in order that people can try to reconnect with their own families. I have attended the monthly meeting and listened to some of the distressing stories of how grandparents have ended up losing contact with their grandchildren. Sometimes that is because arguments have gone too far; sometimes it can be due to families separating; and sometimes people never really understand the reasons why.
Some people have written to me to suggest that the situation could be changed with a few minor amendments to the wording of the Children Act 1989. That primarily means adding in a reference to a child’s extended family as well as to their parents. That minor change could ensure that grandparents were given rights to see their grandchildren that were similar to the rights of any parent in order to help to secure the child’s welfare, and ensure that grandparents were not negatively impacted by any change to a child’s family situation. However, I can envisage situations in which that could lead to conflict. In most families, the primary responsibility for bringing up children lies with the parents, and I would not wish to see parental responsibility confused in any way by giving additional rights to grandparents that superseded the role of a parent or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, that could be used as a weapon in any disagreement.
My hon. Friend will recall that on 31 January my constituent, Lorraine Bushell, and the Hendon grandparents support group had a lobby day here in Parliament. One issue that they raised was not that grandparents should have a specific right to access to their grandchildren, but that the child should have a right, as in France, to have contact with their extended family.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I do recall the event that was held here. I think that it was held in a room not far from this Chamber, and the room was packed to overflowing. Many hon. Members were present to lend their support to the campaign and to receive the advice and information on best practice that was offered on the day.
My hon. Friend will be dismayed but not surprised to learn that at my last advice surgery I, too, saw grandparents who were suffering in this way. Their plea was for a change in thinking, a change in culture, because they had been advised that their only recourse was through the courts, and they did not want to put their grandchildren through that or to create further tensions within the family.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I have had similar constituency surgeries, at which similar stories have been relayed to me. I am also grateful for the previous intervention, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) talked about the law in France. That point should be considered, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will come to it when he responds to the debate. I understand that the law in England and Wales gives the family court the power to make various orders about children, including about with whom they can spend time. Grandparents would be required to seek the permission of the court before applying, but that would probably be allowed if deemed to be in the child’s best interests. Perhaps—this is an issue for the Minister to address—that could be reconsidered to give grandparents an automatic presumption for the family court.
When grandparents lose access, it can be even more difficult if they do not have any access to information about the children or know their whereabouts. In the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) described, a lady came to my surgery and told me that she did not know where her grandchildren were living or what they looked like any more and she had no access to information about them. She would have loved to have had contact with her grandchildren, but it also kept her very worried that she did not have any information about them and did not even know whether they were safe and being looked after. In that situation, I was able to write to Northamptonshire County Council and say that if any information was able to be passed on, I would be able to do that. It replied simply that the children were safe.
There are sometimes obvious safeguarding reasons why information cannot be shared, but I think that the matter could be looked at again to see how the law can ensure safeguarding while also allowing grandparents to have basic information about their grandchildren just to reassure them that they are safe and well. I hope that, after the election, the issue of grandparents’ access to children can be taken forward by working together to ensure that the voice of grandparents, too, is taken into account when working with families. I will now draw my comments to an end. I look forward to hearing from other hon. Members and from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing it and on introducing it so well. This issue is clearly of importance to those of us who are in Westminster Hall today, and I believe that it is also of importance to other hon. Members who unfortunately, for whatever reason, have been unable to make it to the Chamber or, indeed, are preparing for the election, which two weeks ago none of us was aware of. This issue comes up at advice centres. It comes up at my advice centre back home as well.
I declare an interest—because I am of that age—as a doting grandfather. Looking round the Chamber, I am not sure whether everyone is a grandparent, but I know that you, Mr Streeter, have achieved that goal. When I held my eldest son Jamie in my arms some 29 years ago, I thought that nothing in this world could top the pride and love that I felt as I looked into that perfect little face. I was wrong. There was a little girl who made her way into this world and into a special place in her grandfather’s heart that had never been touched before. My little Katie is eight years old. When I thought there was no more room left in my heart, little Mia came along—she is just three years old—underlining the fact that there is nothing more enjoyable than time with grandchildren. There is also the fact that, as we all know, they can be handed back whenever they get a bit stroppy. That is one of the great advantages of being a grandparent.
The fact of the matter is that we are here today in Westminster Hall to debate this issue because we want to ensure access for grandparents. I am lucky; I have access to my grandchildren. I am very fortunate. I am also fortunate that most of my family and friends are in the same position.
I am absolutely convinced that the hon. Gentleman is a magnificent grandfather in many respects and an archetypal grandparent. This is a two-way thing. Both my grandmothers are still alive, and they are both 91 years old. One of them virtually brought me up from what was effectively a broken home. The relationship and bond that we formed is something that has carried me through my entire life. I cannot imagine anything worse than not having access. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the right of children to have access to their grandparents is so important?
I fully and totally agree with that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for the words he put forward. I do not think anyone in the Chamber would not have the same opinion. There is something special about a grandparent’s relationship with their grandchildren, and I do not say that just because I am one. My mother is still living. She is 85 years old, and will soon be 86. As a great-grandparent, she dotes on the wee children. She always wants to hear what they are doing. That bond develops at a very early stage, even between my grandchildren and their great-grandmother. It creates a nice warm feeling. Unfortunately, there are many who long to see their grandchildren and are denied that opportunity. That is the reason for this debate today.
I am hoping to get away on a holiday this summer—probably for the first time—with my wife and the grandchildren. The memories made on that trip will be the stuff of dreams, because that is how dreams are made. The photographs will be special, and I will be able to spend quality time with them with no pressure. One way of ensuring that there is no pressure is to leave that mobile phone at home, because then you are incommunicado for a certain period of time. I can do that because my son and his wife are happy for me to be with Katie and Mia as much as I want.
I do not take that for granted, when I see so many grandparents shut out of their grandchildren’s lives, whether that is due to marital break-ups, a spin-off from the breakdown of a relationship, people moving away, or grandchildren being used as a tool against the grandparents. The guidance on access for grandparents to their grandchildren states that access should initially be sought through agreement with the parents or carers of the child, as the hon. Member for Northampton South outlined in his introduction. However, where such an agreement cannot be made, the grandparent can seek the leave of the court and, if successful, apply for a child arrangements order to agree access. That is all very well, but it is not as simple as that. It is not easy to do when parents are estranged, and unfortunately children are often used as a weapon, which is very painful.
As a grandparent, I can only imagine being cut out of my beautiful granddaughters’ lives. I would certainly do everything in my power to facilitate Katie and Mia visiting, no matter what, but if that was not possible and could not be achieved, I would have to go to court for access, which is expensive and soul-destroying when grandparents’ rights are so restricted. The hon. Gentleman made a salient point in his final few words about the pain that going to court causes not only to grandparents and parents but to children. They cannot quite understand what is going on or what all the arguments and fights are about, but they know that something is wrong and that they are the piggy in the middle, if I can use that terminology, being pulled from all sides. All sides may genuinely love their children or grandchildren, but access can be denied.
It is good to see the Minister in his place, and we look forward to his response. More must be done to support access rights. If that means enacting legislation to enshrine clearer rights for grandparents—that is what has been suggested by the hon. Gentleman and in interventions, and it is what I would look for, too—then that is what needs to happen. The Government enjoy the fact that one in four working families rely on grandparents for childcare, which saves the Government money in tax credits and childcare vouchers; it follows that grandparents should receive the benefit of Government notice and attention. That is what we are here today trying to achieve—that their rights are protected should the unthinkable happen. If today’s debate moves that process on and enables legislative change to come in the next Parliament, and if the Minister is able to respond in a suitable way, I would speak strongly in support. A nanny tax credit and such things are great, but it is clear that more support is needed for those who are not able to see their grandchild or grandchildren.
I fully support the motion and look to the Minister to ensure that, when the new Government are in place after 9 June, they take the issue on board and take steps to clarify further the rights of grandparents in the UK as a whole. On behalf of grandparents who do not have access to their grandchildren, I say passionately that that would be a step in the right direction.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on bringing such an important issue before Parliament. His speech set out the various considerations associated with this sensitive issue.
Grandparents can enrich the lives of children and provide support to parents trying to balance work and home life. They can also be the only people who tell parents off—I remember it was great hearing my mum’s mum telling her off—and often grandparents are the ones who stick up for the children and give them treats and things. The importance of grandparents in the lives of children cannot be stated often enough. Many people who have been lucky enough to enjoy a close and loving relationship with their grandparents accept that it is one of the best experiences a person can have, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said.
However, family relationships sometimes break down. Having worked in family law, I am well aware of the pain and distress that frequently accompanies family breakdown. At its most extreme, it results in children being taken into care. Where there is a responsible grandparent available who can step in and avert that outcome, that is surely to be welcomed. A more frequent occurrence, as hon. Members have said, is grandparents becoming detached from their grandchildren when the parents separate. When that happens, grandparents who have been a central part of the child’s life can feel understandably excluded. It is quite right that they should have some form of redress to apply for access.
The current means used to decide where a child lives and with whom they have contact is child arrangements orders, which were introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 to replace the previous framework of contact and residence orders. A child arrangements order can determine where a child lives, who a child spends time with— those persons are named in the order. It also details who they can make phone calls to, who they can visit and what activities they can do with a named, specific person.
Under the present system, the grandparents have to seek leave from a court to apply for a child arrangements order, and only if they have lived with the child for three years. The application generally requires leave from the court. That can cause a lot of problems. The stipulation of having stayed with the child for a minimum of three years can exclude various different arrangements, such as those applying to grandparents who have not specifically spent three years with the child, but are on the scene and see the children and provide a lot of support.
Over the past number of years, it seems that the number of grandparents applying for rights of access has gone down. That is unusual, bearing in mind that a lot of grandparents want to have access to their grandchildren. One reason is that they have to jump through the hoop of applying for leave, then going through the process, which can be quite costly and time-consuming. Many grandparents are not able to avail themselves of the process.
The Labour Government produced a Green Paper in 2010 with the intention of removing the requirement to seek the leave of the court, and a family justice review was set up in March 2010. That provision was supported by the coalition Government, who ordered a review in November 2010. However, they took the view that the need for grandparents to apply for the leave of the court before making an application for contact should remain. That is a plausible explanation for why the number of grandparents applying has reduced.
Obviously, everyone wants to prevent vexatious claims from grandparents or people doing it for malicious purposes—we want to ensure that those who go for it do so with the best motives at heart—but I am sure that if people in the legal profession put their heads together, they could come up with an acceptable halfway house. Perhaps we could offer free legal advice to grandparents about their options, or make the process simpler and speedier.
That is a helpful way to deal with these things. Arbitration or mediation has been found to work in many scenarios—whether for the divorce settlements of couples who are separating or for access to children, even if the person is in employment. We could explore that option, which is not expensive and is much more straightforward.
As I said, I am sure that if legal professionals and others in the system put their heads together, they would come up with a system that is much more flexible and responsive to grandparents’ needs and enables them to see their grandchildren without enormous legal obstacles and hoops that they have to jump through. This is not a party political issue: everybody accepts that grandparents have a very important role to play. I am sure the Department can come up with a more flexible, less costly solution that requires grandparents to jump through fewer hoops.
We have had a very constructive, warm-hearted debate. I think we all found it moving to hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talk about the love they feel for their grandchildren and the very special role that grandparents can play. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) talked about her grandmother telling her mother off and what fun that was. I think we all recognise that. Extended family life is important to all of us.
The hon. Member for Strangford made a good point about mediation. I did some family law cases as a barrister, and I have often thought that mediation can lead to the settlement of a family dispute or the breakdown of a relationship with less confrontation and heartache for everybody involved, so I think that was a very wise point. Comments were made about the pain of family breakdown and the court hearing. All of that is very well taken.
I cannot make any announcements today because we are in purdah, but I have previously said that, assuming the electorate allow it, we will introduce a Green Paper later in the year on family justice, which will provide the opportunity to look at these issues and a number of others that hon. Members touched on. Having said all that, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on securing this debate on an issue that is vital and, as he said, complex. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
The sorts of experiences that we are discussing—heart-breaking stories, as my hon. Friend put it—were recognised at his meeting with GranPart in Northampton, an organisation in which I know he takes a particular interest, as well as talking to his constituents more generally about the issue. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) what constituents have told her about the issue. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who said that he has a strong support group in his constituency, that children should not be used as weapons.
I am sure that most children see their grandparents as important figures in their life and benefit tremendously from a positive relationship with them. For many children, loving relationships with grandparents enrich family life. As was mentioned, grandparents often play a key role in the raising of their grandchildren, particularly with so many parents at work these days, and I recognise that grandparents can be a great source of stability for children when parents decide to separate. They can provide a sense of continuity in traumatic circumstances at a time when children are fragile. Sometimes, when parents are unable to meet their children’s needs, grandparents can take on full responsibility for their care.
After parental separation, in many cases, grandparents continue to enjoy relationships with their grandchildren, although the circumstances are obviously different as the parents live apart. However, there are some cases in which grandparents are prevented from seeing their children, with no good reason. The Government recognise the immense distress caused to grandparents and children when parents separate. In such difficult circumstances, which are similar to bereavement, children often feel a greater sense of loss: they have lost not only a parent, but grandparents too. I am sure that some hon. Members and hon. Friends who have spoken in this debate will recognise such scenarios from the constituency experiences that they have described.
High-conflict cases involving disputes over children can have an impact on those children. Parents can end up viewing grandparents as being on the other party’s side, which can become a barrier to their continued involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. Grandparents, too, can be tempted to see the other parent as the enemy because they feel that their son or daughter has been wronged. That is part of the difficulty, unpleasantness, hurt and distress of a break-up, and such feelings of hurt are fully understandable, but if the children are exposed to that sort of adult conflict, it is damaging for them. That is why the current law does not provide for any automatic decisions, but gives the court great flexibility.
On grandparents in private law disputes, when grandparents’ informal attempts to secure ongoing involvement in their grandchildren’s lives fail, they have the option of asking the court to intervene. They might not want to; as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said, they might feel that there has been enough hurt and distress in the family without going to court and facing it all again. The Children Act 1989 includes arrangements that help grandparents to re-establish relationships with their grandchildren when things go wrong, but a court process is involved. Family courts can make a child arrangements order to determine with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact, and when and where such arrangements are to take place.
A child arrangements order will usually provide for direct face-to-face contact, such as long or short visits and overnight stays where appropriate. It may also provide for the child to have no contact with a person or specify that that contact is to be indirect, through emails, telephone calls, letters or cards. There is a lot of flexibility in the court’s powers to make a child arrangements order, but the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration when the court considers any matter that relates to their upbringing. That is in contrast to any perceived rights of any adult family members.
Whether the court will order that a grandparent should have involvement in a child’s life will depend on a number of factors. Where one or both parents oppose such involvement, the court will apply the factors in the welfare checklist in section 1 of the 1989 Act. It may ask the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to produce a welfare report on the beneficial impact of grandparent involvement and on any risks of harm from ongoing parental opposition to such involvement and from the exposure of the child to the resulting conflict. That report may include the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child; obviously, the older the child is, the more important those are considered to be.
It is open to anyone, including a grandparent or other family member, to apply for a child arrangements order. However, the situation is not the same as that for parents; as has been said, grandparents and other family members usually need to obtain the permission of the court before proceedings can begin. This may appear to be an extra hurdle, but experience suggests that grandparents do not usually experience any difficulty in obtaining permission if their application is really about the interests of the child. Permission to apply may be sought at the same time as making the application itself, just by ticking a box—there is no extra fee, process, or hearing.
The leave requirement is designed not as an obstacle, but as a filter. The idea is to sift out applications that are not in the child’s best interests, such as vexatious applications. I reassure hon. Members that the law sets out clear objective criteria for the court to determine these issues. There are exceptions; not every case requires leave. In certain circumstances, grandparents do not have to apply for permission. Under section 10(5) of the 1989 Act, a grandparent may automatically be entitled to apply for a child arrangements order if
“the child has lived for…at least three years”
with them; the three-year period
“need not be continuous but must not have begun more than five years before, or ended more than three months before, the making of the application.”
A grandparent may also apply under section 10(5) if they have the consent of both the parents or
“the consent of each of the persons named”
in an existing child arrangements order, in which case there is no need to obtain leave to apply.
I referred to the fact that many grandparents look after their grandchildren when they are out of school and the parents are working. Has the Minister had a chance to consider whether the childminding that grandparents do could be part of the solution that we are trying to find? If the grandparents are making a constructive contribution, such as by childminding, will the Government look at whether we can use that as a method of coming to an agreement?
That is certainly an interesting thought. Of course, I cannot say what the next Government will do. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in the funny—well, the important and democratic—period of seeking re-election. [Interruption.] Very, very important, yes. We must not take the electorate for granted, and one Parliament cannot bind another, but if the Green Paper process goes ahead, which I hope it will, all these issues can be looked at in that context. A history of having minded the child in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is an important factor.
I think we would all agree that disputes over children can be very complex—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. Parental disputes over children can also affect wider family relationships, and the relationship between the children and their significant relatives can be vulnerable to an unpleasant breakdown involving a lot of distress. No one would want to rekindle distress or make it worse for the child.
Research has provided some insights. A study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a charity that aims to improve social well-being, gives some insights into how easy it can be for wider family members to become embroiled in conflicts over children. The study was of 197 case files from county courts in England and Wales in 2011, and its primary aims were to understand the detail of different types of childcare arrangements set up during litigation at county court level and to shed some light on how the different types of county court orders then in existence were used and understood. Some 12% of the cases examined were not disputes between parents but involved non-parents, such as grandparents or other relatives who were caring for the children, and three of the cases concerned applications from grandparents to have contact.
Although the sample size was small, the findings shed light on how some grandparents can become directly involved in conflicts that can negatively influence their grandchildren. The findings also demonstrate the considerable lengths to which the court will go to facilitate a child’s involvement with their grandparents, and the court’s difficult task of weighing up the benefits and risks of such contact. I think we would all agree that the principle of grandparents being part of a child’s life is a very important one, and the research shows that the courts take it seriously too.
I will say something about public law cases because grandparents play an important role in them. It is a principle of the 1989 Act that local authorities should support the upbringing of a child by their family wherever possible, if it is the most appropriate way to safeguard the child’s welfare. Local authorities can apply to the court for a care order when they believe that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer risk of significant harm. The care order allows the authority to take over the welfare of the child. Local authorities must seek to give preference to placing looked-after children with wider family members first, if it is not possible to return them to the birth family and, if that is not possible, with a friend or another person connected with them. The court can appoint a special guardian as a permanent alternative to long-term foster care or adoption, and that is often a family member such as a grandparent, or a friend.
In conclusion, the courts recognise the importance of children maintaining relationships with their grandparents following parental separation. Family courts are cognisant of that when considering applications relating to child arrangements. However, such cases are not straightforward, given the tensions and ongoing conflict that can often arise when parents separate, and for that reason, as I am sure hon. Members will agree, the welfare of the children must continue to be the paramount concern.
We have had a good debate and some good points have been made. If the Green Paper process goes ahead, as I hope it will, there will be an opportunity for us to consider the matter more fully and for organisations that have particular viewpoints to make a contributions.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his response and all hon. Members who have taken part. I know that my constituents who have experience of this type of separation from their grandchildren and are watching the debate will be grateful that the matter has been talked about here in Parliament and will look forward to the Green Paper process hopefully continuing in the autumn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered grandparents’ rights of access to children.